Wednesday, August 31, 2011

College Football Conspiracy Theories

Ordinarily, I'm inclined to discount rumors about intrigue and conspiracy theories.  I'm more inclined to the philosophy that "most things can be explained by greed and/or stupidity."  Historically, though, I do set aside time on alternate Tuesdays to believe in conspiracies.  This isn't a Tuesday, but I have a conspiracy theory regarding the timing of Texas A&M's announcement that they are leaving the Big 12 conference.  Bear with me; it does connect (tenuously) to public policy.

During the summer of 2010, several changes in college conference line-ups occurred.  In the Big 12, Colorado left for the Pac 10 and Nebraska for the Big 10.  In certain ways, those changes made sense.  The Colorado football program has always recruited heavily on the West Coast.  In some ways, Boulder in particular and Colorado in general has a cultural focus that looks West rather than East.  And while a good deal of Nebraska's motivation appeared to be "anywhere that Texas isn't," the bulk of Nebraska's population is in the eastern portion of the state and the culture there is a better match with the Big 10 states than with Texas (or Oklahoma, for that matter).

At the same time, there were lots of rumors about schools in the Big 12 South.  Four teams to the Pac 10; three or four teams to the SEC; Texas to the Big 10.  None of which came to pass, of course.  When the rumors were flying hot and heavy, some prominent members of the Texas state legislature weighed in.  In particular, they took the position that at least Texas and Texas A&M were a bundle that wouldn't be separated, and if necessary, things could be added to statute during the upcoming legislative session to ensure that.  The Texas legislature only meets -- absent special sessions -- every other year.  Having completed the 2011 session, they won't be back together until 2013.

In light of this week's announcement, it appears that Texas A&M wasn't a whole lot happier about being in a football conference skewed in favor of the University of Texas than Nebraska was.  Unlike conferences like the SEC and Big 10, television revenue in the Big 12 is not shared equally by the member schools.  Unlike the Pac 10 and the Big 10, schools in the Big 12 are allowed to have their own sports "networks".  Under the Big 12 rules, UT has historically captured a larger share of the conference's television revenue than some of the other schools.  And the Longhorn Network, a venture of UT and ESPN, is scheduled to launch next week.  The network is regarded by many as an enormous recruiting advantage for UT.

So where, you ask, is the intrigue?  It's in the timing of the A&M announcement.  By jumping ship now, A&M has done an end-around on the the Texas legislature.  Assuming that A&M has lined up the nine votes needed to join the SEC (and essentially everyone seems to assume that's the case), they are in the position of being able to join that conference and play an entire football season there before the legislature meets again.  It's one thing to pass a law joining UT and A&M at the hip for deals to be made in the future; it's quite another to pass a law that attempts to overturn existing contracts, particularly where interstate commerce is involved.  And in Texas, only the governor can call a special session, and the special session can only consider matters listed by the government in that call.  Rick Perry is rather busy just now running for President, and calling a special session to deal with college football isn't consistent with the kind of image I think he's trying to project.

So, kudos to A&M for getting away from UT, and for maneuvering things so that the biggest hurdle to accomplishing that -- the Texas legislature -- is taken out of the game.  As for UT [disclosure: I have an MS from Austin, and got a good education for two years there], things seem to have backfired on them.  It certainly looks like they are now stuck in a slowly dying conference (didn't they learn anything when the SWC fell apart in the 1990s?).  But I think we can put that down to greed and stupidity, not intrigue.

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