There is an important distinction between “could we do that?” and “should we do that?” — but it is a distinction that rarely seems to be noticed by American corporate leaders.

If “could we” increases the bottom line, then the answer is yes. No further questions.

It doesn’t matter if deferring to the “should we” might prevent Johnstown or Youngstown or Flint or a few dozen other similar cities from hanging in the wind.

Plant is closing and moving the jobs overseas? None of the people making the decisions live there. What do they care? They just made the company another $15 million a year.

Mergers and acquisitions, baby.

It should be no surprise then that college athletics is a direct reflection of the economy it lives in. Academics no longer chart the athletic futures of our academic institutions. Corporate suits do.

And this is what they have wrought. Welcome to the age of dystopian college football.

Who needs an Apple Cup? You are looking live at Washington at Rutgers. Winner goes to the BadBoy Mowers Pinstripe Bowl.

For anyone who loves college football for what it is — a highly regionalized and much more diversified version of its professional big brother — this new reality is a perversion.

SEC fans chant “S-E-C” at bowl games because the conference appeals to a sense of Southern pride. And that’s the point of the whole endeavor.

But the people with cartoon dollar signs on their eyeballs can’t see that. They don’t understand why they are making money. They only see that they are making money. And as long as the bottom line grows, college sports will continue to pull apart.

The Big 12 is alive and well, but what is its connective tissue? The common bond of staving off elimination?

For generations, “Big Ten” was a synonym for Midwestern. Now one-third of the B1G-whatever’s membership is on the coasts. The percentage of Big Ten fans who know which crop is supposed to be knee-high by the Fourth of July is going to take a precipitous drop.

If you want an actual Midwestern conference, prepare to dive headfirst into some MACtion.

Geography is supposed to matter. College football is not a homogenized product.

Give me smashmouth leagues and Air Raid leagues and option-friendly leagues. And then at the end of the year let’s see how they all mix. Happy holidays. Vive le difference.

Correction: College football was not a homogenized product.

People who don’t know any better are altering the sport’s DNA. Because in the short term, those changes will make money. Lots of money.

Will that money go to the labor producing the product? Heavens no! But it will make the decision-makers wealthier, so of course they made the decision.

But what happens when the mutant baby grows out of this altered DNA?

The suits will be cashed out by then, so they don’t care. But the rest of us might.

And if you look at some other businesses that have been homogenized over the years, it wouldn’t be surprising if the commoditization of college sports turns off its actual consumers in significant numbers.

When has this ever worked?

Department stores are a far cry from the football field.

Spending a Saturday afternoon in a crowded football stadium is heaven. Same scenario in a department store? The opposite.

But those stores may prove a case study in where this is all headed.

Marshall Field’s was a Chicago institution dating back to the city’s rebirth after the Great Chicago Fire. Even Clark Griswold shopped there.

Successful brands inevitably get purchased and consolidated into corporations with deeper coffers. Field’s eventually became the property of Macy’s.

In their infinite wisdom, the suits at Macy’s decided to rebrand all their regional properties into Macy’s stores in 2006. This also took place in Pittsburgh with the Kauffman’s brand and Indianapolis with L.S. Ayers, among others.

No consumers actually asked for those changes. The brand names had elevated into civic institutions, particularly in Chicago and Pittsburgh. It was a unique way of identifying that you were in that city and nowhere else. (And that’s to say nothing of the many cultural institutions funded by the original owners in both cities.)

In Chicago, angry upper-crust society shoppers literally took to the streets to protest the change — quite the spectacle. Perhaps the first instance since the suffragette movement featuring protestors in pearls. Sales dropped 30% in the first year after Marshall Field’s turned into Macy’s.

When you abandon an institution with a distinctive local identity because you believe a more homogenized product will be more profitable, this is what you are liable to reap.

With the decisions of college athletics now made in network boardrooms rather than on campus, this is the direction things are heading for college sports. Far more people, whether fans or players, stand to be alienated rather than enriched.

A cross-country conference is probably viable in football. But less than a year out, the B1G still hasn’t figured out how it will schedule any of its other sports yet. And now it has to throw Oregon and Washington into that mix. Good thing there’s enough money for Tylenol in the budget.

Fans will still watch, especially at first. The novelty and newness of the West Coast wing will bring the eyeballs that are expected of an $8 billion media rights deal.

Maybe it will even prove to be what the consumers want, even if none of them actually asked for it. But established products are usually better served by responding to demand rather than attempting to invent it.

New Coke, anyone?

There’s an artificial bubble inflating over college sports, and it’s going to pop 1 of 2 ways in the 2030s.

  • Leaders will recognize that they’ve overextended and retreat to more geographically sensible conferences, much in the vein of the reinvented Big East.
  • Network execs will realize the pie is being split too many ways. There’s even more money to be made in a 20-team FOX/whomever super league and a 20-team ESPN/whomever super league. Or maybe it will only be 16 teams each. Previous affiliations need not matter. Everyone else is what Cal, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington State appear to be now: jetsam. The Rust Belt of college sports.

The outcome ultimately depends on who is steering the ship. And right now, there’s no question it’s in the hands of the wrong people.