ACC adds a new twist to its expansion plan-greed

Saturday, June 21, 2003

By Sally Jenkins ~ The Washington Post

The big guys are doing big deals. Deals bigger than Johnny Swofford's overfed paunch, bigger than his big power hair. Big deals, for big money, in big stadiums, with big signage, so the big guys can expand their big desks in their big offices with their big chairs, in which they sit their big, ever-expanding butts.

Biggie big big.

When did college presidents get so desperate to be big shots? In their frantic quest to matter outside of pipe-tamping circles, they've abandoned any pretense of educational mission and revealed themselves to be money-grubbing, two-faced hypocrites who want to play tycoon and grab at the shrimp from the buffet table in the VIP skybox. Thanks to them, college football has become fattened to the point of sickness, and there is no better indication of its corpulence and bloated self-importance than the Atlantic Coast Conference expansion mess.

The ACC's proposed expansion from nine to 12 teams has gotten stuck in a muddy debate and a lawsuit. But the ACC presidents, rather than admit the proposal might be unwieldy, not to mention ethically wrong, have answered with a still more excessive proposal: Why not get even bigger, and go to 13 teams? Invite Virginia Tech, screw a lot of other competitor schools in the process, and act like a bunch of shady corporate intriguers. That'll solve the problem of education in this country.

The ACC is so determined to get bigger that it seems not to care what the cost to the collegiate landscape. Its ravening expansion plan would mean the virtual destruction of the Big East and trigger similar destruction of other conferences, a domino effect. The bigs would get bigger and all other schools in search of athletic revenue would starve and shrink. But who cares? Not most ACC members, or the traitorous Big East presidents thinking of joining them, or Virginia Tech, which is apparently for sale. You could probably buy the Blacksburg campus from an Internet e-tailer.

In a two-hour conference call of ACC presidents Wednesday -- can't you just hear their phony-sonorous voices and pipe sucking -- it became apparent that the proposed expansion raid on Big East football schools Miami, Boston College and Syracuse lacked the seven votes necessary to pass. The holdouts were Duke and North Carolina, whose presidents are genuine educators and rightly unconvinced that expansion is either wise or enriching, and Virginia President John Casteen III, who, though he favors expansion, is under political pressure from Gov. Mark Warner to oppose it unless Virginia Tech is invited in, too. The solution was obvious and was promptly proposed by Casteen: Buy Virginia's vote by inviting Tech.

Now, the last anyone looked, Virginia Tech had pledged eternal loyalty to the Big East and joined with four other Big East schools in suing the ACC over the attempted raid. But a condition to further talks is that it drops out of the lawsuit.

Any guesses as to what Virginia Tech will do next? My own guess is that the next words out of President Charles Steger's mouth will be, "So long, suckers."

The ACC's invitation, extended in a secret meeting, has the smack of an orchestrated counterattack and the ring of a bribe. This way, the Big East conference is sunk, the lawsuit is weakened and Casteen no longer has to worry about doing the right thing. He can openly vote his pocketbook instead of his conscience, while pleasing his governor.

Casteen, by the way, is not available to comment. He left for a European trip right after the conference call.

The ACC presidents are indulging power fantasies. The theory they have been sold by ACC Commissioner John Swofford is that a larger conference will result in behemoth revenues, in the form of a lucrative conference championship game and TV rights fees, as well as greater pull and prestige for the conference. But the fact is that you can grow something to death.

As Duke and North Carolina have pointed out, the TV financial projections may be wildly optimistic, given sports ratings lately. And a bigger league means splitting the money more ways. Also, there are additional travel costs of divisional play.

What's more, Duke and Carolina are the only schools who seem to be troubled as to how the financial motive fits with the mission of the university.

Everyone else trots out the convenient and disingenuous reply: College athletics contribute to campus life, and greater football revenue will benefit all other sports.

But there are serious questions about whether this big deal will really be so lucrative, and whether it benefits more than a few. Here is the most troubling thing about the ACC raid: Not a single college president has acknowledged that perhaps it's his or her job to worry about the health of schools other than his or her own. It used to be that educators were in the same business. Now they are competitors. Education itself has become a business, and the ACC is indulging in nothing more than purposeless corporate greed mixed with pretension. Businesses not only seek to better themselves at the expense of others but to eliminate the competition. Once, the purpose of college athletics was to promote healthy competition, not to kill it.

It's more fun for the presidents to pretend to be moguls cornering the silver market than it is for them to be actual educators. They've spent hours on conference calls this week trying to force expansion, when what they ought to be worrying about is tuition cost, minority admissions, and the fact that all higher learning has become remedial.

Instead, the ACC will no doubt continue to pursue expansion, even if it means a nonsensical 13 teams. It's a bad number. In fact, it's a ridiculous one for a league. It's got only one advantage.

It's bigger.

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