Kaiya McCullough held the slip of paper in her hand that every UCLA student-athlete must at the beginning of every academic quarter. From class to class, she bounced around the campus in Westwood, Calif., introducing herself to her instructors, telling them she was a defender for the Bruins women’s soccer team and that from August to probably November, her athletic and academic life would be constantly contradicting one another.
McCullough, the daughter of two former UCLA student-athletes, shares the anecdote often when asked about the challenges of trying to balance a full course load at a renowned university and playing for one of the top college programs. While appearing in 92 matches in her four years for the Bruins, the political science major and the 2019 Pac-12 Scholar Athlete of the Year said she had to alter the focus of her degree because professors wouldn’t allow her to be absent as much as necessary.
It’s already demanding to be a student-athlete. How much harder will life be for those in so-called Olympic or non-revenue sports, long points of pride at USC and UCLA, as they join a conference that stretches coast to coast?
As the aftershocks from UCLA and USC’s tectonic-shifting move to the Big Ten, set to occur in 2024, continue to reverberate throughout college athletics, some University of California regents and former coaches and athletes associated with Olympic sports at the schools question how the move will impact programs that aren’t football, the driving force behind realignment and the league’s new $8 billion TV deal. Does such a financially beneficial move for the two schools belittle what it means to be a student-athlete? University officials have acknowledged the extended travel will pose difficulties.
“As a college athlete, you’re there for an education,” McCullough said. “You need to get your education and your degree, and I really do think there will be some academic outcomes that will be very challenging for players.”
Will it be as simple as throwing money at the problem to ease the new conference travel schedule that ditches hour-long flights to Eugene, Ore., and Tempe, Ariz., for cross-country treks to Piscataway, N.J., and State College, Pa.? Each Big Ten school is expected to earn an average of $75 million a year under the new media rights deal. If USC and UCLA remained in the Pac-12, their take homes would’ve been significantly less, likely by the tens of millions.
“It’s like the old saying: To make money, you have to spend money,” said Scott Rosner, director of the master of science in sports management program at Columbia University. “And they’re going to be making a lot more money.”
The Pac-12 — and the Pac-10 before it — routinely marketed itself as “the conference of champions,” most often pointing to the pipeline of Olympic athletes churned out. At the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, USC and UCLA combined to have 115 current or former student-athletes as participants.