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What is going on with the Houston Dash?

Nothing good.

The Dash have suspended coach and general manager James Clarkson, who is being investigated by the NWSL and its players association.

The suspension came “in light of initial findings received this week,” the Dash said.

The team opens its regular season Sunday and will name an interim coach during the investigation.

“As an organization, our highest priority is creating and maintaining a safe and respectful work environment for our players and staff, which we believe is critical to our success on the pitch,” the team said in its statement. “The Club has made counseling services available to all members of the organization interested.”

The investigation is part of a recent initiative by the women’s soccer league to review current and historic complaints of discrimination, harassment and abuse.

Last year, several NWSL managers were fired for verbal abuse, including former OL Reign manager Farid Benstiti and former Washington Spirit manager Richie Burke. Former North Carolina Courage manager Paul Riley was fired for allegedly engaging in the sexual coercion of players during his time as manager of the Portland Thorns.

When it was revealed that the various NWSL stakeholders were aware of the circumstances under which Riley was fired by the Thorns in 2015, NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned.

The league and the union agreed that league personnel would voluntarily take part in the union’s investigation of sexual misconduct, and that there be total transparency by the league in terms of other ongoing investigations.

Clarkson has been head coach since 2018, and with the team since it was founded, along with the NWSL, in 2014. The new NWSL Commissioner says this is a good sign that the new process is working.

New National Women’s Soccer League Commissioner Jessica Berman said Wednesday that while it’s disappointing another league coach has been accused of misconduct, programs that were implemented in the wake of last season’s league scandals have helped make sure players’ concerns are addressed.

[…]

“This is the manifestation of the process that the league and the players’ association put in place which provided a pathway for individuals to bring forward issues and for those issues to be investigated and managed appropriately,” Berman said. “And so while we never like to have situations like this happen, the fact that the process worked the way it was intended to, and that all of the appropriate parties worked together on the interim solution and the next steps was really important and constructive overall for the progress that the league is making on this issue.”

Berman, who began her job April 20, said she could not address the specifics of the investigation because it is ongoing.

Clarkson is the longest-tenured coach in the NWSL. He was the only head coach still with his team who was coach at the start of last NWSL season. All the others have either voluntarily left the league for new opportunities, gone to other teams within the league, resigned or were dismissed because of alleged misconduct.

I guess you could call it a good sign, but it sure is a bad look overall. Though to be fair, it’s not just the NWSL.

The University of Florida announced it fired women’s soccer coach Tony Amato after just one season with the program. The move comes after players complained about how Amato treated them and a large number chose to transfer from the program.

“We have worked diligently with Tony since last fall when I first became aware of challenges with relationship building and communication,” athletic director Scott Stricklin said in a statement. “As the issues continued to be brought to my attention, it became apparent that sufficient progress was not being made and Tony was not a fit for the University of Florida.”

Florida hired Amato away from Arizona last year, after the coach spent eight years with the Wildcats. In total, Amato has been a head coach in each of the last 19 seasons for four different schools.

The Gators went 4-12-4 in their first year under Amato. However, according to Payton Titus of WUFT, players had complained that Amato “pressured them about eating habits and their bodies” last year. Amato was reportedly strict over what the players ate, to the point that some players said they had developed eating disorders as a result.

There’s a range of behaviors here, and we don’t know what James Clarkson is alleged to have done. There may not be anything in common between his actions and those of Tony Amato, but I think we can agree that Amato’s behavior falls into the bucket of things that can be called abusive, and that’s the larger issue with the NWSL. As I said, it’s a bad look, wherever it’s happening. I hope that league really has taken a substantive step towards fixing it.

No collegiate gymnastics in Texas

I did not know this.

Ragan Smith did not lack options when it came to choosing a college, as tends to happen when you’re an elite gymnast with a national title on your resume.

One option was unavailable to Smith. It doesn’t exist.

Texas, the site of this week’s NCAA women’s gymnastics championships, the state that’s produced Olympic champions Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin and Simone Biles, the state that has over 20 colleges and universities currently classified as Division I, the state that features some of the most prominent gymnastics programs in the country if not the world, has exactly six women’s gymnastics scholarships available, all of them at Division II Texas Woman’s University.

That meant that Smith, who moved from Georgia to the Dallas suburbs as a 13-year-old to train at the gym owned by former world champion and Olympic bronze medalist Kim Zmeskal, had to leave Texas to compete at the Division I level.

“All these great clubs are in Texas, and you would think (the big schools) would have a program,” Smith said. “But they really don’t.”

Things worked out just fine for Smith, now a junior at Oklahoma. She and the Sooners will aim for their fourth national title in eight years on Saturday when they take on Florida, Auburn and Utah at Dickie’s Arena, the opulent facility located less than three miles from the TCU campus.

The Horned Frogs offer 13 varsity women’s sports, including equestrian, rifle and triathlon. Just not gymnastics.

It’s the same at Texas (which offers rowing, among others), Baylor (which has acrobatics and tumbling, a cousin of artistic gymnastics), Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Houston and Rice and all the rest. Contacted this week by The Associated Press, representatives at Texas and Texas A&M both indicated there are no plans to offer women’s gymnastics as a varsity sport.

[…]

There are 12 full scholarships available at Division I women’s gymnastics programs, with a move being made to potentially expand the number to 14. Throw in training, travel, coaching salaries and everything else, and it’s not cheap to launch a competitive team. Add in the ripple effects of Title IX — which requires “ athletic interests and abilities of male and female students must be equally and effectively accommodated ” — and the math can be tricky.

Still, there is hope in some places that women’s gymnastics can be “revenue neutral.” It’s a model LSU coach Jay Clark hopes his program can reach by the end of the decade, though the Tigers may be the exception. LSU is typically among the national leaders in average attendance and drew an average of 11,691 fans to their five home meets this season, tops in the country.

While adding scholarships could be a hurdle for potential programs to navigate, Clark sees it as a supply and demand issue.

“We haven’t had an increase since 1995 and the pool of talent has grown four-fold,” he said.

He’s not joking. Within the last decade the number of active Level 10 gymnasts — which comprises the vast majority of college athletes — has nearly doubled from 1,600 to nearly 3,100.

As you can see, OU’s gymnastics team went on to win that national championship, so indeed all worked out well for Ragan Smith. I confess, I had just assumed that schools like UT and A&M would have had women’s gymnastics programs, because why wouldn’t they? Sure, a gymnastics program might cost a few bucks, but have you seen what schools like these pay their football and (mostly men’s but increasingly now women’s) basketball coaches? If there’s one thing I expect these big schools at the Power Five conferences to be able to do, it’s extract enough money from TV networks, advertisers, and fat-cat boosters to cover whatever expenses they have and then some. Obviously, there hasn’t been the demand for that largesse to include these programs as yet. Given how popular gymnastics is overall, and how many alumni must have had daughters that competed in gymnastics as kids, I’m a little amazed by that.

Big XII may get temporarily bigger

The dominoes fall when they fall.

Next week, the Big 12 plans to discuss the future of the conference regarding its expansion, per Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger.

Houston, Cincinnati and UCF are expected to join the Big 12 in the 2023–24 academic year, potentially joining the conference before Texas and Oklahoma join the SEC by the ’25 academic year.

Per The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach, the American Athletic Conference still has to sign off on the three schools exit. The process so far has been amicable.

“No agreement has been reached to permit the three (UCF, Houston, Cincinnati) to leave early,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told Auerbach. “Our negotiations are continuing.”

Though their joining was already expected, the negotiations are expected to be finalized in the next week, according to Dellenger. BYU will also be joining the Big 12 in all sports, not just football.

There is a possibility that there will be 14 teams in the Big 12 during the 2023 and ’24 seasons. Conference officials will be meeting next week to discuss how a larger team pool could work, examining all possibilities including divisions and whether there should be eight or nine league games.

See here and here for some background. An early exit from the AAC by UH, UCF, and Cincinnati might hasten the arrival of its new members as well. Thing might be slightly less complicated if UT and OU are able to officially join the SEC in time for the 2023 season – which I have always thought would happen – but that’s a different domino. I feel like now that this one is in motion, the rest may follow, but we’ll see.

Houston Comets 2.0?

I’d be happy to see the WNBA come back to Houston.

From 1997 to 2000, legendary players Cynthia Cooper, Tina Thompson, and Sheryl Swoops led the Houston Comets to the first four national WNBA titles. The team was a dynasty: To this day, it’s the only franchise to win four consecutive championships.

But when the league tips off on May 6 this year, it will mark more than a decade since Houstonians have rooted for a hometown team.

The Comets dissolved in 2008 due to financial problems. Since then, many fans have wondered when conditions might be right for the WNBA to expand again, and what it would take to bring a team back to the Bayou City.

As the league reaches an all-time high in popularity, fans and experts say now is the time.

“If you love women’s basketball, and you love the history of women’s basketball, like I do, like so many others do,” said Howard Megdal, founder and editor at The Next: A Women’s Basketball Newsroom, “it almost feels like a crime that there isn’t a WNBA team in Houston.”

The Comets folded during a decade of WNBA contraction – the league went from 16 teams in 2000 down to the current 12.

But it’s a much different story today: The league, affectionately known as the W among fans, saw decade-high viewership last season, and reported record social media engagement and merchandise sales. Ahead of the 26th season in May, the W raised the most capital in its history at $75 million dollars.

“The idea that there would be a significant expansion in the WNBA within two to four years,” said Megdal, “that seems like a perfectly reasonable time frame, as far as I can tell.”

The league has not publicly committed to expansion, but Megdal said its sounded more open to the idea since the capital raise. He’s watching to see what cities emerge as viable markets at a time when investment in women’s sports is going up exponentially.

But if the city does hope to see a WNBA team, Megdal said it needs stable ownership willing to make an investment – including a place to play.

