The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Texas and Oklahoma pursue realignment — of their bank accounts

The SEC logo, shown during its college football media days. (Butch Dill/AP)
5 min

So now the chaos begins … again.

Actually, college athletics has been chaotic this entire century, so the news that Texas and Oklahoma have requested membership in the SEC is merely a restart after a brief pause in the action.

The old saying about there being a lack of honor among thieves doesn’t come close to describing what goes on in the halls of so-called higher education. So it is difficult not to laugh at the whining going on now that the two schools have gone public with their intentions. The leadership at Texas A&M is upset because it doesn’t want to share its SEC stake with Texas — seemingly forgetting that it bolted from the Big 12 to the SEC in 2012 for the exact same reason that Texas is now making the move: money.

It’s almost as funny to hear Oklahoma State President Kayse Shrum moaning about Oklahoma’s “lack of transparency” in making the SEC deal, along with the usual blather about what’s best for the “student-athletes.”

Oh, please. If SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey had made the call to Shrum, she would have walked from Stillwater to the league’s offices in Birmingham to talk to him.

Texas, Oklahoma officially submit request for SEC membership

The other amusing thing is to hear suggestions that this is the beginning of the end for the NCAA. The NCAA has been a non-factor in major college football for most of this century. It has no control over the College Football Playoff, which, along with the conferences, negotiates the biggest TV deals and makes all the important decisions related to the 65 Power Five schools. Technically, there are 130 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision, but only half of them have any chance to make the current four-team playoff.

No team from the so-called Group of Five has been invited to take part in the playoff since it began seven seasons ago. That might change if the playoff is expanded to 12 teams, but there is no way to know when that will happen or what the format will be. If four super conferences emerge from the latest batch of chaos, it’s entirely possible that they’ll keep all the bids — and all the money — for themselves.

The real commissioner of college football right now is Bill Hancock, the executive director of the CFP. Of course, Hancock has to report to the 13 members of the selection committee, who report to the CFP Management Committee (10 conference commissioners and, for some reason, Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick), who in turn report to the presidents.

The question now is what college football will look like when the backroom deals and maneuvering are done — or at least are paused again.

The answer is simple: Nobody knows. About one thing we can be sure: To those with money will go even more of the spoils.

The instant word leaked out last week that Texas and Oklahoma were planning to jump the Big 12’s ship, the rumors began: The SEC and the ACC would merge to form a 30-team superconference; the Big 12 and the Pac-12 would merge; Clemson and Florida State would join the Big Ten; the American Athletic Conference would finally realize its dream and replace the Big 12 as a power conference; Notre Dame would … well, forget Notre Dame, because its current deals with NBC and the ACC are too sweet to give up.

A lot of what happens next will depend on how quickly Texas and Oklahoma can free themselves from the reported $80 million yoke of the Big 12. Even if their TV rights double by moving to the SEC, that’s real money they’d be forced to spend if they just tried to walk away with four years left on their Big 12 rights deal.

But they aren’t going to want to wait four years. The SEC’s TV “partners” aren’t going to want to wait that long, either. The $80 million tab for leaving is about the only card Commissioner Bob Bowlsby and the eight remaining Big 12 presidents have left. The smart plan — and it’s worth noting that smart plans are, more often not, an oxymoron in college athletics — is to dig in their heels and say, “No buyout, no deal; stay four years or pay up.”

That does two things: It keeps Texas and Oklahoma around for those four years and, perhaps more important, it gives Bowlsby a chance to earn his money by making some kind of deal to save his conference — and his job. Bringing in Houston and SMU to replace Texas and Oklahoma isn’t going to get it done. He’ll need to be a lot more creative than that.

The irony here is that with all the yammering about “the end of college football as we know it,” that ship sailed long before this week. The implementation of rules allowing players to profit from their name, image and likeness already changed the landscape and will continue to do so.

College sports was once ‘the scandal beat.’ Then amateurism became the scandal.

It’s worth remembering that the NCAA went down flailing in that battle, because the new order takes away what little power it still had, especially over star players at the money schools. Additionally, the NCAA recently threw in the towel on transfers, leading to a rush for the exits. It’s worth noting that about 500 men’s basketball players remain in the transfer portal, looking for a place to play this coming season.

Now, the NCAA’s only remaining lifeline is the multibillion contract it has with CBS and Turner to televise the men’s basketball tournament, which runs through 2032. That’s a long way off — sort of — but you can bet the maneuvering and negotiating will start long before that.

It is also not out of the question that the 65 power schools might try to negotiate a deal that would leave the rest of college basketball’s Division I schools out of the equation. (There are currently 354 Division I teams, with three more transitioning for a total of 357.)

Dumping the nonpower schools would be an aesthetic mistake, because the magic of the NCAA tournament is in the upsets pulled by the little guys. But if dumping the nonpower schools means more money for the TV schools, what do you think will happen?

The real beginning of the end for the NCAA came in 1984, when the Supreme Court ruled, 7-2, in favor of Oklahoma and Georgia in a decision that took control of all TV rights away from the NCAA and gave it to the schools and conferences.

It has been a long, slippery slide since then, with conference realignment as commonplace as sunrise in the east: Maryland and Rutgers in the Big Ten; Missouri and Texas A&M in the SEC; the SWC long gone; Boston College, Pittsburgh and Syracuse in the ACC; and DePaul, Marquette and Creighton in the Big East — among others.

Thank God for the Ivy League.

Now, though, we will enter a new round of musical chairs and of complete chaos. In the end, nothing will really change: The power schools will rule, presidents will continue to promote the notion that they care about “student-athletes,” and the bottom line — as always — will be the bottom line.

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