Congress poised to react to conference realignment in college sports

David Cassilo Contributor
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The Big Ten has 12 teams, the Big 12 has ten teams, and the Big East is looking to expand as far west as Idaho. NCAA conferences are in a state of a flux right now, and the movement has caught the attention of Congress.

In a letter released Wednesday, Michigan Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, requested “hearings regarding antitrust and due process issues relating to intercollegiate athletics, with a particular focus on the impact of recent realignments and legal disputes on smaller, minority conferences and athletes.”

“In recent months and years, conference realignment has had a dramatic impact on college sports, including the viability of smaller conferences and schools,” Conyers wrote. “If anything, the trend and economic impact of major conference realignment appears to be growing on a near daily basis.”

Other congressional committees are also taking notice. Sean Bonyun, deputy communications director for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, told The Daily Caller, “We are keeping a close eye to ensure ‘super conferences’ are not abusing market power to foster an anti competitive and unfair environment.”

Congress would have the authority to get significantly involved in the big-money game of college athletics if it wanted to, an expert on antitrust law told TheDC.

Athletic conference realignment agreements “would be covered by the antitrust laws,” said David Balto, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an attorney who specializes in the field. “Conceivably they could be illegal through restraints of trade.”

Since many universities are federally funded, Congress has the ability to get involved in both the BCS and conference realignment. Conferences would have little say otherwise.

“The SEC would never presume to tell Congress what it can and can’t do,” said Charles Bloom, associate commissioner for the Southeastern Conference, via email last week.

Balto added that if the government were to oversee any sort of mediation, the result could reveal consequences of realignment that extend beyond the shuffling of schools from one conference to another.

“By putting the spotlight on the conduct at issue here, I think people will see that there are potentially competitive problems, and hopefully, they’ll correct the conduct accordingly,” Balto said.

Involvement by Congress could potentially hit universities in the place that hurts most: their wallets.

“The more that this stuff is revolving around business and money and the more that the money drives everything, it’s going to get harder and harder to justify this non-profit status and this tax-exempt status,” said Rick Eckstein, a sociology at Villanova University who specializes in sports.

All revenue that universities receive from televised sports contracts is tax-exempt.

The Department of Justice wrote to the NCAA in May asking why college football doesn’t have a championship playoff system. A hearing in a subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce examined that question but led to no changes.

Some in college athletics now see a connection between the playoff issue and conference realignment.

“I think the BCS system doesn’t work, isn’t popular and has really created a lot of the conference realignment and the money grab that is going on,” Paul Kowalczyk, director of athletics at Colorado State University, told TheDC in a phone interview.

The collegiate sports landscape has changed significantly in the last 12 months. The Pac-12, Big Ten, Atlantic Coast Conference and SEC have all added schools from other conferences, while the Big 12, Big East and Mountain West Conference have scrambled to replace departing members.

The MWC has been affected perhaps more than any other conference. Of the nine schools in the league to start 2010, three have switched conferences and one (the U.S. Air Force Academy) is mulling a move to the Big East.

On Friday the MWC announced that it would merge its football programs with Conference USA.

“We can’t sit around and wait for the grounds to continue to shift,” said Kowalczyk, who’s school is a MWC member.

Kowalczyk also told TheDC he thinks Congress should keep an eye on college sports.

“The whole conference realignment situation is embarrassing and a mess, quite honestly,” he said. “It’s tearing at the fiber of what makes intercollegiate athletics and specifically college football so great. It makes it appear as though it’s all about the money and all about ego.”

The fear is that school like Colorado State would be left behind if “super conferences” emerge that could form their own governing body separate from the NCAA.

Eckstein told TheDC that more than 90 percent of the NCAA’s revenue comes from the men’s basketball tournament alone.

“If the basketball programs at these schools decide they want to have their own championships like a BCS kind of thing with a bunch of super conferences perhaps sending a certain number of people and keeping the money for themselves, they can do that — and that would be the end of the NCAA,” he said.

But any talk of forming “super conferences” is mostly speculation at this point.

Speaking for the SEC, Bloom said, “The conference and its institutions operate under NCAA rules and have not had any discussions pertaining to other governance structure.”

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