That latter point is critical. Last season during the playoffs, the Phoenix Mercury were not able to play on the team’s home court due to a scheduling conflict with its shared arena, a move widely criticized among fans. The only W team currently in Texas shares its stadium: the Dallas Wings play on the University of Texas at Arlington campus.

In Houston, fans say they want a place to house the legacy of the Comets, plus a hometown team to root for.

We were season ticket holders for the Comets for eight years, starting in the venue formerly known as The Summit, then to Toyota Center, and then the last year at the godawful Reliant Arena, which was easily the worst place I’ve ever had to watch sporting events in. By that time, the Rockets had sold their interest in the Comets to a local furniture store owner (no, not Mattress Mack), and it was clear the team had little cash flow. I doubt that would be an issue now, and I’d expect a new WNBA franchise would be able to play at Toyota Center. The Comets always had a passionate fan base at its core, though the total audience shrank over time as the team got farther away from its glory days. I think a new team would start out with no trouble drawing fans, and from there it would be up to them. I’d be happy to see the league come back to Houston. I don’t know when it might happen, or even if, but I do hope it’s out there.

Texans added to Brian Flores’ discrimination suit against the NFL

Of note.

Former Dolphins coach Brian Flores amended his class action racial discrimination lawsuit Thursday to include allegations that the Texans retaliated against him by removing him from consideration for their head coach vacancy because he sued the NFL and spoke publicly about systemic discrimination in the league.

The lawsuit claims Houston’s “blatant” retaliation “is clear” because the franchise backed away from potentially hiring former quarterback Josh McCown, a white candidate with no NFL coaching experience, after Flores initially sued the league Feb. 1 and instead hired a Black candidate by promoting defensive coordinator Lovie Smith.

The swift pivot by decision-makers, the lawsuit said, made clear the Texans were concerned that hiring McCown would support the allegations of racial discrimination, “particularly given” the franchise had just fired David Culley, who is Black, after one season as head coach. The lawsuit also suggests the Texans made “this retaliatory decision” on its own or that the NFL “pressured” them not to hire Flores after he filed the lawsuit. The league declined to comment on that claim through spokesman Brian McCarthy.

[…]

The Texans hired Smith on Feb. 7, and he later said he didn’t know when he officially became a finalist. Caserio did not specify when Smith became a possibility, saying there was “no direct line” in his head coaching search and noting that Smith was under contract and visited with the McNair family after the season was over.

Flores’ attorneys said in statement that day that while Flores was “happy to hear” the Texans hired a Black candidate in Smith, “it is obvious that the only reason Mr. Flores was not selected was his decision to stand up against racial inequality across the NFL.”

The amended lawsuit repeated that Smith’s hiring “is a positive thing,” but added “it is equally problematic that the reason that the Texans did not hire Mr. Flores in the first place was because he filed this lawsuit and opposed systemic racism in the NFL.”

Caserio said during Smith’s introductory news conference that Flores’ lawsuit “didn’t affect us at all” and dismissed the notion the Texans were planning to hire McCown by saying “there were never plans to hire anybody until we kind of arrived at an endpoint.”

I didn’t blog about this as it was happening, and I skipped over a lot of the timeline details in the story, so read the whole thing if this is not familiar to you. As someone who followed this story, it was always bizarre that the Texans were fixated on Josh McCown, who had not done any coaching at any level. Flores had seemed like a good fit for the team, and then he filed his lawsuit and the next thing you knew the Texans’s short list was Lovie Smith. I will generally attribute incompetence and organizational chaos to the Texans ahead of malice in most things, but this is just so weird that it makes sense for Flores to add the Texans to his complaint. If nothing else, the possibility that the NFL might have intervened, to “persuade” the Texans not to hire a totally inexperienced white guy after firing one of the two Black head coaches in the league so as not to make the NFL look even worse at a critical time, is too great to overlook. We’ll see what comes of it.

“Due diligence”

I’m just gonna leave this right here.

The Browns said they did due diligence before agreeing to give Deshaun Watson a $230 million contract and complete a trade with the Texans.

Watson is facing 22 civil suits for sexual harassment or assault but a Harris County grand jury recently declined to indict the quarterback on nine cases. The NFL said its investigation is ongoing.

“We spent a tremendous amount of time exploring and investigating the opportunity to trade for Deshaun Watson,“ Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam said in a team news release on Sunday. “We are acutely aware and empathetic to the highly personal sentiments expressed about this decision. Our team’s comprehensive evaluation process was of utmost importance due to the sensitive nature of his situation and the complex factors involved.

“We also understand there are still some legal proceedings that are ongoing and we will respect due process.”

Last week, the Haslams flew to Houston with general manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski and met with Watson.

“He was humble, sincere and candid,” the Haslams said. “In our conversations, Deshaun detailed his commitment to leading our team; he understands and embraces the hard work needed to build his name both in the community and on the field. … We are confident in Deshaun and excited about moving forward with him as our quarterback and supporting his genuine and determined efforts.”

The civil litigation involving Watson remains ongoing. Rusty Hardin, Watson’s attorney, said Tuesday “there’s no discussion” about settling any of the cases. Tony Buzbee, who represents the women who filed lawsuits, has been deposing Watson in four-to-six hour blocks and said it could be well beyond April before the cases are potentially brought before a jury in civil court.

The Browns have not reached out to Buzbee or his clients, the attorney said Friday.

Emphasis mine. Yeah, I don’t think that’s how “due diligence” works. But thanks for taking full responsibility for whatever happens next. The Hang Up and Listen podcast (segment three, fast forward to about the 48 minute mark if you don’t want to listen to the whole thing), which notes that no other team did any more “due diligence” than Cleveland did, has more.

Deshaun Watson traded to Cleveland

He’s someone else’s problem now.

The Texans have traded Deshaun Watson to the Browns. The quarterback waived his no-trade clause for Cleveland after initially eliminating the franchise, a person with knowledge of the negotiation said, but Watson reversed his decision Friday after the Browns offered a five-year contract worth $230 million.

The new contract, which is fully guaranteed, preceded the terms of the trade. The Texans will receive Cleveland’s first-round picks in 2022, 2023 and 2024, the Browns’ 2023 third-round pick and 2024 fourth-round pick.

Once finalized, the trade will end one of the longest and messiest divorces in Houston sports history. The 14 month-long saga began with the former franchise quarterback’s trade demand and ended after a Harris County grand jury declined to indict Watson following a criminal investigation that was triggered by 22 women who filed civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault and harassment during various massage therapy sessions.

The blockbuster trade did not yield the second-round picks that were part of the returns second-year general manager Nick Caserio solidly requested for almost a year, but it remains enough capital to reinforce the new regime’s efforts to sculpt the franchise in their own image.

The rebuilding franchise also cleared Watson’s previous four-year, $156 million contract extension off the books, which immediately boosts Houston’s roster budget as the free agency period begins. Caserio has made frugal signings so far by re-signing 15 players and acquiring nine other veteran players, but the executive now has the financial freedom to become more aggressive.

Meanwhile, the civil litigation involving Watson remains ongoing. Rusty Hardin, Watson’s attorney, said Tuesday “there’s no discussion” about settling any of the cases. Tony Buzbee, who represents the women who filed lawsuits, has been deposing Watson in four-to-six hour blocks and said it could be well beyond April before the cases are potentially brought before a jury in civil court.

The NFL has yet to render a decision from its own investigation into Watson. The league could potentially suspend for an unknown number of future games, although it’s possible a punishment won’t be handed down until the civil litigation ends.

Not really much to say here. Once there were no charges filed against Watson, everything fell into place for him to be traded, as teams were willing to live with whatever civil action (and likely league suspension) would happen, just not criminal penalties. Watson himself basically dictated the terms thanks to his no trade clause. And now he’s gone, and whatever one might have once felt about him and his abilities on the field, that’s gone as well. I’ll keep an eye on those civil cases because they do matter even if they no longer truly affect his football career, but I’m happy to not think about Deshaun Watson otherwise. Good riddance. Rivers McCown and Sean Pendergast have more.

The COVID College Football Playoffs

Wow.

If a team is unavailable to play in College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year’s Eve because of COVID-19 issues, the game will be forfeited and the available team will advance to the championship.

With COVID-19 cases spiking across the country due to the omicron variant, the CFP announced Wednesday contingency plans for the semifinals and national championship game, which is scheduled for Jan. 10 in Indianapolis but could be delayed as much as four days.

No. 1 Alabama is scheduled to face No. 4 Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl in one Dec. 31 semifinal and No. 2 Michigan is set to play No. 3 Georgia in the Orange Bowl in the nightcap of the CFP doubleheader.

[…]

As college basketball faced a wave of cancellations and postponements due to the omicron surge over the last week, it seemed only a matter of time before it impacted bowl season.

“As we prepare for the Playoff, it’s wise and necessary to put into place additional precautions to protect those who will play and coach the games,” College Football Playoff Executive Director Bill Hancock said in a statement. “These policies will better protect our students and staffs while providing clarity in the event worst-case scenarios result.”

The contingency plans were agreed to by the CFP management committee, comprised of the 10 FBS conference commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletic director.

The CFP said each school will be responsible for determining whether it has a sufficient number of available players.

While there will be no rescheduling of either semifinal, the championship game could be delayed until as late as Jan. 14.

If a team cannot play in the title game, the available team will be declared national champion. If neither team has enough available players by Jan. 14, the championship will be considered vacated.

For the semifinals, if both teams scheduled to play each other are unavailable, that game shall be declared a no contest and the winner of the the other semifinal will be declared national champion.

If three semifinal teams are unavailable to play on Dec. 31, the team that is able to play will be declared national champion.

