The 2021 Tokyo Olympics had eight current or former athletes who had attended or were attending the University of Nebraska. Of these Cornhuskers, as the university athletes (and fans) are called, four represented the United States; the others represented Canada, Costa Rica, Hungary, and Japan. This number of Olympians was low by Nebraska standards. Peak representation was in 1996, when twenty-one Cornhuskers from seventeen countries competed in Atlanta.
As a state with a small population and no major professional sports teams or famous attractions, the university's sports programs are a special source of Nebraska's identity and pride. I know some Canadians who also consider themselves Nebraskans because of family roots, and the Olympics is another venue in which they can cheer for Cornhuskers regardless of the country they represent.
I mention Nebraska only because I'm a Nebraskan myself. But the University of Nebraska is just one example of the hundreds of American universities that heavily invest in athletics and attract young athletes from around the world to train, compete, and study.
This bond between academics and athletics in the United States is a historical accident. Students at northeast colleges started playing English rugby football against each other, and one of them, Walter Camp of Yale, proposed the rules that shaped the new sport of American football in 1880. As rivalries entrenched, these autumn Saturday afternoon games became a focus of campus life.
In 1891, instructor and graduate student James Naismith of Springfield College was charged with creating an indoor activity during the long winter months and came up with basketball. Another outlet for intercollegiate rivalries was born.
Before long, control of athletic activities was taken away from the students. Athletic departments were created and run by university administrators. The major financial investment in sports has benefited countless athletes from all over the world. High-level athletic programs at universities are unique to America. That so many non-Americans train on America's campuses is an example of the United States being a "land of opportunity."
The problem is that sports cost money, and most universities don't want to pay for them through tuition, fees, or government support. They want their athletic departments to pay for themselves through gate receipts, merchandising, and media (radio, television, streaming) contracts. In contrast to other university endeavors, the athletic department has to be run like a business.
But the money comes largely from football and men's basketball television deals. Therefore, being competitive in those sports, especially football, is the top priority. That's where most of the attention lies.
There's nothing particularly wrong with that. Many businesses rely on revenue from their most popular brand. But what might be good for football isn't necessarily good for other sports.
In the summer of 2023, the Pac-12 (PAC being short for Pacific) university athletic conference fell apart as ten member universities left to join the Big 12, Big Ten, and Atlantic Coast conferences. Only Washington State and Oregon State universities were left. This happened because the Pac-12 was falling behind the other major conferences in revenues. The grass was greener on the other side of the Rocky Mountains.
But to join another conference in football, all the sports had to migrate to the new conference as well. This was explained to me by college athletics expert Matt Brown on X (formerly Twitter), and I found the provision in 20.02.8.2 of the NCAA bylaws.) that govern most university athletics.
In football, these West Coast teams will take direct chartered flights over the Rocky Mountains and two to three time zones to face new conference rivals for Saturday games. Nothing much changes except longer flights; they still get home on Sunday.
In other sports like softball and volleyball, athletes have to fly commercials, and because there are more games than in football, there are Sunday and midweek contests. Competing in the new conferences, these athletes will have substantially longer flights and deal with jet lag.
The burden will disproportionately fall on women because they make up the majority of non-football athletes. And it will affect universities in the central and eastern regions as well. Volleyball powers like Nebraska and Wisconsin will have to make more West Coast trips.
The Pac-12 had been the leader in providing Olympic medalists. Southern California (USC), Stanford, UCLA, and UC Berkeley lead the nation by a wide margin. USC and UCLA bolted for the Big Ten, which is mostly situated in the Great Lakes states. Stanford and Berkeley have even further to fly, these distinguished schools near the San Francisco Bay will have new rivals on the Atlantic Coast.
Through all of the re-alignment, the Southeast Conference (SEC) is also gaining two universities, Oklahoma and Texas. However, even with these additions, the states of the SEC are contiguous, and only one time zone separates the two most distant universities.
If I'm an exceptional young athlete with athletic scholarship offers from multiple American universities, the travel schedule would become a major factor in where I choose to attend. I wouldn't be surprised if SEC schools like Texas, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee replace the four California schools as the favored destinations of Olympic athletes.