College sports generates a lot of scandals — real ones, in which people really get hurt as powerful leaders chase wins at any cost and those around them don’t or can’t speak up — as well as manufactured scandals over players getting paid or coaches recruiting incorrectly.
Big Ten schools have had roles in some of the worst.
- The Penn State scandal involving Jerry Sandusky became public in 2011.
- The Michigan State scandal involving Larry Nassar is still unfolding now.
- Maryland is retaining football coach DJ Durkin despite a player’s death after a workout and a report about the program’s “toxic” culture.
- The Buckeyes are dealing with the fallout from a sexual abuse scandal involving their wrestling team.
- Ohio State also suspended Urban Meyer after he mishandled allegations of domestic abuse against a longtime assistant.
- In 2015, Illinois fired its football coach amid concerns about player treatment.
- Indiana did the same a year later. That coach remained in the Big Ten, becoming one of two otherwise qualified Ohio State staffers with too much baggage to be named interim coach.
And so on.
These stories are the opposite of the image the Big Ten has long presented of itself.
The Big Ten’s brand is simple: college sports’ oldest conference is purer, smarter, and more prestigious than everyone else.
“Known as one of intercollegiate sports’ most successful undertakings, the Big Ten is home to a lineage of legendary names and an ongoing tradition of developing strong leaders,” the conference says in the first line of its history page. “Even in its infancy, the conference established itself as the preeminent collection of institutions in the nation, where the pursuit of academic excellence prevailed as the definitive goal.”
Look at Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany’s 2011 description of the conference’s since-discarded original division names:
“Legends” is a nod to our history and to the people associated with our schools who are widely recognized as legends - student-athletes, coaches, alumni and faculty. “Leaders” looks to the future as we remain committed to fostering leaders, the student-athletes who are encouraged to lead in their own way for the rest of their lives, in their families, in their communities and in their chosen professions. We’re proud of our many legends and even prouder of our member institutions that develop future leaders every day.
Those are just two examples of the way the Big Ten talks about itself, but the message has been consistent for years, and it stands apart from most leagues. The Pac-12 calls itself the “conference of champions” because of its victories in non-revenue sports, “it just means more” in the SEC because of its passionate fans, the Big 12 is forever trying to explain its football schedule, and the American and MAC are telling underdog stories. Meanwhile, the Big Ten sells virtue.
Amid all this, the Big Ten holds itself up as college sports’ guiding light while fighting to keep its billions of dollars.
In 2013, when Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit briefly made it look like schools might have to pay their players in more than tuition, Delany was quick to threaten that the Big Ten would just drop academic scholarships altogether because sports and their money just weren’t that important to Big Ten schools:
It has been my longstanding belief that The Big Ten’s schools would forgo the revenues in those circumstances and instead take steps to downsize the scope, breadth and activity of their athletic programs.
Several alternatives to a ‘pay for play’ model exist, such as the Division III model, which does not offer any athletics-based grants-in-aid, and, among others, a need-based financial model.
These alternatives would, in my view, be more consistent with The Big Ten’s philosophy that the educational and lifetime economic benefits associated with a university education are the appropriate quid pro quo for its student athletes.
That claim about the Big Ten not being all that interested in sports revenue was followed by sequences of events like this one:
- In 2015, the NLRB rejected Northwestern athletes’ attempt to unionize, after the school waged a shadow campaign against the organizing effort.
- In 2016, the Big Ten signed a $2.64 billion TV deal.
- By 2017, the conference earmarked at least $20 million in bonus money for Delany.
- In 2018, the Big Ten became the first conference in college sports history to cross $50 million in single-year payouts to member schools.
- Meanwhile, a few years after staving off unionization, Northwestern opened the doors to a $270 million spaceship of a practice facility.
The conference’s history of scandals is a strong argument against elevating powerful people into something they’re not.
At every turn, the Big Ten decries the influence of money in college sports as some kind of corruptor, even as it’s taken more of that money than anybody else.
And the conference office has leaned hard into an image of community service and principled leadership, but the Big Ten has proved it’s susceptible to corrosive influences, just like any other business.