Up to this point, the realignment and expansion of conferences has been looked at purely as a money grab. Everyone assumes that more members mean more money. There couldn’t possibly be another motive for all the chaos of the past few years, right?
But economic decisions are always made by human actors, each of whom bring their own values, ideas and agendas to the table. The biggest actors in realignment and expansion have been the conference commissioners and the university presidents. These people operate just outside public view, unlike coaches and athletic directors, and for the most part, they’ve been permitted to act with only a minimum of transparency and public scrutiny. And that should concern every college football fan.
Going back to the November 19 announcement that Maryland would leave the ACC for the Big Ten, there were a number of unanswered questions about the process. Although there had been talk of a Maryland-Big Ten alliance for at least the past two years, it came as a total surprise to the College Park community when the move quickly came together over a single weekend. This surprise extended to the board of regents that are nominally in charge of the university. Tom McMillen, a trustee who is also a former Maryland basketball player and congressman, took to the editorial pages of the Washington Post to offer the public a glimpse of just how rushed the process was:
The 16 members of the Board of Regents were notified Thursday of the proposal, and we participated in a telephone call Sunday in which the details were verbally presented to us. On Monday morning, we had to vote on the move.
When we asked why we couldn’t hear from other stakeholders, we were told that the nondisclosure agreement signed with the Big Ten prevented such a discussion. We were further told that, under the terms of that agreement, Maryland could lose the offer and the university president could be held personally liable if details were divulged.
Maryland couldn’t even discuss the proposal with the Atlantic Coast Conference, to which it had belonged for nearly 60 years and had helped found. The board members were each given a single piece of paper outlining the proposal, and it was taken away when Monday’s meeting ended. I get more documentation when I buy a cell phone.
Maryland President Wallace Loh dismissed the idea that he needed to consult with the larger university community, saying, “Leadership, especially on controversial issues, cannot be exercised in public limelight.” Washington Examiner columnist Thom Loverro described Loh’s stance as the “pledge of allegiance for dictators.” Loverro’s Examiner colleague, Rick Snider, added that Loh and athletic director Kevin Anderson were relative newcomers to Maryland. “This is what happens when outsiders are hired to run things,” Snider said. “They don’t care what locals want.”
In truth, however, the culprit here wasn’t Loh or Anderson, but Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany. It was Delany who dictated the confidentiality agreement to Maryland, preventing the regents from conducting state business in full public view, as the law required. Delany imposed confidentiality not for any legitimate business reason, but to prevent the regents and the general public from scrutinizing the dubious, highly speculative financial projections regarding the Big Ten’s future plans.
Remember, all but one Big Ten member is a government-run university. And one of those institutions, Penn State, has received severe NCAA sanctions for its own lack of transparency and institutional mismanagement. It’s hardly appropriate for Delany to anoint himself as an authority above the public and the law. To invoke another recent scandal, Bobby Petrino was fired by Arkansas for manipulating state hiring laws to get his mistress on the payroll. Is that worse than manipulating a state board of regents to approve a new conference affiliation without any meaningful scrutiny of the long-term ramifications?
The larger issue here is the increasing power of conference commissioners as a byproduct of realignment and expansion. Delany is clearly the biggest abuser of power. He’s looking to be the first commissioner to 16 schools before heading off into the sunset. He’ll inevitably leave his successor to clean up the mess when the bottom falls out from the cable market and a bloated Big Ten struggles to produce a quality championship game. (Oh, wait, the latter has already happened.)
While the NCAA spirals towards obsolescence, at least where major college football is concerned, it’s crucial the university presidents not allow the conference commissioners to fill the vacuum. One need only look at how petty dictatorships have fared in the professional leagues. Roger Goodell has dragged his financially thriving sport into endless litigation over the extent of his personal “disciplinary” powers. The NHL’s Gary Bettman has survived 20 years despite three lockouts and multiple disastrous expansions and franchise relocations. And the NBA’s David Stern is considered by some to be one the most controversial leaders in the history of American sports. The last thing any college league should do is seem to emulate these examples.
Which is why it’s essential that moving forward, expansion and realignment decisions take place in public view. Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott took a good first step in that direction when he publicly suggested recently that San Diego State and Boise State may be expansion targets. It’s time to put an end to the behind-the-scenes whispering that accompanies these moves. National security is not at stake when Louisville joins the ACC. There is simply no excuse for allowing conference commissioners—employees with no equity stake in their businesses—to unilaterally dictate terms to college presidents and their state-accountable boards.
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