SEC Is Getting Bigger, But Not Necessarily Better

Charlie Harper

Friday, July 30th, 2021

After a few years of relative stability, the Southeastern Conference appears to be on the verge of yet another expansion.  Credible rumors are flying and events seem to be in motion for Texas and Oklahoma to ditch the Big 12 and join a westward-reaching powerhouse of amateur athletics.  “Amateur”.

If and when this happens, we will be inundated with stories that will call the SEC bigger and better than ever.  “Bigger” would be objectively true.  “Better” is subjective.  This college football traditionalist will need some convincing.

When considering the effects on college sports in general and the University of Georgia specifically, I harken back to the wisdom of UGA football’s patron saint and poet laureate Lewis Grizzard.  He summed up the importance of Saturday scrimmages on the gridiron as nothing less than “our way of life against theirs”.

That was a different era.  Tradition was social currency.  A kid that left his small town to attend UGA or another university was being given a rare ticket to a different life.  Athletic scholarships made this journey possible. 

My father was one of those kids in the mid 1950’s.  He was the first of his family to graduate college.   His playing time at UGA was limited to practicing with the non-playing freshmen before an injury sidelined him to studying accounting.  

Each of his children have at least one degree from the University of Georgia.  His oldest grandchild is about to begin her junior year in Athens.

We were taught to wear red and black on Saturdays with reverence.  We were taught that you pulled for an SEC school against all outsiders.  Traditions come with rules, and rules are what ground your life in stability. 

When you begin to talk about the grandchildren of former athletes, you begin to sense how much time has passed since these traditions were established.  The SEC was less than 25 years old when my dad enrolled at UGA.  To put a finer point on it, more seasons of UGA football have been played since he enrolled than were played prior to his arrival.

Time marches on, and the world we live in is ever changing.  Change seems to come at us these days at an even faster rate.  Those of us who choose to battle change armed only with nostalgia will lose the battle every time.

It’s hard these days to make the case that a football contest against another team is “our way of life against theirs”.   We’re now a much more transient society, with metro areas dominated by those who don’t live on the farm that’s been in the family for generations, but are more likely to have relocated here for a few years – already looking ahead to their next assignment and city.

Likewise, it’s easier than ever to attend college.  The value of that degree compared to alternative career paths has been shrinking.  Add in the payments for student loans which came unattached to marketable skills for too many, and some can argue that college was more cost than benefit.

Perhaps the final blow to tradition was unleashed a few weeks ago when the Supreme Court ruled that athletes were entitled to share in the billions generated from their names and likenesses while they are “amateur” athletes.  We’ve all tried to pretend that Division 1 sports remains about amateur athletics, while watching every major decision over the last generation made because of increasing revenue possibilities.  

When tradition has collided with the opportunity to generate more revenue off the efforts of amateur athletes, those in charge fostering tradition and brand have taken the money every time.  Every. Time.

The tradition of Saturday afternoon kickoffs between the hedges morphed into Saturday evenings and Saturday mornings.  With the number of quality matchups just within conference play, expect more Thursday night games to maximize prime-time TV coverage. 

Our way of life was fun while it lasted.  We still have our nostalgia.  It’s enough to propel UGA’s greatest player ever into a front runner for U.S. Senate without him even announcing a campaign or platform.

As the SEC and other major conferences jump headlong into becoming professional sporting leagues, a different sales pitch to the fan bases will be required.  Fan support for professional sports is fickle.  Appealing to tradition won’t generate Hartman Fund donations when it’s clear that traditions yield to TV money at every turn. 

Bigger seems inevitable.  Better…shall ever be in the eye of the beholders.