On the one hand, that’s the sober and safe and responsible thing to do. Much better to cancel the game than to put the athletes at risk, which includes a greater risk of injury if their team is especially short-handed. On the other hand, it’s completely bonkers, and I have a hard time imagining that the people with zillions of dollars at stake – the TV networks, the NCAA itself, the schools and conferences involved – will just let any of these games be canceled, whatever the consequences for playing them may be. As the story notes, the teams are working to get their players boosted, and are trying to keep them sufficiently isolated from outside contact, but all it takes is one guy getting sick to put it all at risk. ESPN and CBS Sports have more.

And just a reminder that this is a thing that could happen.

Texas A&M became the first college football team to be sidelined by COVID-19 and the recent omicron surge.

The Aggies will not play in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Eve because of an outbreak that left the team without enough players, the school announced on Wednesday.

Texas A&M’s decision to withdraw from the game against Wake Forest comes amid a coronavirus surge across the nation and is the first impact on the college bowl season.

“It is unfortunate, but we just don’t have enough scholarship players available to field a team,” A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said.

I applaud Texas A&M for making the right choice, which I’m sure was not easy for them to make. But let’s not kid ourselves, the stakes are lower here than they would be in the CFP. Remember the “oh, shit” moment we all had when the NBA paused its season following Rudy Gobert’s positive test, and the NCAA tournament was canceled, and MLB spring training got postponed? That’s what we’re on the edge of here. Hope for the best, for everyone involved.

COVID puts NHL on pause

A bit of an ominous throwback.

The NHL is beginning a leaguewide shutdown Wednesday amid a rise in positive COVID-19 test results among players, and with 10 of the league’s 32 teams’ schedules already paused and their facilities closed.

The league announced Monday night that it will open its annual holiday break two days earlier than scheduled and have it run through Saturday. The decision, reached in coordination with the NHL Players’ Association, means five additional games scheduled for Thursday will be postponed, bringing the total this season to 49.

Two games slated for Tuesday are still set to go on as scheduled. Teams will then report back for COVID-19 testing and practice on Sunday, a day before games are set to resume. Players and members of each team’s traveling party will be required to test negative before being allowed back in their respective facilities.

The decision to begin the break early comes a day after the NHL and NHLPA issued a joint statement announcing they were attempting to avoid a leaguewide shutdown by making decisions on a team-by-team basis. The holiday break was previously supposed to run from Friday to Sunday.

Of the 49 games postponed, 44 have occurred over the past two weeks with the delta and omicron variants spreading across North America.

The story notes that about 15% of players are in virus protocol, which is a lot! Of course, when one player gets exposed, it’s easy for many others to be exposed as well. It’s big enough that NHL players will withdraw from the Olympics, which is a smart move for the league and bad news for anyone looking forward to Olympic hockey.

Meanwhile, the NBA is hoping to avoid a similar fate.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Tuesday that there are “no plans” to pause the season, even as numbers of players entering the league’s health and safety protocols related to the coronavirus continues to rise.

Silver, in an interview with ESPN, said the league has examined multiple options but does not yet see a reason to stop play. Through early Tuesday evening, at least 84 players from 20 teams — not including some coaches and staffers — were believed to be in the protocols, though those numbers tend to change almost on an hourly basis. The count is largely based on what teams have disclosed on their most recent injury report.

“Frankly, we’re having trouble coming up with what the logic would be behind pausing right now,” Silver said. “As we look through these cases literally ripping through the country right now, putting aside the rest of the world, I think we’re finding ourselves where we sort of knew we were going to get to for the past several months — and that is that this virus will not be eradicated and we’re going to have to learn to live with it. That’s what we’re experiencing in the league right now.”

[…]

The NBA has postponed seven games so far this season, but none from Wednesday onward yet. Some of the teams scheduled to play on Saturday have numerous players and coaches in the league’s health and safety protocols right now; the Nets currently have 10 players on that list, which is the highest known figure for any team.

The league is allowing teams to sign replacements to hardship contracts when a player tests positive for the virus, with hopes such moves can minimize the need for postponements.

They have been shifting some game times around and may do more of that on Saturday – if your Christmas tradition involves a daylong basketball binge, you might want to check nba.com for the latest updates before tuning in.

Even with the games going on, there’s a real effect on the teams, as new players are being shuffled in to replace those who are sidelined. The NFL had two Tuesday night games yesterday, both COVID postponements, but with the Washington team starting a quarterback who had been signed off of the Patriots’ practice squad three days before. At a macro level, they’re making it work, but on a team-by-team and game-by-game basis, there’s more than a little ridiculousness to it all.

Not yet on the menu, as the Hang Up And Listen podcast discussed: Playing before empty stadia again. All these leagues have very highly vaccinated teams and team staffs, but for sure the same is not true for the fans. I seriously doubt there’s much appetite for this step, especially after the revenue losses from last season, but big crowds are exactly what we don’t need right now. Unless local governments do something, that’s what we’re going to get. Make better decisions, y’all. ESPN has more.

UPDATE: I should have also mentioned that European soccer leagues, especially the English Premier League, are also dealing with major COVID issues right now.

Settlement in Larry Nassar abuse case

Good.

The legal wrangling between USA Gymnastics and the hundreds of victims of sexual abuse by former national team doctor Larry Nassar, among others, is over after a $380 million settlement was reached.

The fight for substantive change within the sport’s national governing body is just beginning.

A federal bankruptcy court in Indianapolis on Monday approved the agreement between USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the more than 500 victims, ending one aspect of the fallout of the largest sexual abuse scandal in the history of the U.S. Olympic movement.

Over 90% of the victims voted in favor of the tentative settlement reached in September. That agreement called for $425 million in damages, but a modified settlement of $380 million was conditionally approved by the court. More than 300 victims were abused by Nassar, with the remaining victims abused by individuals affiliated with USA Gymnastics in some capacity.

The financial reckoning is just one part of the equation. A series of nonmonetary provisions will make the victims stakeholders at USA Gymnastics going forward. The provisions include a dedicated seat on the organization’s Safe Sport Committee, Athlete Health and Wellness Council and board of directors, as well as a thorough look at the culture and practices within USA Gymnastics that allowed abusers like Nassar to run unchecked for years.

[…]

Rachael Denhollander, who in the fall of 2016 was the first woman to come forward to detail sexual abuse at the hands of Nassar, said the provisions were a pivotal part of the mediation process.

“It’s not about money, it’s about change,” Denhollander told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “It’s about an accurate assessment of what went wrong so that it is safer for the next generation.”

Denhollander has been one of the most outspoken Nassar victims from the outset of the scandal. She said it was important to move past the legal proceedings so women can move forward with their lives and get the help they need.

“The frank reality is the longer this goes on, the more difficult it is for survivors,” she said. “So many of these women, they can’t access medical care without a settlement. We had to balance that reality with the length of time it was taking. We felt it was in the best interest of everyone to accept this settlement … so that survivors would receive some semblance of justice.”

Denhollander pointed out some of the medical care required is not covered by certain types of insurance. The settlement will ease part of the financial burden.

The settlement comes nearly four years after an emotional sentencing hearing in Michigan in which hundreds of women detailed their experiences with Nassar and the toll it took on their lives.

This story has Texas connections, in part because Simone Biles is one of the plaintiffs, and in part because a lot of that abuse took place at the Karolyi Ranch. I’m glad these women will be getting the money, and I hope it helps them with whatever treatment and healing they need. I also hope those changes to the structure of USA Gymnastics brings about real change in that organization, and real accountability for it going forward. What happened here was horrible enough. Anything less than a full effort to make sure it never happens again is not enough.

Quinn Ewers

This story caught my eye.

They got played by an 18-year-old.

Depending on your sports acumen, hearing the name Quinn Ewers either makes your ears perk up or leads you to ask, “Who?”

The former Ohio State quarterback’s name is back in the news – again – after announcing that he’s leaving the school to enter the transfer portal. Just a few months ago, Ewers made national news when he skipped his senior year of high school to enroll early at Ohio State so that he could capitalize on NIL money. It’s been reported that he’s made over $1 million.

“If I enroll at Ohio State, obviously I’d be able to make money off the deals, and I feel like it’d be a big advantage of learning the playbook and getting comfortable with the campus and all my teammates,” he told Yahoo Sports in July. “But if I stay and don’t get paid, I may be able to win a state title.”

Because Texas, where Ewers is from, is a terrible place run by a litany of unintelligent Republicans, the state’s University Interscholastic League has a rule that won’t let high school athletes like him profit off NIL – even though he was the state’s biggest recruit, wanted to stay home and play, and was the No. 1-ranked player in his class.

So, since the system wanted Ewers to leave over $1 million on the table, Ewers finessed them by graduating early and enrolling at Ohio State in a glorified redshirt season that put a lot of money in his pocket, while also getting him acclimated with being a college athlete. And after only taking two snaps all season, Ewers is back on the market, and it’s expected he will wind up on a roster in Texas next season a whole lot richer than when he was when he left.

The Texas connection and the mention of a rule about NIL for high school athletes intrigued me, so into the Google rabbit hole I went. First, I found several stories about Ewers’ pending transfer, which may be to UT, A&M, Texas Tech, or who knows where else, but none filled in the blanks for me about that “rule”. I searched more specifically about the Lege and “name image likeness”, and found this Trib story.

College athletes in Texas will soon be able to receive compensation from outside businesses that want to use their name, image or likeness under a new law Gov. Greg Abbott signed Monday evening.

State Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said he sponsored the bill to keep Texas collegiate athletic programs competitive as other states have passed similar legislation. At least 15 states have passed bills lifting the ban on allowing student athletes to be paid by outside parties since California was the first state to approve the change in 2019.

NCAA rules ban athletes from receiving any kind of compensation other than scholarships for playing college sports. This law would not change that ban on direct payment by a college or university, but would allow college athletes to receive payment elsewhere.

