Should Congress Get Involved in Big-12 Implosion?

It seems as if the Big 12's days are numbered, and The Hill's Mike O'Brien reports that some lawmakers are worried about it. Notably, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback:

Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican who's running for governor of his home state of Kansas, said he'd spoken to Nebraska's governor and two senators -- as well as one of the university's regents -- about the move, which could leave his home state schools in limbo.

"People look at this as though it's a done deal, but that Nebraska board of regents has to vote on this, and that's a big thing," he said on KMBZ radio in Kansas. "So I really hope that in that elected body of the Nebraska board of regents that they say, 'Wait a minute. Let's take a little time here and think about this and let's see what we might want to change in the Big 12 before we bolt."

(Important to note: Kansas, where Brownback received his law degree, will be left out in the cold if the Big 12 implodes. It hasn't been invited to join another major conference.)

If you haven't been following, a major realignment of college-sports conferences may be imminent. The biggest sports schools in the Big 12 are pondering offers to leave for the Pac-10 and Big Ten, creating two mega-conferences that will alter the face of college football and basketball.

Colorado has already left the Big 12, accepting an invitation to join the Pac-10 today. Texas, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma--all big-time athletic programs that generate lots of revenue--could also join the Pac-10 in the next week. Missouri and Nebraska, mainstays of the old Big 8 (which did not include the Texas powerhouses), have been invited to join the Big Ten. If those schools all leave, lured by the TV contracts and revenue-sharing deals the other conferences can offer, the Big 12 as we know it may end.

Congress has the authority to get involved here, and it wouldn't be the first time lawmakers pushed an activist approach to college football. Joe Barton, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, passed a bill out of subcommittee last year to prevent the BCS championship from being billed as a national title game, without a playoff being played.

The House and Senate Energy and Commerce Committees have jurisdiction over both interstate commerce and antitrust issues. Major sports conferences, with revenue distribution and trade restrictions (e.g. agreed-upon rules for scheduling, TV deals, etc), involve both. They also involve public institutions and revenue for public education.

That said, the concern expressed by Brownback, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, and others rings of homerism--just as it did when Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt and the state's senior senator, Kit Bond, sought a Federal Trade Commission intervention to stop InBev from acquiring St. Louis-based Anhueser Busch, essentially to preserve the cultural tradition of the family-owned brewery.

It seems that if Colorado, Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Nebraska want to leave the Big 12, they should be able to do it without Congress's meddling hand. After all, the colonies left the British. And if the Pac-10 and Big Ten want to raid the Big 12, so be it.

But it raises an interesting question about the role of individual lawmakers. If home-state college-sports fans are uneasy about it, should their elected representatives try to find a way, a loophole even, to intervene, regardless of whether doing so is completely fair?

One can see Brownback's concern. If KU gets left out in the cold, without a major conference--and without the guaranteed big-time games and TV money that being in a major conference entails--one of his state's main educational institutes will go without all that revenue. Perhaps he, like any senator trying to bring home some pork, should try to stop it.