University values vs. the marketplace

Fans differ in their reaction to the Atlantic Coast Conference’s expansion. Some consider its explosive growth to be cancerous, and lament the passing of the old ACC, with its strong regional rivalries and valued traditions. They mourn what they consider to be the pollution of the humanistic values of the university by the sports hustlers’ lust for growth, power and money. Others praise the conference for recognizing the facts of life: The audience for big-time college basketball and football games is no longer regional but global, and the TV networks’ hunger for content offers big rewards for sports programs as well as favorable attention to a university’s brand by alumni, funders and potential students.

So it goes. In the beginning, the Atlantic Coast Conference was a cluster of public and private universities in the middle tier of states along the Atlantic Coast. The founding schools – four from North Carolina, two from South Carolina and one from Maryland – competed not just for athletic victories but for students and public favor. The longest drive to a game was between Clemson and Maryland – eight hours or so, no distance at all for either school’s zealots. Competition was fierce, fan loyalty was awesome and good programs produced good revenue.

Then the college sports world found a new best friend: television. The rise of new networks created frenzied competition and a lot of broadcast hours to fill. That presented athletic conferences with the possibility of big money, and some leaped to seize it. The ACC grew to 15 teams, spaced nearly from Cuba to Canada, including schools in Indiana and Kentucky that will be on the Atlantic Coast only if dire predictions about global warming come to pass.

It’s no accident that the new ACC encompasses more television households than any other conference. Financially, expansion was golden: In 2012 the ACC sold rights to telecast its games to ESPN in a 15-year deal worth $3.6 billion. Soon the ACC will have its own TV channel, and after that, who knows – maybe theme parks, a “Dance with the ACC Stars” show and karaoke bars featuring ACC alma maters.

Change, of course, is a constant in life. But what about values?

That’s the challenge for universities as they wrestle with the temptations of overseeing a massive entertainment enterprise whose priorities can be distorted by the temptations of the marketplace. So far, particularly in the all-too-common mistreatment of players and tolerance for corruption of academic standards, university leaders’ responses have not been heartening. That’s sad. A university must practice the values it professes. That duty doesn’t disappear because the task is difficult or costly or may require the courage to say “No.”