Baylor University

Waco Tribune-Herald: Bill Whitaker: Big 12 intrigue reflects poorly on learned institutions

Sept. 18, 2011

Published with permission from the Waco Tribune-Herald.

Senior editor

The dizzying intrigue surrounding the Big 12, its dwindling membership and its survival has yet to fully play out, yet one question will remain after all parties have either realigned to fit new athletic conference orbits or recommitted to the current league: Can anyone really believe what some university officials say about the notion of commitment anymore?

At the risk of sounding naive in a world where we no longer expect our political leaders to stand by their word, is anyone troubled by university leaders who also say one thing, yet do another -- and very often without even sounding out their constituency in the way that you might expect a university to do?

Texas A&M University is a disturbing case, considering honor has long been at the forefront of all that Aggies hold dear. Yet consider this statement only a year ago by A&M President R. Bowen Loftin after he and other university presidents in the Big 12 reaffirmed their commitment to the league as Nebraska and Colorado fled to other conferences:

"Texas A&M is a proud member of the Big 12 Conference and will continue to be affiliated with the conference in the future. As athletics director Bill Byrne and I have stated on numerous occasions, our hope and desire was for the Big 12 to continue. We are committed to the Big 12 and its success today and into the future."

So much for one's word being his bond. A&M officials were playing footsie with the Southeastern Conference even then. As must be obvious to all by now, discussions continued behind closed doors at this taxpayer-supported university, well away from its loyal alumni, students and faculty, about breaking that Big 12 commitment and flying to the SEC.

But it's not completely fair to blame A&M for all this. Obviously a number of university heads involved in the Big 12 have rallied around its banner while flirting with options that would put asunder agreements with fellow universities. How does this square with the once-sacred concept of universities being the last remaining realms where issues are aired and debated, where virtues include honesty and transparency, where collegiate honor is held out as an example to the next generation?

Some critics level the charge of hypocrisy at Baylor, considering that it barely looked back 15 years ago when it left behind fellow Southwest Conference members Texas Christian University, Southern Methodist University, Rice and the University of Houston and joined the Big 12 to run with the big dogs. The fact that Baylor benefited from significant political influence at the time -- back when it had political influence -- makes this charge all the more damning.

But who's naive here? When Baylor joined the Big 12, it may have left some traditional Texas rivals behind, but it also stayed alongside other traditional Texas rivals with whom it had played as long or longer in the Southwest Conference, notably Texas and Texas A&M.

Are we to really suppose TCU, SMU or Rice would not have pursued the same course given half the chance?

And as a Baylor official noted when reminded of Baylor's alleged transgressions, none of its leadership from that era is still in charge. How long is Baylor supposed to suffer for its decision to side with some traditional rivals over other traditional rivals? Should Baylor have waived this opportunity and given it to another school?

Just how smart would that have been?

Baylor's decision to keep its legal powder dry about all this has prompted moral outcry from A&M, but our laws still allow for redress when parties are waylaid after others renege on agreements that can cost wronged parties millions of dollars, as might be the case with Baylor. The Big 12 contract with Fox Sports, only signed this past spring, is worth more than $1 billion and is based on at least 10 schools being in the Big 12. The deal was set to take effect in fall 2012, run for 13 years and average some $90 million a year.

In the end, the Big 12 saga is about big money, TV contracts and the declining state of college athletics. But it's also about some leaders of our nation's most learned institutions failing to be true to their word.

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