Senators make helmet-to-helmet contact over NCAA conference realignment

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has called for a congressional investigation into political interference in the NCAA’s conference-realignment process, following reports that West Virginia University’s acceptance into the Big 12 Conference, which was a near-certainty on Tuesday morning, is being held up following competitive lobbying from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — on behalf of his alma mater, the University of Louisville.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that the Republican senator from Kentucky has been lobbying on behalf of Louisville, and that his influence caused Big 12 conference officials to reconsider accepting West Virginia.

Manchin, the former West Virginia governor, entered WVU on a football scholarship before leaving the team due to injury.

A move to the Big 12 would be a welcome change for either university. The victorious school would move from the Big East, an unstable conference from which several big-name teams have already departed, to a far more stable situation.

Amid a season of realignment, the Big 12 has managed to keep its member schools in place. College sports analysts consider it one of the country’s four elite conferences, with more competitive football — which translates into higher television revenues for member schools as part of the Big 12’s approximately $130 million a year deal with Fox.

The Big 12 is choosing a team to replace the University of Missouri, which is expected to leave to join the Southeastern Conference.

The Big East Conference, meanwhile, is reportedly wooing Boise State University and the U.S. Air Force Academy to fill an anticipated vacancy.

“If the story that we have been told has any merit to it — I’ve been very clear — if a U.S. senator would have intervened after the process took place, that’s wrong and unacceptable,” Manchin said at a press conference Wednesday, The Charleston Gazette reported.

“If that happened, I will ask for a Senate investigation. I don’t believe that that’s the way this game should be played,” he added.

West Virginia senior Sen. Jay Rockefeller echoed Manchin’s disapproval.

“The Big 12 picked WVU on the strength of its program — period. Now the media reports that political games may upend that. That’s just flat wrong. I am doing and will do whatever it takes to get us back to the merits,” Rockefeller said in a statement.

Thursday on MSNBC, Manchin was careful to say he was not pointing fingers at McConnell.

“I am just still assuming that these stories maybe aren’t factual, Mitch didn’t put any political pressure on, and West Virginia will be chosen based on its merits,” he said.

“Mitch lost fair and square. If he jumped in and played a different card and this happened — I don’t assume that happened,” Manchin said. “I am very hopeful that the Big 12 is still doing their due diligence and they’re just doing the final paperwork to finalize the deal that they made. If that doesn’t happen, then that’s when I said I would ask for a Senate investigation to find out what degree of politics was played.”

The Big 12 officially extended WVU an invitation to join, he said, before it was suddenly put on hold.

“I can only tell you officially West Virginia was invited to be part of the Big 12 … After they made their selection, they contacted WVU on Monday and again on Tuesday morning to confirm they were in. WVU accepted. They even spoke specifically about finances. A press release was issued from the Big 12 to WVU officials that they would be using on Wednesday. Rooms were booked, flights were booked.”

“Then all of a sudden,” he concluded, the Big 12 backed off “Tuesday afternoon.”

Sen. McConnell’s office declined to comment for this story.

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