College football move rocks Texas legislature

In the midst of heated debates over voting rights, abortion access and critical race theory, a new partisan grenade will hit the Texas state legislature next week as it takes up an issue that at once unites and divides state politics: college football.

The home of “Friday Night Lights” and some of the most valuable college sports franchises in America is being riven by a new proposal from the University of Texas at Austin, which this week formally asked permission to join the NCAA’s Southeastern Conference beginning in 2025.

In a joint letter to the SEC’s commissioner, University of Texas and University of Oklahoma officials said the move would benefit both the schools and the conference, already the biggest moneymaker in college sports.

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At the same time, the proposed move represents a major financial threat to the schools Texas and Oklahoma would leave behind in the Big 12 Conference — including Baylor, Texas Christian University and Texas Tech.

The SEC brought in $729 million in revenue in 2020, more than any conference other than the Big Ten schools in the Upper Midwest. The Big 12 brought in $409 million that year, less than any of the other power conferences.

The move represents such a political earthquake in the nation’s most football crazy state that it has earned the attention of one of the most powerful men in Texas: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) said this week he would form a Select Committee on the Future of College Sports in Texas to study the impacts of UT’s departure on the rest of the state’s football culture.

“Collegiate athletics bring Texans together in celebration of our state’s rich athletic heritage and our Texas identity,” Patrick said in a statement. “It is vital that the Texas Senate understand the economic and athletic impact of the University of Texas leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference.”

Football is a touchy subject for Texas politicos. Three prominent strategists interviewed for this story — two University of Texas alumni and one graduate of a non-Texas college — declined to be identified discussing the potential consequences. 

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Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who has the authority to appoint prominent donors and supporters to the boards of regents at their respective alma maters and who thus has backers in every camp, has stayed conspicuously silent on the matter.

Those who were willing to be identified described a billion-dollar business, one in which stakeholders like the Texas colleges that would remain in the Big 12 suddenly find their profits at risk. 

“Football’s king in Texas, starting with Friday night football in every town and village in Texas. If you don’t have enough for an 11-man team, Texas will accommodate you with a 6-man team. It’s in our DNA,” said state Sen. John Whitmire (D), who will serve as a member of the select committee. “You get to the highest level and it becomes huge economics.”

The colleges that run the most successful football programs maintain substantial power in Austin. The Texas State University System employs six lobbyists to press their case to legislators; Rice reported employing nine lobbyists this year. Baylor and the University of Houston each have four paid advocates.

Within the legislature, the familiar contours of partisanship that divide Democrats and Republicans are layered with partisan lines that fall along alumni groups. Prominent politicians use their college affiliations as a touchstone in their biographies and profiles in a way that those in other states do not — former Gov. Rick PerryRick PerryRepublicans are the 21st-century Know-Nothing Party College football move rocks Texas legislature Trump tries to spin failed Texas endorsement: 'This was a win' MORE (R) was famously a yell leader at Texas A&M; Abbott has an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin, as does House Speaker Dade Phelan (R). 

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Former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, the last Democrat to win statewide office, held degrees from both Texas Tech and Baylor. He played a role in helping Baylor win a spot in the Big 12 Conference, at the expense of the University of Houston, Whitmire’s alma mater.

“Public universities in Texas have always had an outsized role in the minds of legislators and they play a huge part in what goes on in the capital,” said Glenn Smith, a former journalist who is now a progressive activist with Progress Texas. “Here in Texas, I can’t stress enough that the university life of elected officials in state government, at one level or another, they never leave it behind, it’s always a part of them.”

The University of Texas’s move also represents a challenge to Perry’s alma mater, Texas A&M, the only Texas school that is already a part of the SEC. That membership gives A&M a recruiting edge among Texas high school athletes who want to join the most-watched conference in college sports without venturing too far from home, Whitmire explained, an edge the school would lose if Austin suddenly became an option.

The university’s proposed departure was all the more surprising to legislators because it has apparently been in the works for months, without news leaking to the media or to legislators from any camp.

“The events of recent days have verified that the two schools [UT-Austin and Oklahoma] have been contemplating and planning for the transition for months and this formal application is the culmination of those processes,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in a statement Tuesday.

The Texas legislature hardly needed such a distraction: State senators are in the midst of a special session, called by Abbott, to handle some of the most controversial and conservative elements of his 2021 agenda, including an omnibus overhaul to state election laws, bans on teaching critical race theory in schools and transgender girls in women’s sports, and a measure meant to limit access to certain abortion-inducing medication. 

The state House has been ground to a halt after Democratic members of the legislature absconded to Washington, D.C., to deny majority Republicans a quorum and block the elections overhaul bill, high drama added to an already contentious political year.

But the Longhorns’ proposed move to compete with schools like the University of Florida, the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama has broken through to demand legislators’ attention. 

Whitmire said the legislature’s hearing is unlikely to reverse what he said appeared to be a “done deal.” But he said it would shed light on the decisionmaking process behind Texas’s departure, and on the key role college football plays in the Texas conscience.

“It shows the importance of football in Texas,” Whitmire said in an interview. “The biggest sport in Texas is probably still politics. You mix the two and you have a hearing and it’ll be pretty interesting.”