Swanson: UC Regents make UCLA wait, punt on decision about Big Ten move

Fourth-and-1, with a big decision to make. And it looked like the University of California Board of Regents was gonna go for it on Thursday when it convened to discuss, among other things, UCLA’s Big Ten membership.

But no one flinched across the line of scrimmage, so the regents called timeout and sent their kicker back out onto the field, punting the crucial decision into next month. They’ll decide what, if anything, they plan to do about UCLA’s pending move at a special meeting on Dec. 14.

The 26 regents appointed to oversee the state’s 10-campus public system of higher education probably were hoping that, in the five months since UCLA and USC announced they plan to move to the Big Ten Conference in 2024, the situation would’ve resolved itself.

They probably wish UCLA and Cal, the Bruins’ Pac-12 Conference brethren in the UC system, could have worked out a deal themselves.

Or, perhaps, that the decision-makers at UCLA might have read Bill Walton’s impassioned poem arguing against the move and changed their minds about leaving.

Or maybe that the Big Ten would have swooped in and decided, what the heck, it would take the Golden Bears too.

Not the case, though, and so the board will reconvene next month to make its “final determination.”

What could finally happen then: The board could block the move. Or allow it, but also penalize UCLA, or ask it to subsidize Cal’s athletic department to make up for lost revenue resulting from the Bruins’ (and Trojans’) departure, which figures to diminish the value of a conference that’s currently negotiating a new TV contract.

Or the board could stand aside and just let it go. In that case, expect another challenge, this one from State Senator Nancy Skinner, who, according to the New York Times, is considering a bill to address the additional travel that could adversely affect athletes’ educational pursuits.

“The collateral damage should not be on the students or on their ability to succeed in education,” said Skinner, who helped pass SB 206 in 2019, getting the ball rolling for other states to pass laws allowing NCAA athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness.

The irony: One of the drivers of UCLA’s move is the existence of those new NIL possibilities.

“The trajectory of college athletics is volatile right now, things are changing, affiliations are changing, the future of college athletics is challenging,” UCLA chancellor Gene Block said during Thursday’s meeting at UCSF Mission Bay. “Name, image and likeness, all these are evolving. …

“Our students are asking for better national exposure. They’re a bit frustrated sometimes about the exposure they’re getting currently. And then the national platform, being in a conference that competed nationally would give them better exposure.”

College sports is about a lot of things, and competition remains chief among them.

In this case, it’s competing interests: You want the best for student-athletes, and so you’re someone who believes they should be permitted to generate revenue from their talents. Only fair, right? So you’d understand, then, them wanting to perform on the biggest stage possible. When UCLA surveyed its student-athletes, more of the respondents said joining the Big Ten would be a good idea than a bad one – 35% to 7%. (Otherwise, 20% said they didn’t have an opinion and 38% wanted more information, such as how additional revenue would be distributed.)

But even if the move is popular on campus, there’s no getting around the fact that road trips as a part of a national conference are going to be tough, physically and scholastically, for many of UCLA’s (and USC’s) athletes – who, of course, won’t generate NIL earnings equally.

You feel for those young women and men, even as UCLA says it will earmark about an additional $10 million to provide improvements in travel and academic support, as well as nutrition and mental health services.

But there’s just no eating your cake and having it too.

In the end, what’s good for UCLA isn’t going to be good for Cal. But what would be good for Cal won’t be what’s best for UCLA.

So maybe UCLA’s move – which is expected to bring in $60-$70 million per year through the final six years of the Big Ten’s television agreement – “reinforces that college athletics is just about business, it’s not about the students,” as Skinner told the New York Times.

But UCLA’s athletic deficit – $103.1 million over the past three years – doesn’t look good for student-athletes, either.

The discussion item prepared for Thursday’s meeting indicated that the shortage could force UCLA to reassess whether it can support its current level of athletic programs and scholarship athletes: “UCLA estimated that by cutting approximately six current teams and discontinuing scholarships for another eight sports, it could save an estimated $11 million.”

Still, many longtime Bruins like Walton can’t stomach the prospect of UCLA in the Big Ten. And because it would take a brave contrarian to disagree with such a towering legend, Walton was able to write: “I have spoken to no one, other than the highest-level directors of athletics at UCLA, who think that this proposed move to the Big Ten is a good idea.”

But what I learned chatting with tailgaters this season outside the Rose Bowl, on broiling 100-degree mornings and cool Pac-12 After Dark evenings, is that though none of them is overly enthused by the pending move, many share a resigned acceptance.

Like Anthony Nuno, a season ticket-holder for 28 years. He didn’t like it, he said, but he understood the financial implications, offering a Tony Soprano-esque shrug: “What’re you gonna do?”

Spencer Stueve, a Costa Mesa resident and UCLA graduate who has published a handful of books on the Bruins’ athletic history, elaborated.

“I’m in the majority in that, if all things were equal, I would like them to stay in the Pac-12,” Stueve said. “But that’s not the case. You stay in the Pac-12, you just fall behind.

“It’s becoming more clear each year, that there’s a separation between the SEC and the Big Ten, and everyone else. And so I like the move to the Big Ten, because it’s either have a chance, put yourself in a position that you can be successful going forward, or at least to compete going forward vs. falling behind.

“I would like to stay in the Pac-12, it’s just not feasible at this point.”

He’s right, unfortunately. Will the regents see that? We should find out next month.