Once again, after a year of relative peace, the landscape of college athletics faces the spectre of seismic upheaval. One institution's rumored conference shift has caused an earthquake that threatens to set off a tsunami of changes around much of the country. Over the weekend, the Directors of the Big 12 and the SEC met in emergency sessions; the Directors of the ACC followed suit on Monday morning. At stake are historic institutional relationships, storied rivalries and millions of dollars.
Such chaos and instability arise at a particularly inopportune time for college athletics. Challenging economic conditions and deepening concerns about the educational experience of our student-athletes are forcing colleges and universities to take a hard look at their athletics programs. Just last week, the NCAA convened a summit which included 50 university presidents. At its conclusion, the presidents were unanimous in their desire to make positive changes that enhance accountability and improve the academic quality of college athletics.
But one week after my colleagues took the first steps on the road to restoring sanity, we are faced once again with anarchy. Last summer, planes were jetting in and out of America's heartland carrying invitations to the nation's first super-conference. Now, suddenly, Texas A&M is looking to bolt the Big 12 (with the ink barely dry on a new television contract) over a dispute with the University of Texas concerning the soon-to-be launched Longhorn Network -even though the Conference has been making good progress in ironing out the dispute.
Universities across the country have signed solemn agreements with conferences. Those are contracts. The stability those contracts bring is good for the institutions and the extended communities that energetically support America's colleges and universities. Those agreements were entered into with due deliberation, careful consideration, and formal approval by governing authorities. Before those contracts are breached, whether by a public or a private university, there should be an open and transparent discussion. The very real economic costs of such moves should be carefully assessed. Any purported advantages flowing from breached agreements should be rigorously evaluated. Most importantly, the disruptive impact on our student-athletes should be thoroughly considered.
That is not what is happening. We are allowing networks and lucrative television deals - in combination with empire-building commissioners - to drive a process rendering college athletics an embarrassing Jurassic Park. It is bad public policy for commissioners to be raiding other conferences. Commissioner-orchestrated raids privilege Darwinian economic forces, rather than the studied opinions of those who think deeply about the role and economics of athletics in the overall college experience, to chart our course.
As university presidents we should put a stop to this madness. We should come together - and in the best spirit of American higher education - have a conversation. Beginning with faculty, alumni, and friends, the American people should insist that those presidential-level conversations take place with honor and in a spirit of full disclosure to fellow institutions and the entire constituent body.
University presidents come and go. So do Boards of Regents. But integrity, treasured traditions and commitments of honor - and to the public good - should last long after all of us have departed the scene. Too much has gone on for too long behind closed doors. It is time for transparency and accountability in the operation of America's collegiate athletic conferences.
Ken Starr, President
To see President Starr's op-ed as it appears in the USA Today, please click the story below: