Folks often use the expression “Hobson’s choice” when what they really mean is a choice between the lesser of two evils. A Hobson’s choice is completely different. It’s a choice between something and nothing at all. It derives from a policy in a 17th century livery stable run by a gentleman named Thomas Hobson. The rule was resolute and simple. If you wanted to rent a horse from him you were offered the one next in the rotation. Your choice was the horse Hobson presented else you could damn well use your human hooves to get to wherever you went in those days.
Oddly, this brings us to West Virginia University’s imminent journey to the Big-12 Conference. In my mind, it is a classic example of a Hobson’s choice. One made because there was no practical alternative. Membership in the Big-12 beats the hell out of nothing, which in the football sense of the word is what membership in the Big East provides these days. (If you do not think football is what this is really all about, you have not gotten this far anyway so I am not going to waste the smart kids’ time explaining.)
I have a complicated view of what got us to this point and what it portends. It’s hard not to admire WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck’s mastery of the college football landscape and the guile he displayed in saving the school from a near-certain lapse into obscurity. Yet to accomplish this we dived headlong into the mire that is sucking in everything that stands upon that landscape.
Coaches walk out on teams on the eve of championship games. Conferences court other leagues’ members even as they negotiate tie-in agreements with them. Teenage recruits are enticed by institutions that ostensibly represent “higher learning” to ditch commitments to schools to which they have given their word. If you shake hands with someone in this environment your next stop better be the hand sanitizer station.
Some might call it “situational ethics” but that implies that “ethics” are in some way associated with the way affairs are conducted in major college sports these days. We all love winning, but wouldn’t it be nice if “winning with honor” was more than some tired pabulum practiced by losers?
Don’t delude yourself college football fan. It’s all about the money chase and the chance to be fawned over by ESPN and its dollar-driven television brethren. You better deliver market size because that factor beyond your control matters more than the product you produce. It’s the principle reason why the more geographically appropriate ACC and SEC took a pass on WVU.
And what of our destination? The Big-12 is hardly a pillar of stability. Why WVU for God’s sake? Are we seriously willing to forget that Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M and Missouri couldn’t wait to get out? Do you think for one second that if the conference had an opportunity to vote on keeping any of the four or West Virginia we’d have prevailed? Get used to it fellow Mountaineers. We’re their safety school. Back-up prom date. Contingency plan. But that’s okay, we are the people who put the “dog” in underdog. It’s our lot in life. We’re down with that part of it.
From a practical standpoint this makes little sense either. People with a GPS will soon discover that a drive to Waco is a bit more of a bite than one to Pittsburgh. Minor sports that don’t fly charter will get to know hub airports as well as the dorms in which they live. A state that has long struggled with whether it’s eastern or southern is now affiliated with a conference that’s predominately “west, south central.” But such is the life of a mercenary. The fight is about the money, not the cause.
You can parse out the nuance all you want but at its core WVU behaved toward the Big East in much the same way that the hated Rich Rodriguez behaved toward WVU. I want out, I want out now and I’m willing to break my contractual agreement and litigate my way to attaining that end. If you don’t feel at least a little dirty about this then you must believe that hypocrisy is just a silly noun that only applies to the other fellow.
In spite of my misgivings, I’ll own up to my hypocritical relief that WVU is not adrift in conference purgatory. But it’s worth remembering we are all-in in what is clearly an incredibly risky game with tens of millions staked on the future stability of a shaky conference in which we are an awkward fit ruled by a BCS that is under attack from all sides. Tomorrow could quickly begin to look a lot like yesterday. But we’ve made the choice. A Hobson’s choice, to remain viable and a member of the preferred class in what Luck calls the “haves and have-nots” structure of today.
So out goes Pitt and Syracuse in comes Texas and Oklahoma. Who would have ever thought? Everything is out of sorts, upside down. But that’s the new normal. Our sun is setting on the Big East and rising in the west. But daffy as all this is, sign me up. I’m not going anywhere. Loyalty means a lot and for over 40 years I’ve been a Mountaineer fan. I’m staying. You have my word.
Ed note: This article is cross-posted at EERNationB12 an excellent fan resource for Mountaineers and sports fans in general.
Big-12 bound. Clap your hands and give it up children. There’s a place in my heart for you and that’s the bottom line.
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