Wait! The Big Ten Has 14 Teams And One Of Them Is Rutgers?

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To every thing there is a season, and long, steamy summer days clearly belong to baseball, but, without ignoring the crucial games just before the All Star break, I start to look to the fall and football, allowing myself to leaf through Street and Smith’s College Football Preview.  Chucking neutrality aside, I check Michigan’s place in the pre-season guesswork, assuming that guide is likely to be accurate if Michigan is properly placed in the mix of teams contending for a national championship then turn to the wealth of other information in the hefty magazine including presentation of pre-season All Americans at each position and evaluations of each team’s depth and strength.  Teams are ranked within their conference, the likely champions getting the most ink, the runners-up quarter page blurbs.

Conferences – aye, there’s the rub.  Michigan, a founding member of the Big 10, a midwestern conference made up of flagship public universities (with the exception of Independent Northwestern), now plays Penn State, Maryland, and Rutgers.  The conference can’t even call themselves the Big 10 anymore; the conference is now its own logo – BIG – which has been craftily shaded so the uninformed viewer can almost see a 10 hidden in the letters but will see two divisions of seven each season until sanity returns.

The flux in which we live has accustomed me to change, but I do treasure tradition and pageantry, pomp, circumstance, and rabid rivalry.  Once upon a time, most rivalries took place within long-established athletic conferences, but college athletics, I am told, generates a considerable amount of income, roughly SEVEN BILLION dollars which colleges and universities count on to … to … well, to do whatever it is that they do when they are not playing games, but to get to SEVEN BILLION, conferences had to add championship games to have one last mega-event before the bowl games.  The old familiar cozy conferences simply no longer brought in enough revenue, so abracadabra, tradition be damned and geography ignored.

A few of the conferences have not changed over the course of my lifetime as a fan; the Ivy League, for example, has been made up of the same eight distinguished colleges since 1954; almost all of the rest of the Division I conferences have changed both in composition and character.  Some of the changes made sense up to a point; the Big Five Conference made up of Cal, USC, UCLA, Stanford, and Washington became the Big Six with the addition of Washington State and then the Pacific 8 with the addition of Oregon and Oregon State.  As Arizona and Arizona State were poached from the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), the conference became the PAC 10.  The thoughtful reader will have noted that Arizona does not (yet) enjoy a Pacific coastline, but at least is within driving distance of the ocean, whereas Colorado and Utah, the institutions recently departed from the Big 12 and the Mountain West Conference, are considerably less Pacific.  Oh, and the Big 12 has ten teams.  I’m just saying.

The slide began in the late ’90s, but by 2013, madness had truly set in, traditional rivalries were abandoned, and the familiar regional associations gave way to collections that seem jury-rigged Frankenconfrences; odd bits of one were attached to limbs of another.  In retrospect, the dissolution of the Big 8 (Nebraska, Iowa State, Colorado, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State) allowed the first of the new super-conferences to spawn imitators as its members joined with Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Texas Tech to create the Big 12, large enough that competition was divided into the Big 12 North and the Big 12 South, which mirrors the division of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) which was also split when the SEC picked off Arkansas which had defected from the conference depth-charged when the Texas colleges jumped into the Big 12 and South Carolina which had been homeless since ditching the ACC and the dominance of the North Carolina colleges.

But, wait!  There’s more.  The already over-large SEC added Texas A&M and Missouri, both of which deserted the Big 12, which made that conference shaky, especially as there were widespread rumors that Texas was about to bolt as well.  Texas is the straw that stirs the drink in the region with access to television money the others do not see, just as Notre Dame with its own independent contract with NBC had the golden ticket, allowing them to play a schedule of their choosing in football while playing basketball in the Big East, that is, until the Golden Domers by virtue of what must have been a Papal encyclical, have remained independent in football, bound to play only five games within their new home, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), but regular members in all other sports … except hockey, which now joins the BIG.

Let’s remember that like the Big East, the ACC has been most notably a basketball conference.  Why then, oh why, would Notre Dame join up, being as the clever will have noted, not on the Atlantic or even adjacent to states that are?  Why would the ACC, having its own well established traditions welcome feisty and independent Notre Dame?  Probably a union of like-minded academic institutions?  We think not.

There is this.  On any given Saturday, lacking the expensive football package from my cable provider, I am lucky if I can find more than one televised game from any single conference.  Generally, the conference game I will see is some sort of match-up, a rivalry game or a game on which a title might depend.  Of the twelve to fourteen teams in the conference, only two or four at most hit the screen.  Maybe NBC could work in one more?  Oh, that’s right!  They have a contract with Notre Dame.  Every Notre Dame game will have a national audience, and that suggests that Notre Dame and every team playing Notre Dame gets a share of national television bounty.  So, unlovely ACC football gets a shot in the arm, a national audience, name recognition while recruiting outside the Atlantic region, and dough that is split up among the members of the conference.  Yes, The North Carolina State Wolfpack is assured a national audience this fall as are Wake Forest’s Demon Deacons

Notre Dame gets to play most its traditional (and very telegenic) rivals (USC, Navy, Boston College, and Michigan State),  games that offer little challenge at crucial resting points in the season (Temple, Miami University of Ohio, and Navy), and two games against teams (Georgia and Stanford) that are strong enough to boost Notre Dame’s chances of landing a playoff spot or juicy bowl game.

Win-win.