The bill overwhelmingly passed the Texas House and Senate, though some lawmakers expressed concern it would negatively affect college sports, which multiple lawmakers said should “be played for the love of the game.” Supporters said college athletes deserve to benefit from the industry in which they play a major role.

“The biggest winner in this needs to be all of the student athletes,” said state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, on the Senate floor in April. “We gain entertainment. Universities gain revenue, and they need to share in that because of their hard work.”

The NCAA Board of Governors voted to allow players to be paid for their name or likeness in October 2019, but the Division I Council postponed a vote on specific rules in January as it continued discussions with the federal government over rules.

I did not blog about that at the time, though I did note the California law and its potential effect on Texas back in 2019. The bill in question is SB1385, but it’s about allowing college athletes to get paid, not preventing high school athletes from doing the same. Still, it’s the most likely vehicle for such a restriction, and in reading the text of the bill, we see the following:

No individual, corporate entity, or other organization may:
(1) enter into any arrangement with a prospective student athlete relating to the prospective student athlete’s name, image, or likeness prior to their enrollment in an institution of higher education

That right there appears to be the prohibition on high school athletes making the same kind of arrangement for themselves, and indeed a visit to the UIL webpage confirms that:

It is the opinion of UIL staff that a transaction in which a student-athlete is engaged “to promot[e] a product, plan or service related to a UIL sport or contest” using the student-athlete’s NIL in exchange for compensation received by or on behalf of the student-athlete would be in violation of Section 51.9246 of the Education Code and Section 441 of the UIL Constitution and Contest Rules.

It is the opinion of UIL staff that the student-athlete would be in violation of this section if an agreement was executed prior to the student being enrolled in an institution of higher education, even if the student, or a third-party receiving compensation on behalf of the student, does not receive compensation “until all athletic competitions are completed in the 12th grade.” Section 441(a)(2) prohibits the receipt of “valuable consideration,” which covers any inducement, including a promise of future compensation.

They are referencing the section of the Education Code that was revised in SB1385, so that’s that. I strongly suspect that the supporters of this law did not envision the Quinn Ewers scenario, but now that it’s happened I wonder if there will be a push to amend the law to close that loophole. The Texas college that gets him on their team will be happy for this (though one could argue they’d have gotten him a year sooner if the law hadn’t been in place in this form), but his high school can’t be too happy about it. I’ll be interested to see which of those 800-pound gorillas can prevail if they disagree about the unintended side effects of this law.

Anyway. Nothing earth-shattering here – as the Deadspin story notes, Ewers comes from a well-to-do family, so this was more about the principle that he should have been able to pursue this money than the need for the money – but it’s fascinating and not something that had been on my radar. And now you know, too.

USFL 2.0

It’s all 1985 up in here.

Houston will be home to another spring football league.

A Fox Sports-backed reboot of the United States Football League, which originally existed from 1983-86, was announced Monday with play starting in April 2022. The eight teams will play in one host city to be determined.

The eight-team league will include the Houston Gamblers, a franchise with the same name as the city’s original USFL franchise that played in 1984 and 1985 and featured future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. He had signed with the USFL after balking at playing for the Buffalo Bills, who selected him in the first round of the 1983 NFL draft.

The league will have two divisions. The North will be comprised of the Michigan Panthers, New Jersey Generals, Philadelphia Stars and Pittsburgh Maulers. The South will have the Gamblers, Birmingham Stallions, New Orleans Breakers and Tampa Bay Bandits. All the team nicknames were used in the original USFL.

[…]

Houston’s last spring football team was the Roughnecks of the revived XFL in 2020. The league suspended operations in April 2020 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, with the Roughnecks the only undefeated team at 5-0.

See here and here for more about the “new” league, which unlike in the 80s you can follow on Twitter. I suspect that the rebooted Gamblers, much like the late, semi-lamented Roughnecks will be better than the Texans, though that doesn’t answer the basic question for me of “why did anyone think we needed another reboot of another failed football league”. I thought I saw somewhere the Birmingham will be the city in which all the games will be played – I assume this is for logistical reasons, as that will be cheaper and easier than trying to get eight stadia for use – though it seems like a bad way to build fanbases. But this is probably more about TV revenue anyway, so whatever. If you like this kind of thing, it will probably be the kind of thing that you like. Mean Green Cougar Red has more.

There were settlement talks with Watson and his accusers

They did not succeed.

The attorney representing 22 women suing Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson says settlement talks between the two sides broke down before the NFL’s trade deadline because of language Watson’s legal team insisted they include in nondisclosure agreements.

“In what was submitted to us, there were nondisclosure agreements and many of the women pushed back on those,” attorney Tony Buzbee told Houston television station Fox 26 in an interview Tuesday evening.

Buzbee said he and his colleagues modified the language in the proposed nondisclosure agreements “substantially” but added that “there were still some women who said, ‘I’m never going to sign that.'”

He told Fox 26 that the NDAs were ultimately a “deal breaker” in efforts to settle the cases.

Buzbee’s interview is the first confirmation from either of the legal teams involved in Watson’s civil cases that the two sides had entered a period of mediation.

“Now that the heat is off I probably won’t be getting calls from the other side wanting to settle the case,” Buzbee said, a reference to the pressure involved in settling the lawsuits prior to the NFL’s Tuesday trade deadline.

[…]

Buzbee also said in his interview with Fox 26 that Watson’s team appeared willing to settle a portion of the 22 civil cases.

“First it was, ‘We need to get 22 cases settled’ and then it was, ‘Well, maybe we can get 20 cases settled,’ and, finally, there was some discussion of maybe even less than that,” Buzbee said. “But based on the terms that were submitted to us, we weren’t going to get 22 settlements. Period.”

See here and here for the background. We assumed there were settlement talks happening, the possibility of a trade was predicated on there being a settlement, and now we have confirmation. I don’t know that it would have served justice for such an agreement to be reached, especially if it came with a blanket NDA on all of the accusers, but that’s not my call. I don’t know if there’s any impetus for settlement talks to continue now – beyond what would normally be there, anyway – so we may not hear much else for awhile. Watson can’t be deposed until February at the earliest, and a trial date (if it comes to that) can’t be set until early May. So we’ll see.

A brief meditation on the Deshaun Watson situation

Let us pause for a moment and contemplate this John McClain column about the likely football fate for the Texans’ soon-to-be-former star quarterback.

Deadlines have a way of initiating action, and if the Texans are going to ship quarterback Deshaun Watson to Miami or another team, they better do it by the NFL’s trade deadline on Nov. 2 at 3 p.m.

If Watson is still on the roster after the deadline passes, the Texans will have to wait until the start of the new league year in March to reopen negotiations on a trade that probably wouldn’t happen until close to the draft that begins April 28.

[…]

Dolphins’ owner Stephen Ross has approved a Watson trade, but he wants his legal issues resolved. The only way for Watson to do that before the trade deadline would be to settle the 22 civil suits. League sources say Watson doesn’t want to settle his cases because he believes it would be an admission of guilt.

Before a deal can be completed, Ross would have to find out from commissioner Roger Goodell if Watson would be suspended under the personal conduct policy, and if so, how many games he would miss.

[…]

At the league meetings on Tuesday, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, Troy Vincent, told reporters that, in the event of a trade, it would be up to Goodell to decide if Watson would be available to play for his new team right away.

“We don’t think we have the necessary information to place him on the exempt list,” Goodell said. “We don’t have all the access to that information and (we) pride ourselves on not interfering with it. That process is ongoing.”

Watson could be suspended, or he could be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list. Watson is being paid his $10.54 million base salary to report to the Texans each day and be inactive on game days. The exempt list is a paid vacation for the player, who can’t be part of the team and has to work out on his own.

If Goodell didn’t place Watson on the exempt list at the start of the Texans’ training camp, it’s unlikely he would do it after a trade.

Emphasis mine. The main takeaway here, for those who don’t care about the football angle, is that we may get a sudden and almost certainly confidential resolution to this whole sordid mess. There are some criminal complaints and an FBI investigation as well, but the former at least could be dropped as part of a settlement agreement. There will be some loud protest in Miami or Charlotte or wherever Watson gets traded, if that does happen, and it will fade away over time as we get distracted by more pressing matters. And then that will probably be that. I don’t know exactly how I feel about all this, but it’s not a good feeling. The Ringer and Rivers McCown have more.

(The fact that the Texans will undoubtedly screw up the draft picks they’ll get in the trade because they’re a terrible organization with a shitheel owner is a side matter.)

Last chance to make a good FIFA impression

Coming to the end of this very long process.

Houston’s diversity is being played up in the city’s recent push to host the 2026 men’s World Cup. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner joined forces with prominent business people and community leaders to highlight the benefits of featuring such a rich multicultural community on the biggest stage for the global pastime.

Houston is one of 17 U.S. candidates that will be whittled down to 11 host slots for the 2026 games, hosted jointly between the United States, Canada and Mexico, which will provide another five host cities. With FIFA officials set to make a site visit to Houston Oct. 26 to prepare for their final decision later this year, local stakeholders are hammering the point harder than ever.

“Soccer is the world’s game, and as one of the most diverse cities in North America, bringing the World Cup here is a perfect match,” said Chris Canetti, former president of the Houston Dynamo and Dash and president of the Houston 2026 World Cup Bid Committee.

If chosen, Houston would host six games that would likely bring tens of thousands of fans to the city. Some would watch the game at the 70,000-plus seat NRG Stadium and more would simply soak up the atmosphere at bars, restaurants and gathering spots around the city.

Host cities could net between $90 million and $480 million beyond taxpayer contributions, according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group. Previous World Cups, including the 1994 U.S. tournament, have burdened public funds, but North American stakeholders say host cities can avoid unnecessary expenditures in 2026 by utilizing preexisting infrastructure, such as the Houston Texans’ home.

