The problem with empire building is that there is no such thing as enough, and no such thing as forever.
Inevitably, the emperor's reach exceeds his grasp. The greed-based accumulation of wealth and territory becomes a burden. The infrastructure weakens, the cultural inequities become glaring and the rulers lose their power.
It happened to Rome, Spain, England and others. Now, on a lesser scale, you wonder if we're approaching a tipping point for the college sports oligarchy.
When the major conferences began tearing apart the map and tossing aside tradition four years ago in the latest and greatest realignment power grab, the empire maxed out. The avarice was so open and obvious, and the enhanced media-rights revenue so large, there was no more defending the college sports model. The nonsense spewed by commissioners and university leaders in trying to justify the geographic absurdity made it even worse.
The new contracts were signed for hundreds of millions of dollars. Fan interests and sentiments were disposable. More importantly: The athletes competing for room, board and tuition took note of the gushing new revenue streams.
With every conference expansion or convulsion, the pay-the-players movement intensified. The empire had overreached.
Now, in spring 2014, you wonder if the athlete-led movements across the land will create widening cracks in the College Sports Inc. castle walls. The barbarians are at the gate, and they don't seem easily mollified by the appeasement offer of some bargain farmland. They want the crown jewels.
Northwestern football players' Friday vote on whether to unionize will not overthrow the empire – heck, the results won't even be known for weeks if not months. But the very fact a union movement has reached this stage signals the ruling class' traditional dismissal of athletes' voice is no longer a viable strategy. The players have been underestimated in this entire endeavor, because they've been unorganized and easy to control for decades – playing time and scholarship money are powerful mechanisms at the schools' disposal. They cannot be underestimated anymore, and college leaders suddenly seem acutely aware. The resistance to a union movement from the NCAA, virtually every conference commissioner and Northwestern itself underscores the level of newfound concern.
But that is only one assault upon the status quo. The O'Bannon lawsuit is another, a class-action whopper aimed not just at the NCAA's flush coffers but at its very base of power. There are additional lawsuits working their way through the courts as well.
Alongside the legal challenges, public opinion seems to have changed appreciably in recent years. The people who used to rant loudest about the amateur college sports model were hustlers like Sonny Vaccaro, a sneaker pimp who was most at home on the fuzzy margins. Now they're guys like Jay Bilas, a former Dukie with a law degree and an influential job at ESPN. Few people in college sports are more Establishment than Bilas, yet there he is railing against the established NCAA system at every opportunity.
The critical voices have grown loud enough the tone-deaf oligarchy is finally hearing the discontent. Almost every comment from an administrator about the current state of college sports now contains platitudes about "student-athlete welfare." That is the buzz phrase of the moment, the college sports version of "support the troops" as a politically correct imperative.
The primary appeasement mechanism now is the restructuring of Division I, a movement that started to become real Thursday when the NCAA Board of Directors endorsed changes in the governance structure. That will allow the 65 most powerful/wealthy athletic departments leeway to create their own rules, the most prominent of which is a full-cost-of-attendance stipend that could enhance the value of an athletic scholarship by several hundred to several thousand dollars per year depending on the school.
The side effect of this figures to be a widening of the already considerable gap between the Division I Haves and the Have-Nots, many of which may lack the funds to compensate their athletes more than they currently do. Thus the occasional Cinderella Story (Boise State over Oklahoma in football or Mercer over Duke in hoops) theoretically could become even more rare.
"The so-called level playing field has been the foundation [of the Division I model], and it puts the institution in a place of primacy," Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive said this week. "If you replace that foundation and make the student-athlete the primacy, then you view things in the best interest of the student-athlete instead of the best interests of the institution. … [If the changes are voted through], we will have the ability to put the student-athlete first."
Slive made clear the frustration he felt – which is shared by others in the power conferences – because these reforms have taken years to implement.
"To turn the NCAA is like turning an aircraft carrier from North to South," he said.
Thus the nascent "student-athlete welfare" movement is in jeopardy of being too little and too late to save the oligarchy as we now know it. A slightly enhanced scholarship is not the endgame for the rebellious, not after seeing the excess of the last few years.
They know about the Longhorn Network. They've seen what the jerseys in the bookstores cost, with none of the profit flowing back to the athlete. They've heard about the Ohio State athletic director who received an $18,000 bonus because his wrestler won an NCAA title. They're aware of the Alabama football coach and Duke basketball coach making $7 million a year. They know how ridiculous it is for West Virginia to play in a league with four schools from Texas.
To them, that plot of scholarship farmland doesn't look like much compared to the crown jewels.
That's why the empire is threatened today. The taking never stopped, and the giving back never started.