My beef isn’t with making money or trying to enhance the recruiting profile outside of the region; college sports are no longer the bastion of purely amateur athletics played for the beauty of the game.  I am saddened, however, that Missouri no longer plays Nebraska, that Syracuse no longer battles Georgetown in basketball.  This spring, Johns Hopkins joins the BIG in lacrosse, leaving its own traditional regional rivalries behind.  Traditions seem to have died a quick death with the stroke of a pen.

OK, maybe I’m slightly miffed that Notre Dame didn’t elect to keep Michigan among its “must-have” independent games, or maybe I’m just a fussy curmudgeon. In any case,  I’ve got two months, fourteen days, and eight hours to get over myself before the opening game against Florida, and my therapist is on speed dial.

Serena

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It’s hard to find language to describe the moment in which one of the most remarkable athletes of the modern era was penalized for code violations during the final match of the US Open Tennis Tournament.  The sequence of events that led to Naomi Osaka’s controversial victory revealed a great deal about the autonomy with which a chair umpire manages play in tournaments at the highest level, autonomy which allowed the decisions made by umpire Carlos Ramos to overshadow virtually all play during the tournament, certainly overshadowing Osaka’s victory and Serena Williams’ return to the finals of an US Open.

In the weeks following the Open, Ramos was vilified and congratulated, Williams was vilified and embraced, and Osaka, once again, overshadowed.  Partisan cultural responses were emphatic as the event was characterized as feminist implosion or sexist/racist injustice.  Billie Jean King, whose career is testimony to the difficulties facing female athletes, wrote in the Washington Post:

“The ceiling that women of color face on their path to leadership never felt more impenetrable than it did at the women’s U.S. Open final on Saturday. Ironic, perhaps, that the roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium was closed for the championship match. What was supposed to be a memorable moment for tennis, with Serena Williams, perhaps the greatest player of all time, facing off against Naomi Osaka, the future of our sport, turned into another example of people in positions of power abusing that power. ”

The issues for tennis, for sport and for society are profound and profoundly affected by the reality of injustice stretching centuries behind a tennis match in September, but I’m meant to be writing about sports, so I’ll approach the conversation by reminding readers that much of the idiocy in the sporting world has to do with our schizophrenic view of athletic competition.  On one hand, we believe that sports inspire virtue – dignity, humility, generosity, selflessness, resilience, courage, craft, and skill.  On the other, we have created a professional class of gladiators whose only purpose is to beat other gladiators.  Amateurs are not expected to humiliate opponents; professionals are not supposed to display personalized emotion.  Let’s call them warriors rather than gladiators for the moment, recognizing that it is only football and boxing that invite athletes to dare brain injury as the last reward for their service.

So, warriors, and warriors don’t mess around when it comes to competition.  We pay them to entertain us, and a certain amount of heated emotion often adds some spice to our enjoyment of the spectacle.  Bench clearing brawls, fistfights on the sideline , smack downs under the basket – all good fun.  OK, less fun when women are involved.  OK, not fun in those sports that are not deemed warrior sports but which pay like warrior sports.

Manny Machado throws his bat, charges  the mound, slices up Dustin Pedroia sliding into second.  He gets fined, pitchers throw at his head and knees and America’s pastime, “a game so fine it’s played on diamonds”, enjoys yet another classic summer.  Phil Mickelson stops a ball from rolling off the green and, in the words of Brett Cygalis reporting in the New York Post,:

“Phil Mickelson executed one of the most shocking breaches of the rules and etiquette in recent major-championship history, and the fallout from it is hardly over. That includes for Mickelson’s reputation as well as that of the USGA.”  The article is entitled “Phil Mickelson’s defiant defense of his shocking rule breach.”

See, slightly crazy.

Phil’s a good golfer; Serena is the greatest female tennis player in the history of the sport, and at thirty-six years old and a recent mother fighting to win every match she enters while continuing to represent female athletes, and mothers, and women, and women of color.  She is a warrior, and in the last set of a highly significant match that was not going her way, an umpire decreed that she had been cheating by being on the court when her coach made a hand signal to approach the net in playing Osaka.  Williams’ “implosion” was no more dramatic than Mickelson’s, but it was personal.  Apparently that’s an even bigger deal than throwing a ball at a batter’s face, certainly bigger than Mickelson’s shocking rule breach.

We have seen anger in sports and frustration.  I can’t think of another example, however, of the kind of confrontation we saw at Forest Hills.  The greatest athlete in her sport, a woman who had beaten the odds in becoming the greatest in her sport, refused to be called a cheat in the middle of a match in which she had not gained traction.  Serena is an emotional player and one who uses emotion to stoke her game; she had plenty of fuel before Ramos made the decision that she had been cheating  and that he needed to call her on it.  There was racquet smashing as there has been in many, many matches, but the significant difference between this moment and any other in the history of televised sport was that we saw both the human being and the champion in the same moment.

A major title was in play, but for Serena, it was her character that was at stake.  Her first responses to Ramos were not confrontational; they were plainspoken and courteous.  The most influential female athlete in the world did not pout or flounce or kick dust; she told the judge that she doesn’t cheat.  He didn’t care.  We saw Serena unable to return to play until the question of character had been addressed.  It wasn’t.

Every athlete has her day; that was Osaka’s.  She played well, better than Serena had played up to that point.  Tennis fans can appreciate a hard-won victory over a favorite, but we witnessed a man in a chair taking a game from a champion.  It was ugly.  Both Williams and Osaka were humiliated.  The fans were cheated.  Later Williams was fined for her behavior and Ramos was endorsed by the USTA.  Roger Federer who was not humiliated reminded us that, “… they have their job to do and that’s what we want them to do.”