Officials said that 2026 is still working through the cost estimates with FIFA and expect to have more details after the Oct. 26 site visits.

[…]

While many media rankings give Dallas the slight edge over Houston due to the city’s larger AT&T Stadium, the Bayou City’s bid committee is touting Houston’s diversity and pointing to the city’s successful track record of hosting major sporting events, including the Super Bowl and Final Four.

See here for the last update. I’ll skip my usual nattering about the uselessness of these sports-related economic projections and just admit up front that it would be cool to host some World Cup games. The linked article at the end tries to suss out which 11 cities from the 17 contenders will get to host those games. I don’t see why Houston and Dallas have to be in competition with each other any more than they are with the other 15 wannabes, but we’ll know soon enough. I’m ready for this to be settled.

On Rice and the AAC

It’s a great move for Rice. It also means they will need to step it up in men’s athletics.

On the job a few months in early 2014, Rice athletic director Joe Karlgaard met with alumni at a fundraiser in Boston.

On the trip, Karlgaard made the 50-mile drive to Providence, R.I., to meet with Mike Aresco, commissioner of the American Athletic Conference, the newest league in college athletics that debuted a few months earlier. The informal meeting included lunch at The Capital Grille and a brief tour of the AAC offices.

Over the next eight years, Karlgaard forged relationships everywhere he could, all part of a strategic plan to position Rice for the next round of conference realignment.

“Throughout the time, I’ve tried to build the right relationships, tried to listen very well to what it is that may better position us,” Karlgaard said. “The opportunity hasn’t always presented itself like it did the last several weeks.”

Calling it a “historic new direction” for the school’s athletic department, Rice accepted an invitation to join the American Athletic Conference on Thursday.

With the addition of six schools, all from Conference USA, the AAC will become a 14-team football league as early as 2023. Two other Texas schools — UTSA and North Texas — will join Rice, along with Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte and Florida Atlantic to comprise a new-look AAC that will have a 10-state footprint.

[…]

The move will provide an increase in revenue for Rice, which received a $500,000 annual payout in C-USA. This past year, AAC schools received about $7 million.

Karlgaard pointed to ticket sales, sponsorships and fundraising as areas Rice should receive a financial bump from the change in conference. Rice will also receive increased visibility with the AAC’s deal with ESPN.

“I think it will have a significant economic impact,” he added. “I believe our distribution will be significantly better from the American Athletic Conference than they have been – ever, no matter what conference we’ve been affiliated with.”

[…]

Rice has made campus-wide facility upgrades in recent years, most notably the $31.5 million Brian Patterson Sports Performance Center in 2016.

Rice president David Leebron, who will retire in 2022 after 18 years, vowed to “invest more in the athletic program’s success.” At the top of the list on needed upgrades: 71-year-old Rice Stadium.

“We know our stadium needs some investment,” Leebron said. “But virtually everywhere else we have invested in major facilities and renovations. We’re in really good shape.” He added the move to the AAC “reflects stability in what our future looks like.”

See here for the background. Rice football hasn’t been a factor since the early David Bailiff years, the men’s basketball team last played in an NCAA tournament game in 1970, and the baseball team is trying to rebuild after a long decline (from an admittedly high peak). The women’s teams have been much more successful in recent years, so it’s up to the men to prove that they can be competitive in a tougher conference. More exposure and more money can help, but they’re not enough on their own. I speak for a lot of long-suffering Rice fans when I say we’ve been waiting a long long time for something good to happen. I sure hope this is a step in that direction.

That said, the alternative of being left behind as this was happening would have been a death knell. I have a lot of sympathy for our soon-to-be-former conference mates.

That future does not look as bright for C-USA, which is now left with eight schools: UTEP, Old Dominion, Southern Mississippi, Marshall, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky and Florida International. Earlier this month, C-USA commissioner Judy MacLeod sent a letter to Aresco proposing an alliance of sorts between the two leagues. Instead, the AAC raided C-USA and the league reportedly could lose some of the remaining members to other conferences.

I feel especially bad for UTEP, who was an original WAC member when we joined that (now basically dead) conference in 1996, and for LaTech, which joined the smaller WAC after a bunch of the other schools split off to form the Mountain West Conference. At this point, I have a lot more affinity for them than for most of our former SWC rivals. Whatever happens with C-USA, I hope they land on their feet, and I hope we schedule them for some non-conference action going forward.

UPDATE: Also, too:

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American Athletic Conference to expand

Time for some more dominoes to fall.

The American Athletic Conference is set to consider expansion this week after six Conference USA programs applied for membership on Wednesday. If all six teams are added to the AAC, it would expand to become a 14-team league once realignment shakes out.

The six potential institutions looking to join the American from Conference USA include FAU, Charlotte, North Texas, UTSA, Rice and UAB, sources told CBS Sports on Monday. It’s expected that all six programs will be approved as new AAC members. Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel first reported the movement.

Adding North Texas, UTSA and Rice would allow the AAC to retain a strong geographical foothold in Texas, while FAU would join South Florida in the conference, Charlotte and UAB would have regional partners in East Carolina and Memphis, respectively.

The potential moves comes months after AAC members Cincinnati, Houston and UCF opted to depart for the Big 12, leaving the league with just eight football-playing members. The AAC previously looked to the West by courting Mountain West institutions Boise State, San Diego State, Air Force and Colorado State. However, all four schools declined the possibility of moving conferences.

“We do want to get back to either 10 or 12 [schools],” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told the Orlando Sentinel in September. “We have some good candidates and we’re only dealing with candidates who have approached us — who have expressed an interest in us. It’s proceeding and I’m reasonably confident we’re going to end up as a strong conference and our goal is to be even stronger than before.”

The AAC is banking on safety in numbers. At 14 teams with many important geographic footprints under its belt, the American would stand with the Mountain West as the two strongest non-Power Five conferences. The move would also gouge Conference USA, which may now seek teams from the Sun Belt or a partnership with that conference after itself being reduced to eight members.

This round of realignment would leave Conference USA with just eight remaining members, which is one reason why it recently sought but failed to convince the AAC and Sun Belt to regroup along geographical lines. It is believed that there will remain 10 FBS conferences following this round of realignment.

[…]

The group puts an emphasis on big markets, featuring teams in Houston, San Antonio, Birmingham, Charlotte and on the edge of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Other schools that will compete in the hypothetical AAC include SMU, Memphis, East Carolina, Temple, Tulsa, South Florida, Navy and Tulane.

It’s not clear what a 14-team AAC would be worth in media rights revenue. Conference USA schools get about $500,000 annually in their current TV deal. The AAC, as it currently exists, averages $7 million per team. That figure is expected to decline significantly after the loss of three schools to the Big 12.

Something like this was highly likely after UH and others left for the Big XII. As the story notes, it could have been the Mountain West adding members, but they decided it was better financially to stand pat. The AAC isn’t as strong as it was before the departures, but some of these schools look like up-and-comers, in particular UTSA, a large public school with a big city market all to itself in college sports. It’s a great move for Rice, which has had far more success in women’s sports in recent years (the women’s basketball, volleyball, and soccer teams all went to the NCAA tournament last year) than the men’s, but the step up in competition is a double-edged sword, to say the least.

The timing of this all hinges on when UT and Oklahoma make their actual move to the SEC, as everything else will follow that. I continue to believe that UT and OU will suit up for the SEC no later than the spring of 2023, and it won’t surprise me at all if they’re there for football in 2022. I guarantee, there’s plenty of talk going on about that right now. ESPN and the Chron have more.

No vax needed to see a Rockets game

No, thanks.

The Rockets will not have any entry or seating restrictions beyond those required by NBA health and safety rules this season, according to Rockets president of business operations Gretchen Sheirr. The team does provide an option for fans to purchase seats in sections with social distancing provided in a variety of areas in Toyota Center.

The NBA requires that all those within 15 feet of the court be able to show proof that they are fully vaccinated or can provide a negative test for COVID.

The Dallas Mavericks last week announced that all fans be fully vaccinated or provide a negative test, joining Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder, along with teams in New York (the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks) and in San Francisco (the Golden State Warriors) where local guidelines require it.

The Rockets’ policy for Toyota Center is in line with policies for Texans games at NRG Stadium and Astros games at Minute Maid Park.

But those are at least generally held outdoors, and even if the roof is closed on those stadia there’s still a lot more open space. The Rockets play in a much more enclosed space, and while they do have some limited “socially distanced” seating available, this sure seems like a recipe for transmission. It’s also quite different from last season, when face masks were required and attendance was capped at about 20% of capacity. I don’t begrudge them wanting to have fuller crowds – they gotta make money – but if the Mavericks can require proof of vaccination or a negative test in order to attend a game, I don’t see why the Rockets can’t. You can do better than that, y’all.

COVID and college football

We sure these sellout crowds are a good idea?

At Virginia Tech last Friday, the packed crowd bounced to “Enter Sandman.” At the University of Wisconsin the next day, fans jumped around to “Jump Around.”

College football and its crowd traditions are back to their full glory like they were in 2019, before Covid-19 restrictions sharply limited fan attendance in 2020.

Some of the country’s biggest powerhouses — including Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma, to name a few — are hosting games to full capacity on Saturday. And fans who attend these games won’t have to prove their vaccination status, won’t be required to social distance and won’t have to wear masks in their seats.

The return of college football and its unique cultures, which began in earnest last week, are a source of communal bonding for sports fans, yet they also represent a source of anxiety for others.

[…]

Both the SEC and NCAA deferred to schools to make their own decisions — based on local and state requirements — when asked what each was doing to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 at football games. Both do have Covid-19 protocols for student-athletes.

“My ask of our fans is to try to take advantage of what science has done,” Greg Sankey, SEC commissioner, said last month.

