The first sure sign of some imminent fire behind the billowing smoke of conference realignment: Fast and furious leaks to various media beginning around last Thursday. But the surest sign that this is really going down right now as we speak is the sudden presence of politicians, beginning with lobbyists and legislators working to strong-arm Baylor into the lineup of Big 12 schools reportedly packing their bags for the Pac-10.
Naturally, Kansas pols have enthusiastically taken up the the university's plea to Nebraska to save the Big 12 by rebuffing overtures from the Big Ten. By Tuesday, the Jayhawks' case had already made its way into the halls of the U.S. Senate, where Kansas Republican Pat Roberts was reportedly overheard lobbying Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson to prevent the Cornhuskers from becoming "the domino that blows college football into four major conferences and gets rid of the NCAA." (Of legendary 'Husker coach and current athletic director Tom Osborne, Roberts said, "He doesn't want on his tombstone 'He ruined the Big 12,'" though it's possible that would suit Osborne just fine.) Roberts and fellow Kansas senator Sam Brownback issued a joint press release to "encourage our friends at the University of Nebraska to remain a strong and vibrant member of the Big XII Conference."
Given some of his Senate colleagues' willingness to intervene in other controversial aspects of college football's structure, it's probably also natural that Roberts (a Kansas State alum) wouldn't hesitate to threaten the full brunt of federal legislation to keep the Jayhawks and Wildcats in the big leagues:
"There's going to be a lot of litigation, and then Congress will probably try to stick its nose into it,” Roberts said. "I would prefer that that not be the case, but there have always been antitrust concerns."
Roberts suggested a Big 12 break-up could result in only four major conferences and even the demise of the NCAA.
"I think the big concern here that Congress could take a look at is how the network television contracts are driving different schools to consider different conferences to attract the money — and those that will be in those big conferences, or super conferences, will get the money and others won't," Roberts said.
I would prefer not to strap Tom Osborne and Jim Delany to our most fearsome bureaucratic torture rack at taxpayer expense, but dangit, we're going to be in a BCS conference. Now that his state's schools are the ones being cut out of the loop, Roberts sees exactly where Orrin Hatch is coming from.
But there's nothing new in Roberts' threats against the ever-escalating lucre in amateur sports, either: The expanding sums attached to bowl games and especially regular-season television contracts (the greatest driver of conference expansion, as Roberts notes) have had Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley on the NCAA's tail for years in an effort to examine its tax-exempt status in a sea of green, and the Justice Department agreed to look into Hatch's antitrust claims against the BCS earlier this year.
Both efforts could feasibly be expanded to include conferences that effectively serve as bottom-line driven corporations for their shareholders at individual universities. Surely, if the tens of millions at stake in the current postseason structure can justify such persistent scrutiny, the further consolidation of a smaller number of mostly state-sponsored entities in naked pursuit of billions in media revenue can become a target, as well.
Especially if Kansas and Kansas State are forced to join Conference USA. Hell hath no fury like a basketball power scorned.