Summer Camps Won’t Solve Big Ten’s Long-Term Problem

The college football world in general and the Big Ten community in particular has erupted in the wake of the NCAA’s ban on coaches participating in summer camps for recruits away from their own facilities—“satellite camps”. A text thread that I’m on with a few other college football fans has been going crazy for several days. The Big Ten is furious and I understand why. But the bigger picture is also being missed.

It’s no secret that best college football players are predominantly in the South, in Texas and in California. The Big Ten wants to get their coaches in front of these players. It’s therefore no surprise that the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12—all with obvious connections to the talent-rich areas—voted to ban the camps, while the Big Ten voted to keep them.

There’s been a lot of super-heated rhetoric about what’s best for the kids. The Big Ten argues that kids are being hurt by the lack of exposure to more opportunities. This is backed up by a number of college football players who have taken to social media to say that being at the camps got them noticed by scholarship schools, or an upgrade from a midmajor to a power conference program.

But the schools are going to give out their scholarships to somebody. If, for example, Penn State finds a kid from Atlanta that might have otherwise slipped under the radar, it just means that an offer was yanked from a kid in the northeast. Now there’s no divine right to a football scholarship, so all’s fair—but unless you’re talking about expanding the number of scholarships, the effect on “the kids” as a whole is zero-sum.

And if you do expand the scholarships, you’re probably paying for it by taking away opportunities in non-revenue sports (and maybe inviting a Title IX lawsuit). So how about we cool the sanctimonious rhetoric a bit and just concede that these camps may impact the way scholarships are ultimately distributed, but the net effect ends up the same.

Now let’s get to the Big Ten’s real problem. Every conference voted in its self-interest. Why does the Big Ten not see the protection of Ohio and Pennsylvania as “its turf” to be as valuable as the Big 12 would see Texas? These Rustbelt states were once crown jewels of high school football. As one who lived nine years in Pittsburgh, the passion for the high school game is still strong.

But the changing demographics—the decline of the manufacturing base and jobs going to the Sun Belt, ultimately take their toll on high school athletics. I don’t want to get overly political here, but as one who strongly opposed congressional passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade in 1994, I’ve now got additional reasons to be annoyed over free trade’s devastating impact on the Rustbelt. The loss of recruiting turf for Big Ten football isn’t exactly the worst cost, but as a fan of the conference (I root for Wisconsin) it’s one more bit of salt in the wound.

Here’s the reality—getting college coaches in front of a handful of recruits isn’t going to change this. The Big Ten needs to take a longer view. What if they put the money they were going to spend on satellite camps and put it into youth football? The funds for sending a few coaches on overnight visits is a drop in the bucket for a big-time college football program, but $10,000 would mean the world to a youth program in Pittsburgh fighting to pay for jerseys and pads. I think of the youth games that took place in a field near my apartment on Liberty Avenue, with a lot of players from poorer neighborhoods.

The Big Ten can’t stop the population loss due to manufacturing’s decline (unless Jim Delaney has some clout in Congress I don’t know about). What it can do is put its resources to making sure the population that remains embraces the region’s love for football at all levels. It would rebuild the recruiting base for the long-term and give the conference something to protect. And most importantly, it would do what everyone in this argument is constantly invoking—it would help some kids.