Commentary

Bigger isn't better for Big Ten

Conference expansion for short-term profits has long-term costs

Updated: December 19, 2009, 2:22 AM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Wolverines. Badgers. Gophers.

Weasels.

The postwar American habit of ceaseless, witless, pointless gigantism was back in the news this week as the overfed ferrets and polecats in charge of the Now Insufficiently Big Ten proposed to make themselves even bigger.

Long thought of as the conference of earnest ham-necked farm boys, lead-footed and dim-witted and grave, smiling shyly, courageous and square-jawed in sepia team photos in their shawl-collar letter sweaters and raccoon coats, the Big Ten has traditionally sold Midwestern toughness, character and simplicity as its main product.

For decades, old reprobates like Woody Hayes made a virtue (and tidy profit) of slow-motion violence and murderous conservatism. Conference rivalries were organic, grown out of 19th-century territorial disputes and long-standing legal and ethnic and regional arguments. Bo Schembechler's "Border War" with Hayes was the real thing, not the product of some focus group, ad buy or reality show.

But these days the Big Ten has an image problem. It's selling what America is no longer buying. Effort. Earned reward. The unfashionable analog grind of hard work and the mundane.

(The Pac-10, on the other hand, is all Information Age tailback flash and digital West Coast decadence and starlets in hot tubs. The SEC sells juleps and Spanish moss and 60-yard fly patterns and the humid, luscious corruptions of the garden at midnight.)

[+] EnlargeOhio State Football-1939
AP PhotoWhen Ohio State football players drilled in the 1930s, Americans wore smaller sweaters.

Now the rusting industrial Big Ten, like the Midwest economy at large, doesn't know what to do or how to do it. How to remake itself. So in the short term, it will make the same mistake everyone else has made in postwar America: It will try to get bigger rather than better.

Is there a single corner of American life, from housing to Hollywood, coffee shops to shopping malls, left unruined by our compulsive half-century rush to bloat? Or by our obsessive need to profit from our obsessive needs?

American houses: bigger. American mortgages: bigger. American cars: bigger. American movies: bigger. American banks: bigger. American stores: bigger.

Americans: bigger.

How's all that working out for you?

America! Too big to fail!

So the Big 10 becomes the Big 14 becomes the Big 26 becomes the Big 50 becomes one day the Big 100 or the Big 500 or the Big Enchilada and absorbs every football and baseball and basketball and softball and kittenball program on the planet.

And the conference makes a billion, or it loses a billion because fans are fickle and who knows what works and what doesn't and if Starbucks is so successful why did it have to close 600 stores and why does shopping at Walmart feel like something out of some dystopian future in which all things and all transactions and all men and women and children are the same thing and the same transaction and the same men and women and children bathed in the sterile fluorescent glare of efficient commerce?

So ask me about the Big Ten and I will tell you that any conference willing to fritter away its own small but honest traditions in favor of the unconsidered quick money and the short con gets exactly what it deserves.

As do we all.

There are 34 bowl games this year.

[+] EnlargeNew Subdivision Construction
Joe Raedle/Getty ImagesExpansion and growth are everywhere, but maybe the Big Ten is already the perfect size.

Thirty-four bowl games?

Really?

Are you serious?

Are there 34 college football bowl games worth watching in this or any parallel universe?

There are not.

But there's another dollar to be turned, so let's all play along. Don't rock the boat. Mum's the word. (And yes, it's an easy enough thing to criticize this very company for its part in all this overhyped supersizing. Feel free to do so, vigorously, in the comments area below.)

That careless, credulous sports writers and empty-headed radio yakkers and $400 television haircuts from Newark to Laguna Beach endorse, even by their silence, such a cynical thing as a bigger Big Ten -- a move without a single demonstrable motive or benefit to anyone anywhere except to generate more money -- should itself be an abiding shame.

And yet.

And yet that very thing, that endless, thoughtless, bottomless pursuit of unearned profit, of the golden ticket, the zipless cash-out, of the great groaning haystack of easy dough, of five-bedroom, seven-bath, 4,000-square-foot found money, of the quick and effortless score, is what we now mistake for the American Dream.

A Big(ger) Ten?

A phony solution to a fake problem. Another grift, another con, another way to gull the suckers, a new way to clip the rubes. Another clammy institutional hand in your pocket and my pocket, and if we're this stupid, this lazy, this willing to be conned, this disconnected from our own best interests, every dime lost is well deserved.

What could be better than bigger?

Better.

Better is better.

We might all try it again some time.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What Are Sports For?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.

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