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Game Changer: How Not Everyone Benefits From Realignment in College Sports

By Jack Brockman

In the world of college sports, the rivalry between universities has always been a driving force behind the appeal of college athletics. The passion and history behind saying "my school is better than your school" has fueled fierce competition for decades, creating legendary matchups that define the college sports landscape. However, recent conference realignment has thrown a curveball into this age-old tradition, raising questions about the future of college sports.

Identity Crisis for College Sports

For years, the NCAA organized universities into conferences, primarily based on geographic proximity. The conference structure has cultivated intense regional rivalries - like Ohio State vs. Michigan or USC vs. UCLA - that have captivated fans and created lasting traditions for the better part of a century. However, the allure of lucrative media rights deals and the promise of increased marketability have prompted some schools to abandon their long-standing conference affiliations in favor of joining so-called "super-conferences" like the SEC and BIG 10.

The role of student-athletes in college athletics has also changed drastically in the past few years. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s unanimous NCAA v. Alston decision in 2021, athletes now can now profit from their name, image, likeness, and more, altering their role in the game. This fundamental shift motivates athletes to not only represent their universities’ brands but also their own personal brands in pursuit of financial prospects. This has sparked further discussion as to whether athletes should be granted a share of these lucrative media rights deals and be considered employees of the universities.

It follows that athletes would look to put themselves in the most advantageous positions to capitalize on these developments in NIL. With conference realignment, many players will gain increased exposure in the previously mentioned super-conferences, while others will struggle to stand out. This will most certainly influence further use of the transfer portal, causing even more uncertainty for the less-fortunate universities unable to secure a place in super conferences.

Coach Deion Sanders, also known as “Coach Prime”, of the Colorado Buffaloes commented on the situation to Sports Illustrated, pointing out the hypocrisy of universities amid conference realignment: “All of this is [conference realignment] about the money. You know that. It’s about the bag. Everybody’s chasing the bag. Then you get mad at the players when they chase it. How is that? How do the grownups get mad at the players for chasing it when the colleges are chasing it?”

Student-Athlete Wellbeing at Stake

A lot is expected out of college athletes: coaches and fans expect them to perform at a high level every time they compete, professors expect them to turn in assignments on time and participate in class, and their families expect them to make the most out of their college experience. Conference realignment has added another layer of complexity to their already hectic schedules. With longer travel distances and frequent away games, student-athletes face increased time away from classes and campus. Many sports have multiple games per week, which intensifies this dynamic. Although realignment presents many financial opportunities for top talent in college sport, the mental and physical toll of extensive travel can make it challenging for many student athletes to maintain their academic standards and overall well-being.

“Conference realignment would have a negative impact on us overall,” Stanford women’s soccer player Nya Harrison said in a statement to Front Office Sports. “Taking midterms and finals on the road, having to make up two-to-three-hour labs, etc., is not sustainable. Conference realignment would result in worsening mental health of college athletes who will have less sleep due to more traveling and more makeup work.”

Disparity in Resources

One of the most significant consequences of conference realignment is the growing financial divide among schools. Universities in super-conferences are poised to receive staggering sums of money from media rights deals, leaving other schools in the dust. These funds provide a substantial advantage in recruiting, improving facilities, and enhancing programs. This financial chasm threatens to further imbalance the college sports landscape, leaving many schools struggling to compete.

Tradition Disrupted

College sports are steeped in tradition, and conference realignment has disrupted these cherished customs in several ways. Historic rivalries are vanishing, leaving fans and players longing for the excitement and nostalgia of these iconic matchups. Changing conferences can also erode a school's identity, diluting the unique qualities that make it special. Additionally, alumni connections to their alma mater may weaken as new conference rivalries and traditions take hold. Whereas once generations of fans could connect via these traditions, their fandoms will now be fractured as pre and post conference realignment.

Preserving College Football's Core Values

While the financial interests of some institutions may benefit from these shifts, it is crucial to consider the broader consequences for the sport, its players, and its passionate fans. As college sports continue to evolve, everyone must work together to find solutions that preserve the core values and traditions that make college football a cherished American pastime. Only through thoughtful consideration and collaboration can college football continue to thrive while honoring its rich history and the athletes who pour their hearts and souls into competing.

Ultimately, the well-being of student-athletes and the preservation of tradition should remain paramount in any decisions related to college football conference realignment. Balancing the pursuit of financial gain with the commitment to these core values is the challenge that universities and the NCAA must navigate as they shape the future of college sports. Only through thoughtful consideration and collaboration can college football continue to thrive while honoring its rich history and the athletes who pour their hearts and souls into competing.


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