Georgia’s plan to host such a large crowd comes as the state has fully vaccinated about half of its residents 12 and older, one of the 10 lowest vaccination rates among all states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Athens-Clarke County, where the Bulldogs play, has a “high” rate of Covid-19 community transmission, the CDC says.

Last week marked the full opening of the college football season, and stadiums across the country were packed with fans eager to rejoin the communal sports experience.

In Georgia, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta hosted nearly 72,000 fans for an Alabama-Miami game on Saturday and hosted about 31,000 fans for the Louisville-Ole Miss game on Monday. At both games, the stadium roof was open and masks were required in enclosed spaces but not in open-air areas, and there were no vaccine requirements.

A number of the universities that have packed fans into seats this season require students to be vaccinated, including at large Big Ten schools Michigan (109,000 in attendance), Maryland (44,000) and Illinois (41,000).

These schools are hardly breaking new ground by holding packed games. The National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball have similarly held full capacity events this summer, and the National Football League will do so when the season begins later this week.

This story was published Saturday morning, before this week’s games were played. Those other sports aren’t a great comparison because they have smaller crowds and their gamedays aren’t all-day party affairs. The SEC and some other conferences put an emphasis on getting players and coaches vaccinated, but getting fans vaccinated is not on their agenda. I can hardly blame them, because I can imagine the pushback they’d get if they tried. There’s evidence to suggest that limited-seating football games did not help spread COVID, but we are not doing limited seating any more – these are full stadia, with 80K to 100K people in attendance. Don’t be surprised if that has a negative effect.

UH officially joins the Big XII

Long time coming.

Hello, Big 12.

In a historic day, the University of Houston has accepted an invitation to join the Big 12 Conference.

The Big 12’s presidents voted unanimously Friday to formally invite Houston, BYU, Cincinnati and Central Florida to form a 14-team league.

UH will begin play in the Big 12 as early as fall 2023.

“Joining the Big 12 Conference is a historic step in our institutional journey and signifies the tremendous growth and success attained academically and athletically over the last decade,” UH chancellor Renu Khator said in a statement. “Our expectations for our University remain high, our aspirations continue to be bold, and we embrace this new opportunity to compete at the highest levels in all we do.”

[…]

As members of the American Athletic Conference, Houston, Cincinnati and UCF must give 27 months’ notice if they plan to leave the league and pay a $10 million exit fee.

BYU is an independent in football and could join sooner.

What the Big 12 will resemble in a few years remains uncertain. Texas and Oklahoma said they will honor current contracts until 2025 when television rights with ESPN and Fox run out. Both schools would have to pay a buyout of $80 million to leave early.

See here for the background. Scheduling could be a little chaotic over the next season or two until everyone gets where they’re going. I’d bet a nickel on all the moving parts settling into their new places in time for next fall, but there’s a lot that could cause delays. I assume the AAC will now go trawling for some new members, so there’s still more to this story. In the meantime, congrats to the Coogs for finally catching the car they’ve been chasing since 1996.

The Big XII is finally ready for UH

Hope it was worth the wait.

Five years after a potential match fizzled, the University of Houston and Big 12 Conference are on the verge of uniting after all.

UH has emerged as a leading contender to join a reconfigured 12-team Big 12 with a formal vote planned for next week, two people with knowledge of the talks said Thursday.

The shift comes just over a month after Texas and Oklahoma announced they were leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference, starting another round of conference realignment that could eventually fulfill UH’s longtime desire to join one of the major conferences in college athletics.

Earlier reports Thursday by ESPN, The Athletic and the Dallas Morning News said the Big 12 has targeted UH, BYU, Central Florida and Cincinnati as expansion candidates to join the league’s eight remaining schools. Long the powerbrokers of the Big 12, Texas and Oklahoma have accepted invitations to join the SEC in 2025.

The Big 12 requires eight of its current 10 members to approve candidates before expansion can occur. A person with knowledge of the process said UH is expected to receive unanimous approval.

The Morning News said the expansion timetable “remains very fluid,” with one source saying, “it can move as fast as everyone wants it to.”

[…]

By adding UH, UCF and Cincinnati, the Big 12 would raid the American Athletic Conference, which has long been considered the best league outside of the so-called Power Five that includes the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12. The addition of the three schools would allow the Big 12 to remain involved in the Houston television market, extend its reach to Florida and add a Cincinnati program that begins this season in the football top 10.

BYU, which is independent in football, brings a strong national brand, large fan base due to its affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and rich football tradition. All of BYU’s athletic programs except football currently play in the West Coast Conference.

See here for some background on the last time UH was on the Big XII dance card. As you know, this is all the result of UT and OU saying good-bye to the Big XII for greener pastures. Cincinnati and UCF make sense as additions and BYU is a nice get, probably the biggest non-Notre Dame free agent out there, but it’s going to make for some geographic challenges – Utah is a long way away from the next closest school in the conference. The PAC 12 probably makes more sense logistically for BYU, but they decided to stand pat for whatever the reason. BYU is now the center of another political and religious fight, which may bring some negative attention to their future conference and conference-mates, but that’s more or less the cost of doing business these days. The UH Board of Regents is having a special meeting today to discuss their Big XII prospects, and I think we can expect that they will go along with any plan to join up. So congrats, Coogs, you finally made it.

UPDATE: UH’s Board of Regents has officially approved pursuing Big XII membership.

The PAC-20?

Here’s one possible outcome for the left behind members of the Big XII.

According to multiple reports, the commissioners of the Pac-12 and Big 12 met Tuesday to discuss how the conferences might benefit from working together or maybe even merging.

The merging part has us very interested.

A full merger of the Big 12 and Pac-12 would create a 20-team conference with schools in every major U.S. time zone, something no other conference has.

That would make it unique and very different and potentially pretty valuable in the ever-important TV contract discussions for conferences.

What could a Big 12 and Pac-12 merger look like?

Here’s some possibilities to split up the conference, should the Pac-12 and Big 12 decide it is in their best interests to join forces.

You can read the rest. There’s lots of reasons why this probably won’t happen, but it’s at least amusing to contemplate. We live in very strange times.

Also in the “we live in strange sports times” news department:

American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said the league has never “plotted” with ESPN to pursue teams from other conferences.

“Our conference has never strategically aligned or plotted with ESPN to influence conference structures,” Aresco said Wednesday during a video conference call to kickoff AAC media day.

Aresco said the AAC is not actively looking to add schools.

“I want to emphasize we are not looking at realignment and not out there attempting to take teams,” Aresco said.

[…]

Aresco said he has not spoken to any Big 12 schools.

“Any suggestions or statements that we colluded with ESPN with regards to the structure of any other conference is completely unfounded and grossly irresponsible accusation,” Aresco said.

See here for the background on that. We’ll see if Bob Bowlsby provides some receipts for that initial claim. In the meantime, if the AAC and every other conference isn’t thinking about realignment and what they might do about it, I don’t know what they are doing. I’m not saying they should want to live in this ever-religning world, but I am saying it is the world they are in fact living in, and they should adjust accordingly.

The Austin Bills?

Noted for the record.

Maybe they’re negotiating. But in any negotiation, the negotiators need to be willing to act in order to have any credibility.

As to the negotiation between the Bills and Buffalo that has begun with the Bills wanting taxpayer funding to pay the full price of a new stadium, an impasse could lead the Bills threatening to move — and potentially moving — elsewhere.

Citing an unnamed ownership source, Seth Wickersham of ESPN.com reports that Austin is a possible destination — or threat — as one of the cities to which Bills ownership was referring when telling government negotiators that “there are other cities elsewhere that desire an NFL franchise and would pay handsomely for it.”

San Antonio was one of the leverage destinations for the Raiders before they moved to Las Vegas, and the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans weren’t believed to be thrilled about the possibility of a third team coming to Texas. Presumably, they wouldn’t want a team in Austin, either.

Hard to know how seriously to take this. I suppose the reason Austin is being dangled as an alternate for the Bills and not San Antonio is that Austin doesn’t have an NFL-ready stadium at hand and would have to build one, which is clearly what the Bills’ owners want. San Antonio has the Alamodome, which was used by the Saints in 2005, but is presumably not up to date with the latest luxury items that a typically avaricious NFL owner desires, so it would not do. San Antonio, which has in recent years spent a bunch of money on Alamodome-related projects, may be less interested in financing a brand new playpen. Who knows? Anyway, if this particular item gains traction in the coming months, you’ll know that this is where it all started. CBS Sports, KXAN, Reform Austin, and the Statesman have more.

Big XII visits the Lege

It’s something to do, anyway.

As the University of Texas prepares for a jump from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference, state lawmakers are working to determine how the move will affect the rest of the state — and whether they might be able to intervene in such a move in the future.

The first hearing of the committee on the future of college sports in Texas on Monday produced more questions than answers. Senators, economists and representatives of the universities left behind brainstormed how the Big 12 could remain viable — perhaps by adding up-and-coming Texas programs such as the University of Houston and Southern Methodist University.

But with the exits of UT and the University of Oklahoma sealed, there was little lawmakers could do but commiserate and propose potential solutions.

“I think there are options for us to partner with other conferences, there may be opportunity for mergers, there may be opportunities to add members,” said Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner of the Big 12 Conference. “There may be other opportunities that are currently unforeseen. … The multitude and severity of the challenges that are out there right now is likely to cause lots of changes.”

The eight remaining schools — which include Waco’s Baylor University, Fort Worth’s Texas Christian University and Lubbock’s Texas Tech — agree that “staying together is probably our best approach in the near-term,” Bowlsby said.

[…]

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound and the chair of the newly formed committee, said she’d invited representatives from UT and ESPN to testify on Monday, but they declined. Texas A&M, which left the Big 12 for the SEC in 2012, also rejected an invitation.

