September 18, 2011
On Monday, the much-discussed, oft-lamented fate of the Big 12 hangs in the balance in board rooms in Norman, Okla., and Austin, Texas, the latest stage in an ongoing melodrama that's ensnared lawyers, lobbyists, politicians and at least five major conferences in its tangled web over the last month. By contrast, the ACC makes the whole sordid business of conference realignment look effortless: With almost no advance warning, the conference has officially announced the additions of longtime Big East members Pittsburgh and Syracuse, swelling its ranks to 14 schools and leaving the Big East scrambling for its life as a major football conference — again — with only seven schools remaining in the fold.
Syracuse was one of seven founding members of the Big East when it was first formed as a non-football conference in 1979; Pitt joined the ranks in 1982, and both were on board when the league began sponsoring football in 1991. With their departures — officially mandated by the end of 2013, but likely to come much sooner, possibly by next year — five of the Big East's original eight members in football (Boston College, Miami, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Virginia Tech) will be taking up residence in the ACC, leaving only two still in the fold: Rutgers and West Virginia. And the Scarlet Knights and Mountaineers may be looking for a way out as we speak.
The ACC is playing offense and defense at the same time: In addition to boosting the membership rolls to 14 schools and expanding its presence in the Northeast, it also voted to substantially increase the exit fee for leaving the conference to $20 million, a step clearly aimed at forcing potential SEC targets — Clemson, Florida State, Virginia Tech — to think twice about taking calls from the Chosen League in its search for a 14th member to pair with its newest addition, Texas A&M, as soon as the Aggies' pending defection from the Big 12 is finally made official. But with Pitt and Syracuse in the fold, is the ACC content to sit at 14? Or do the Panthers and Orange represent the first step in its bid to go all the way to 16?
If it's the latter, the ACC is likely already making a strong push for Texas, which may not be quite as farfetched as it seems if the Longhorns are really convinced there's no hope for saving the Big 12. Because Texas was leading the wagon train to the Pac-10 before the deal fell apart in the eleventh hour last summer, it's natural to assume it would just dust off those plans and go through with it already, which is exactly what Oklahoma and Oklahoma State now seem prepared to do with or without Texas. But then, as of last summer, the Longhorn Network and the Pac-12 Network were still only long-term visions in the distance, and managed to foil the prospective marriage, anyway. This year, both are very real projects, both have lucrative contracts in place and both are as incompatible with the other as ever.
If Texas wants into the Pac-[Insert Number], and the Pac-[Insert Number] wants Texas, one or both sides will have to be willing to cave where they held their ground in 2010. There are no such hurdles to clear en route to the ACC. And West-of-the-Mississippi solidarity notwithstanding, the ACC actually makes far more sense for the Longhorns in terms of travel and avoiding time-zone chaos on late-night return trips to Austin. We should know a lot more about which way the Longhorns are leaning — or whether they're going to attempt an Alamo-like stand for the sake of the Big 12 — when its regents convene on Monday.
And then, of course, the New York Times reminds us that there's always Congress:
In a telephone interview early Sunday morning, a congressman from a state with a university that could be harmed by realignment said that the issue raised concerns over taxes, antitrust law and potentially Title IX. […]
"I think Congress has a variety of ways in which they could engage," the congressman said. "What we're seeing is an effort by certain institutions to push other major institutions out of revenue deals and thereby impacting universities. And it's done in a way that's breaching contracts."
Although the congressman said he was stopping short of saying that Congress should get involved -- he said he needed to see how things played out -- he said it was likely to draw Congress's interest. He pointed out how Congress got involved in the steroid issue in baseball.
"Congress has the nexus to engage," he said."These are tax-exempt organizations now making billions off of unpaid athletes. When it's a regional league, it seems to make sense. When you're taking schools practically from coast to coast and putting them in big-profit revenue leagues, we may be at a point where the N.C.A.A. has lost its ability to create a fair system for all to play in."
If the congressman can uncover a time in the history of college athletics when certain institutions weren't trying to push other major institutions out of revenue deals, I'd like to know when it was. Gradual consolidation of power at the top has been the nature of the beast in college sports for decades. Fairness? As a wise man once said, "deserve" has nothing to do with it.
No conference should understand that more clearly than the Big East, which is suddenly coming face-to-face with the existential crisis it narrowly avoided last year. In the wake of that near-miss, it vowed to be proactive in expansion, and made a successful bid to add TCU in the name of improving the quality of the league on the football side, expanding its "footprint" into Texas and adding a buffer against potential poachers from the ACC and/or Big Ten.
Since then, though, while it's been hemming and hawing for a solid year over the viability of adding the likes of Villanova and Central Florida, it's apparently had two of its flagship schools plucked from under its nose by the same conference that sparked the last existential crisis in the Big East by plucking Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College from under its nose back in 2004. There's a pattern here: The ACC gets what it wants, and the Big East settles for padding its ranks with the scraps.
In the last round, the arrival of Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville and South Florida didn't dilute the quality of the league enough to cost it its precious automatic bid or full-fledged payout from the Bowl Championship Series. This time? If cleaning up the Big 12's leftovers is the best the Big East can do, its privileged status in the cartel is hanging by a thread. And its remaining members may already be making a bee-line for the lifeboats.
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