The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Oklahoma and Texas just dealt the NCAA a major blow

Conferences such as the SEC could soon rival the NCAA as the power behind college sports.

The Red River Showdown logo is displayed on the field of the Cotton Bowl before an NCAA college football game between the University of Texas and Oklahoma on Oct. 10, 2020 in Dallas. (Michael Ainsworth/AP)

Last week, the University of Oklahoma (OU) and the University of Texas announced their decision to leave the Big XII Conference for the Southeastern Conference (SEC) in 2025. The move caught many observers of college sports off guard. But, it is just the most recent example of a century-long assault waged by programs like OU against the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s role as the central authority in college athletics. In fact, it highlights the emergence of a new era in which conferences rival the NCAA in power and the amateur model is no longer the status quo.

Traditionally, athletic conference membership served to regulate eligibility rules and facilitate scheduling among regional institutions. For established big-time football powers, such as Notre Dame, whose program began in the 1880s, conference membership was not necessary. As a latecomer to the sport in the 1890s, however, the University of Oklahoma did not have the luxury of independence.

Athletic conference membership provided a way for OU to attain respectability and belonging among those it viewed as peer institutions and to combat images of it as a backward territorial college in a sparsely populated frontier state. The Sooners became a charter member of Southwest Conference in 1915, joining the University of Arkansas, Baylor University, Texas, Texas A&M, Southwestern University and Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State). They left for the Missouri Valley five years later, enticed by its more formalized structure for year-round minor sports, and the fact that its members then ranked higher in football prestige and attendance than those in the Southwest Conference.

Oklahoma’s football tradition and rise to being a football powerhouse began in the late-1940s. Coach Bud Wilkinson built the first OU dynasty and won the school’s first three national championships while compiling 31- and 47-game winning streaks. The latter streak spread over five seasons and remains the longest in the history of big-time college football.

As Wilkinson put OU on the national map, an antagonistic relationship developed between Oklahoma and the NCAA. By that time, the NCAA had transformed itself into an organization that didn’t just facilitate national discussions and create rules for college sports, but one that also regulated conduct such as recruiting and awarding scholarships. “Home Rule” by individual schools and athletic conferences had not adequately created a level playing field and punished offenders, so the NCAA stepped in. As colleges adjusted to this new paradigm, Oklahoma became one of the first programs put on probation for recruiting violations in the mid-1950s.

The NCAA also wanted to control media coverage of the team. In 1951, it instituted a television plan that limited the number of football broadcasts per year — just 20 in the first year — and gave itself sole negotiating rights for these broadcasts. The association then divided the revenue among member schools but only after skimming off nearly 60 percent of the money for itself. Sooners fans and Oklahoma politicians vigorously protested what they considered a draconian plan. They described OU football as a product that belonged to the people of Oklahoma rather than the emerging NCAA cartel. And yet, the threat of expulsion, probation and loss of games intimidated the Sooners into compliance for several decades.

But, they didn’t stop fighting, and in 1984 won a decisive legal battle: NCAA v. Oklahoma. The Supreme Court case challenged the legality of the NCAA’s TV plan, arguing that it violated the Sherman Antitrust Act by creating a restraint of trade. OU’s victory resulted in the deregulation of college football broadcasts; this change allowed colleges or athletic conferences to negotiate their own television contracts. The loss severely weakened the NCAA’s control over the sport as it could no longer use money to intimidate schools.

The decision contributed directly to the rise in television revenue for athletic conferences, which then decided to collectively negotiate their own TV contracts. Soon after, longtime independents Penn State, the University of Miami and Florida State University joined athletic conferences to strengthen their bargaining power and make more money. This began a trend of conferences siphoning power away from the NCAA.

And then came the athletic “arms race” where coaching salaries, stadium expansion, fancy locker rooms and sophisticated training facilities began to separate top-tier programs from the rest. The money required to compete at the highest level fueled further conference expansion and heightened the stratification between those with better “brands” and media markets.

The Big XII was actually formed to capitalize on these economic opportunities in the 1990s and collectively bargain to increase TV revenue for its members. Formed by merging the Big Eight and the Southwest Conference, the Big XII assembled a 12-team league that could compete with the Big Ten and the SEC and attract lucrative TV contracts. Because of its size, media markets and the tradition of its members, it emerged as one of the strongest athletic conferences.

Size was not the only factor. For example, the Western Athletic Conference grew to 16 teams in the 1990s, but its experiment as a “super conference” failed. It lacked the history and tradition of schools such as OU and Texas or the media footprint. This created an existential threat among small programs that feared being cast aside, like the former Southwest Conference teams not invited to the Big XII.

Oklahoma’s place as a powerhouse in the Big XII fit with the university’s longtime approach to athletics. OU had long sought to align itself with peer institutions in a way that brought it money, increased its reputation and allowed it to showcase the state as an attractive and modern place.

But over the past decade, the conferences have once again realigned as they continued to search for better media contracts and opportunities that provided bigger payouts to members. In the process, the Big XII lost four of its longtime members (Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Texas A&M). Many bemoaned the loss of traditional rivalries. By joining the SEC, OU will actually protect its rivalry with Texas and reunite the school with two other original Southwest Conference members as well as Missouri, a former Big Eight and Big XII member.

Football money has driven the consolidation of college sports into mega-conferences, some of which make little geographic sense (such as Maryland and Rutgers in the largely Midwestern-based Big Ten). Yet, it also is about power. From the 1950s to the 1980s to the present, Oklahoma has resented NCAA authority. It has sought to do what was best for itself and feuded with the national regulatory body when it got in the way. For more than 60 years, the NCAA’s meddling and siphoning of TV money has robbed Oklahomans of agency, self-determination and lots of revenue. Now, with the SEC poised to grow to 16 members and increase its profit share to well more than $1 billion annually, the NCAA’s authority has been further — maybe fatally — weakened.

This comes at an inflection point for college sports, after the NCAA’s unanimous Supreme Court defeat in NCAA v. Alston (2021). The decision permitted athletes to profit from their names, images and likeness, and weakened the very amateurism the NCAA has long worked to enforce. In the decision, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote that “the NCAA’s current compensation regime raises serious questions under the antitrust laws,” suggesting that the court favors free-market competition within college athletics and entities that would challenge the NCAA. The growth of the SEC with OU and Texas provides an alternative to NCAA control of college sports. The conference’s power and wealth present an opportunity for it to establish its own regulations as the amateurism model further crumbles.

In short, as a member of the SEC, Oklahoma can now help to sink the NCAA, which has remained reticent and reactive in its handling of recent challenges such as debates about athlete compensation and the transfer portal. In its new conference, OU is joining like-minded peer institutions, which are pursuing their own interests and reimagining college athletics. As the wealthiest athletic conference, the SEC can make its own policy on athlete compensation under new legal terms. It can lead college athletics into a new era without the amateur ideal so foundational to the NCAA’s authority.