See here for some background on the committee. Nothing is going to happen, as this issue isn’t on the special session agenda and of course there’s a quorum break going on, but everyone got to express their feelings, and I’m sure that helped. As for UT, they weren’t there to share their perspective, but they still had something to say.

University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell on Monday publicly defended the school’s decision to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference along with the University of Oklahoma in 2025 and denied Texas lawmakers’ claims that the school violated Big 12 bylaws in doing so.

“This future move is the right thing for our student athletes for our student athletes, our programs and our University in the face of rapid change and increased uncertainty,” Hartzell said.

[…]

“It is timed to avoid the legislature in its legislative session, where it is structured with the power to make decisions,” said Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury.

Hartzell said that he initiated discussions with the SEC in the spring — while the regular legislative session was going on.

He disputed claims made by lawmakers and Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby that the Texas school violated the league’s bylaws by not giving advance notice of their departure.

“I want to set the record straight — we have and will continue to honor all agreements,” Hartzell said. “We have not violated any Big 12 bylaws.”

Lawmakers argue that the process was done in the dark, and would have far-reaching effects on the remaining schools in the conference, notably the three that reside in Texas.

See here for more on the accusations of UT and OU’s alleged duplicity along with ESPN. Lord knows, this Legislature knows how to do things in the dark. Game recognizes game.

Big XII accuses ESPN of sabotage

Interesting!

In the long, sordid and divisive history of conference realignment, there has always been feverish levels of mistrust, backroom allegations and message board conspiracies when schools switch leagues. But in the decades of cloak-and-dagger maneuverings, political gamesmanship and rival in-fighting that have always accompanied realignment, we’ve never seen a moment like Wednesday afternoon.

Yahoo Sports first reported that the Big 12 sent a “cease and desist” letter to ESPN essentially demanding the television network stop plotting to sabotage and cannibalize the league. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby accused ESPN of attempting to “harm the league” for ESPN’s financial benefit. That wasn’t even the most memorable part.

From there, Bowlsby did a series of media interviews where he accused ESPN of plotting with another league – later revealed to be the American Athletic Conference per Yahoo Sources – to attempt to kill off the Big 12. Essentially, Bowlsby said he found evidence that ESPN had been “providing incentives” to a league to lure the Big 12 leftovers away after Oklahoma and Texas bolted without warning.

“What pushed me over the top was a couple of days ago when it became known to me that ESPN had been working with one or more other conferences and even providing incentives for them to destabilize the Big 12 and approach our members about moving away and providing inducements for the conference to do that,” Bowlsby told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “That’s tortious interference with our business. It’s not right.”

There’s more, so read the rest, and see the letter in the original story. ESPN denies the allegations, as you might expect. I have no idea what happens next, as I have definitely been operating under the assumption that this is going to happen and will very likely happen well before 2025, but this suggests there will be a lot more friction than I anticipated, and that the Big XII will aim to make it as expensive as possible for UT and OU. And, apparently, ESPN. We’ll see how that works out for them.

Meanwhile, since this is of course all about money, there’s this.

The decisions by the University of Texas and University of Oklahoma to seek to leave the Big 12 Conference to join the Southeastern Conference could affect more than just which teams they play. The decision can also have a big economic impact for the rest of the Big 12 and the communities that are home to their teams.

The move is not yet approved, but if it goes through, it could cost as much as $1.3 billion a year in lost athletic revenues, tourism spending and other economic activity for communities across the Big 12, according to an analysis by Ray Perryman, an economist and CEO of the Perryman Group, an economic consulting group in Waco.

Without Texas and OU, the rest of the conference is likely facing smaller television deals, lower attendance, and other negative consequences, Perryman said in a report released Thursday.

Ray Perryman is the go-to guy for this kind of economic analysis, and you have to respect his ability to crank them out in such a timely manner. I don’t doubt that the remnants of the Big XII will do worse without UT and OU, and some of that will trickle down to the cities the schools are in. I suspect those numbers are overblown, but I couldn’t say by how much. The report is here, judge for yourself.

SEC accepts UT and OU

Time to start printing the money.

The Southeastern Conference voted unanimously Thursday afternoon to invite the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Oklahoma to join their 14-member league during a meeting with the league member’s presidents and chancellors.

“Today’s unanimous vote is both a testament to the SEC’s longstanding spirit of unity and mutual cooperation, as well as a recognition of the outstanding legacies of academic and athletic excellence established by the Universities of Oklahoma and Texas,” Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement. “I greatly appreciate the collective efforts of our Presidents and Chancellors in considering and acting upon each school’s membership interest.”

[…]

Meanwhile, UT and OU could see their revenue climb significantly through the move from television revenue, ticket revenue and additional branding opportunities.

The decision may also tie into a Supreme Court ruling last month that says athletes can earn money based on their intellectual property, meaning flagship schools must find new ways to earn revenue.

Although UT and OU said in their letter to [Big XII Commissioner Bob] Bowlsby that they don’t plan to renew their deal with the conference past 2025, there is speculation that the two schools would not be bound by the Big 12’s contract if the conference dissolves before 2025. They would need to pay a penalty of more than $75 million for leaving the league early, but are still legally required to give 18 months’ notice, per Big 12 bylaws.

“I have every expectation that Oklahoma and Texas will do whatever they can to not meet their [contractual] obligations,” Bowlsby told CBS Sports. “That’s what they’ve done so far.”

After two closed session meetings this week, the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents voted late Wednesday afternoon to support Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC, despite concerns the Board had over the “communication process.” A&M joined the SEC from the Big 12 a decade ago.

“The board concluded that this expansion would enhance the long-term value of the SEC to student athletes and all of the institutions they represent — including Texas A&M,” the statement read.

See here for the previous update, and see here for the story on the A&M Board of Regents getting on board, presumably once they realized the money involved. Put a pin in that quote from Bob Bowlsby, there will be more about him and the Big XII tomorrow. You know I believe that UT and OU will be playing SEC conference games well before 2025, but there may be more obstacles in that path than I first thought. The Chron has more.

More criminal complaints against Deshaun Watson

Yeesh.

Multiple women have filed complaints with the Houston Police Department related to Texans’ quarterback Deshaun Watson, according to both sides in the football player’s civil sexual assault cases.

Almost half of the 22 women who filed civil claims against Watson have given sworn statements to police and spoken to NFL investigators, attorney Tony Buzbee said Sunday. Defense lawyer Rusty Hardin specified on Monday that eight women in the suits have filed complaints with police. He also said two new women not in litigation have done the same, which ESPN first reported.

Houston police on Monday declined to comment beyond an initial statement they released in early April. One person filed a complaint, they said at the time, leading the agency to open an investigation.

The police and NFL investigations remain underway with no signs of immediate resolution for Watson, who returned to training camp this week amid the allegations of sexual assault and harassment.

Those cases as well as the lawsuits are trudging along, keeping Watson in a holding pattern while he doesn’t play and demands a trade — that in itself an unlikely occurrence until his legal issues end, team sources have said.

“Both processes are very lengthy,” Buzbee said, referring to the police and NFL probes. “We expect to provide further information to the NFL from all victims.”

[…]

Hardin said on Monday Houston officers should also speak to the remaining 14 women who sued but did not file police reports, he said, in order to complete a full investigation.

The lawsuits are meanwhile moving through the discovery process in the Harris County civil courts. Buzbee said his team is currently obtaining written information from Watson, including electronic data and payment records.

See here and here for some background. The complaints by two women who are not suing Watson sounds ominous to me. I know that he’s Rusty Hardin and I’m not, but if I were Rusty Hardin, I might be a little worried about what the police might find when they talk to those other 14 women.

UT and OU make it officially official

Smell ya later, Big XII.

After a week of speculation, the University of Texas at Austin announced Tuesday that alongside the University of Oklahoma it has asked to join the Southeastern Conference starting July 1, 2025.

The news came a day after both schools announced they would not renew their media rights contract with the Big 12 in 2025. If the two schools were to join the SEC, they would join the likes of top football schools such as University of Florida, Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama.

“We believe that there would be mutual benefit to the Universities on the one hand, and the SEC on the other hand, for the Universities to become members of the SEC,” UT President Jay Hartzell and OU President Joseph Harroz, Jr. said in a joint letter to SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey.

Sankey said in a statement that while the SEC hasn’t actively pursued new members, it will welcome change when there is consensus among members.

“We will pursue significant change when there is a clear consensus among our members that such actions will further enrich the experiences of our student-athletes and lead to greater academic and athletic achievement across our campuses,” Sankey said.

The move leaves the rest of the Big 12 conference, which includes Texas Tech University, Baylor University and Texas Christian University, in a state of uncertainty. Monday afternoon, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in a statement that the remaining eight institutions will work together to ensure future success.

“Although our eight members are disappointed with the decisions of these two institutions, we recognize that intercollegiate athletics is experiencing rapid change and will most likely look much different in 2025 than it does currently,” Bowlsby said. “The Big 12 Conference will continue to support our member institutions’ efforts to graduate student-athletes, and compete for Big 12 and NCAA championships.”

The Monday news was about saying goodbye to the Big XII, or at least saying that they wanted to say goodbye. This is about saying Hello to the SEC, which one presumes will be returned in kind. I suppose it’s possible that things could go pear-shaped from here, but that would be a huge upset. Most likely, if you’re a Longhorn or Sooner, get ready to start shelling out for new SEC-branded gear.

A personal anecdote: Back in 2003, during the long special session slog to re-redistrict Texas on Tom DeLay’s orders, Rice played UT in a football game at Reliant Stadium. I contributed a bit to the MOB halftime script for that show, which was about the redistricting saga and how we should never leave the task of redistricting to politicians. “After all,” the bit concluded, “the last time the Governor got involved with redistricting, Baylor wound up in the Big XII”. It got a big laugh from the mostly UT fans. Seems like the joke holds up pretty well all these years later.

