Delivering BCS conference spot: What's your price?

by | Columnist

Fred Smith understands the game. Problem is, he may not understand "the game."

Smith, as those of you smart enough to track Comrade Parrish know, is the CEO of FedEx offering any BCS-level conference willing to take on Memphis as a member as much as $10 million every year.

FedEx operates out of Memphis. Is there really math that needs to be done here?

Smith issued a statement Sunday denying that the report was true, but in this story and all its ramifications, denials turn to admissions fairly quickly, so nothing is truly false or falsely true until it is.

If Comrade Parrish has it right (and he typically does), the problem for Smith is subtlety. The people eating college athletics like getting paid, and they don't mind being seen at the table, silverware in hand, but they don't like to look too for sale. Just for sale enough.

Fred Smith's money would pull back the curtain of pretense on college football. (Getty Images)  
Fred Smith's money would pull back the curtain of pretense on college football. (Getty Images)  
How they pull this off is one of the great mysteries of the current day. The conference-eaters and the power brokers walk around with their billfolds nail-gunned to their lapels, so we get the notion that everything is for sale as long as "the right people" are doing the buying.

But the Smith offer might be a little more crass than even they are comfortable with. Not necessarily too crass, mind you. Just a little more.

You see, that's the beauty of this hypocri-fest -- it isn't really about hypocrisy at all. It also isn't about perpetuating the myth of college sports as a noble enterprise -- it's about ensuring that only certain people get to partake in the spoils of the enterprise.

I mean, what's the difference between Memphis and Texas here? Memphis had to hire out a sugar daddy, while Texas is its own. That's not much of a difference. But Texas gets to be a power broker and Memphis has to buy its way in, and we're guessing that most of the big conferences will balk at that because it's so, well, unseemly.

Seemly, of course, being entirely in the eye of the beholder. And unless we miss our guess (and when it comes to rich folks chasing other rich folks' money, we rarely are), Smith's offer will be either politely declined as part of an attempt to get him to give his money without that string being attached, or won't be given the dignity of a response.

Smith, though, did the rest of us a favor. Basically, what he was saying was, We all know who we are here. We're just trying to establish price.

And this is the image college sports has left itself with as a result of the past two weeks.

The whole conference bankbook realignment has even made USC out to be a victim of sorts because, while the Trojans played so fast and loose with the rules that the rules never really entered into it, their biggest sin could be seen as having been caught with the money flowing the wrong way -- toward the workers.

As we've said, this is the deal that disallows the people who run college sports from ever saying anything about the industry's intrinsic moral and ethical value, and that's good. It may be too late to defend the myth, but it isn't too late to cling to it, just for the folks who want to believe in it anyway.

But again, that doesn't mean they don't want Fred Smith's money. They'd just like to launder it a little, and not make the conference thing the quid pro quo. That's going to be ramming a camel through a needle's eye, but hey, these are the people who just made Kansas disappear. It's worth a try, I guess.

In other words, here's your lesson: "Your money's no good here, Fred. But it is good over here. Let's talk."

Ray Ratto is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Update: On June 18, 2010, received the following statement from Frederick W. Smith: "Contrary to a few inaccurate press reports, neither FedEx nor I offered financial incentives to a BCS Conference to add the University of Memphis. Moreover, neither I nor any FedEx executive had any discussions with any executive of a BCS University Administration; BCS Athletic Department; or BCS Conference about Memphis' aspirations in this regard. These allegations are completely unfounded and untrue."

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