There is of course political involvement in this round of Conference Bingo, and so naturally our state’s biggest self-promoter has rushed out to the front of the parade in hope of being mistaken for a leader.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has asked Sen. Jane Nelson to chair a new select committee on the “Future of College Sports in Texas,” a move that came hours after Texas and Oklahoma issued a joint statement to the Big 12 that served as the first step toward leaving the conference.

In a tweet sent out Monday night Patrick said the committee’s purpose would be to “study the athletic & economic impact to TX schools & communities by UT’s exit.” A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 2.

This is just the latest bit of political theatre in the face of the state flagship’s impending departure from the Big 12, a conference it founded in 1994 that currently includes four Texas-based members: UT, Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech.

Hey, Dan, let me know when you plan to have a hearing to fix the grid and claw back some of the money that was heisted from way too many paying customers from the freeze.

UT and OU make their official move to exit the Big XII

It’s just a matter of time now. And money. Always money.

The University of Texas at Austin announced Monday morning that it will not renew its sports media rights contract with the Big 12 that is set to end in 2025, giving the first formal signal that it’s planning to leave the athletics conference.

The decision comes after rumors surfaced last week that UT-Austin and the University of Oklahoma would leave the Big 12 and join the Southeastern Conference, which would then include 16 schools.

The move was announced in a joint statement from UT-Austin and Oklahoma.

“Both universities will continue to monitor the rapidly evolving collegiate athletics landscape as they consider how best to position their athletics programs for the future,” the statement read.

[…]

The financial impact on the [remaining] schools could be devastating. Records show that media rights represent the single largest income stream for Texas Tech athletics. Its total athletics revenue during the 2020 fiscal year was $90.4 million, meaning the Big 12 payouts accounted for more than one-third of its total earnings.

That major-conference money helped allow it to limit the amount of money the university transfers into its athletics department to under $50,000. Public universities outside of major conferences in Texas have been known to funnel millions into their athletics programs to keep the departments afloat. (TCU and Baylor are private schools, and their financial numbers are not public.)

See here for the previous update. I’m old enough to remember that one big reason why the old Southwest Conference fell apart is that some schools thought some other schools were not pulling their weight in terms of financial reward for the conference as a whole. (A broader geographic appeal, and thus bigger potential TV audiences, was another significant factor.) Speaking as a Rice Owls fan, I feel your pain, Texas Tech and Baylor. Sucks to be on the other side of that, doesn’t it?

Sources from the Big 12 told ESPN that Monday’s statement from UT and OU doesn’t fully guarantee that the schools remain in the Big 12 through 2025. There is the possibility that they can pay a penalty of more than $75 million for leaving the league early and give a required 18 months’ notice, per Big 12 bylaws.

There is also speculation that OU and Texas would also not be bound by the Big 12’s contract if the conference dissolves before 2025, according to the publication. If the future of the Big 12 conference is in doubt, other schools could also look elsewhere for a landing place.

I for one would bet on UT and OU making their exit from the Big XII well before 2025. All of the previous breakups, starting with Arkansas leaving for the SEC in 1990, happened within a year. Whatever the contract terms are now, UT and OU will have plenty of incentive to buy their way out of them, and the remaining schools will ultimately take the cash as a preferable option to uncertainty and a hell of a lot of awkwardness. I will be shocked if UT and OU aren’t fully integrated into the SEC by the start of the 2023 football season, and it would not surprise me if they’re there for 2022. That’s the world we live in. The Chron and Slate, which runs some financial numbers, have more.

A Deshaun Watson sighting

Noted for the record.

Deshaun Watson made a shrewd move Sunday when he reported early for training camp with the other quarterbacks and rookies.

Watson showed up at NRG Stadium for the first time since the end of last season, avoiding a fine of $50,000 a day, creating a colossal distraction for a team in rebuilding mode and putting pressure on the Texans to make a move.

But what could that move be?

Watson reiterated he still wants to be traded. That means he doesn’t want to be at the facility, and the Texans don’t want him there, but a trade doesn’t appear imminent, according to team sources. Any move would likely come when his legal issues are resolved.

[…]

The Texans have options when it comes to Watson. He can attend meetings and practice. He can be given an excused absence and be able to leave and work out on his own without being fined. He can be placed on the exempt list (essentially paid administrative leave) by commissioner Roger Goodell until the league concludes its investigation.

The league’s personal conduct policy empowers Goodell to put a player on the exempt list “when an investigation leads the Commissioner to believe that a player may have violated this Policy.”

The conduct policy says that Goodell “may act where the circumstances and evidence warrant doing so,” and adds: “This decision will not reflect a finding of guilt or innocence and will not be guided by the same legal standards and considerations that would apply in a criminal trial.”

Tony Buzbee, who represents the women in the civil cases said “almost half” have given sworn statements to the police and spoken to the NFL. He said he expects to give the NFL more information.

Watson or the NFL Players Association could appeal his placement on paid leave. A player on paid leave cannot practice or play in games but is permitted to be at the team’s facility for meetings, workouts, therapy and rehabilitation.

Just a reminder, the first of the depositions by Watson’s accusers may begin in September. There is a criminal complaint, filed in April, that is still under investigation. There’s no formal timeline for when (or if) the NFL may act on the exempt list; some people think he should already be on it. We’re just waiting for updates until then. Sean Pendergast has more.

The A&M and AAC responses to UT and OU and the SEC

Moving from denial to bluster.

Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork has a message for any newcomers to the Southeastern Conference: “We’re ready.”

Texas and Oklahoma are preparing to exit the Big 12 and join the SEC, just as A&M did nearly a decade ago. The Longhorns and Sooners are expected to inform the Big 12 this coming week and begin preparing for their pending exits — and how soon they join the SEC (whether by 2022 or as late as 2025) is to be determined.

“We believe that throughout our time in the SEC, Texas A&M has become stronger than ever,” Bjork told the Houston Chronicle on Saturday. “We’re the largest university in Texas and in the SEC. We have 550,000 former students. We’re knocking on the door of the College Football Playoff, and our women’s basketball team is the reigning SEC champion. We’ve got so many Olympians. There are so many great things and strengths about our program.

“As you look at all of this and our landscape, our position is, ‘Who wouldn’t want to join?’ The SEC is in the best position to lead in this transformative time in college athletics, and obviously there are others wanting to join us in that journey. Here in Texas, we’ve paved that way, and we’ve been leading that way over the last 10 years.”

A&M and other SEC programs apparently were largely kept out of the loop on informal discussions among UT, OU and the SEC in recent months, and Bjork said A&M is addressing that with the league.

“Those conversations are being had … there are definitely procedural matters that need to come forward, and those things are being discussed,” Bjork said.

A&M is pivoting from its early stance when the Chronicle broke the news on Wednesday at SEC Media Days that UT and OU intended to join the powerful conference.

See here, here, and here for the background. I can’t blame A&M for feeling blindsided by this, but their first mistake was in thinking that anyone outside Aggie Nation cared. It’s all about the money, y’all.

I also found this amusing.

Back in summer 2016, schools from the so-called Group of Five lined up to make elaborate pitches to join the Big 12.

For three months, the University of Houston was among the reported favorites, along with Cincinnati, to join the Big 12. It would have been a monumental moment for Houston, which has long desired a seat at college football’s table of power brokers — and the exposure and lucrative payout that come with it.

It all turned out to be a three-month charade. The Big 12 eventually decided against expansion. Tilman Fertitta, UH’s deep-pocket board of regent chairman, blasted the process, calling it “a total sham” … “PR play” … “biggest ramrod, railroad, ever.”

Five years later, conference realignment is back on the table. This time it’s not just talk. As early as this week, Texas and Oklahoma are expected to declare their intention to leave the Big 12 for the SEC.

That once desirable Big 12 destination that had schools tripping over each other for admission like a sold-out concert. Not so desirable anymore.

And once on the verge of being raided, the AAC could open its doors to some, if not all, of the eight remaining teams from the Big 12, a group that includes Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU.

The AAC will not take a wait-and-see approach and instead will be aggressive in pursuit of the Big 12’s leftovers, an industry source confirmed Saturday. The Athletic was the first to report the AAC’s intentions.

For what it’s worth, in my previous update I linked to a Yahoo News story that suggested it would be the diminished Big XII that would be aggressive in courting AAC schools to join them. That has been the normal flow of events in the conference-hopping game, though one must admit that “Big XII minus UT and OU” is a lot less formidable, and maybe not so much bigger or grander than the AAC or the Mountain West. I just enjoyed the Mouse That Roared energy from this story. Maybe it plays that way and maybe it doesn’t, but I suppose there’s no harm in assuming one is now on equal terms with a former big boy. Where it stops, nobody knows.

One more with UT, OU, and the SEC

It’s happening. I know, it’s early, and there’s resistance, and stuff can happen, but come on. It’s happening.

Texas and Oklahoma are prepared to inform the Big 12 they will not renew their media rights agreement with the league when the current deal expires in 2025, a conference-shattering move that could come as early as Monday morning.

A Big 12 source confirmed both the Longhorns and Sooners are preparing to break from the league they helped found in 1994. The Chronicle reported on Wednesday that the schools had discussed a move to the SEC and that an announcement could come in the next few weeks. Declining to extend or negotiate a new media rights agreement (first reported by Dallas television station WFAA) with the Big 12 and providing notice of intent to withdraw to will allow Texas and OU to formally begin the process of aligning with a new conference.

But Texas and Oklahoma would still be bound by the grant of rights, which bestows the schools’ first- and second-tier media rights to the Big 12. If Texas and Oklahoma exit prior to June 30, 2025, when that agreement expires, the Big 12 gets to keep the TV money a school generates even after it leaves.

Withdrawing members are also obligated to pay a commitment buyout fee. That amount is equal to conference media rights distributions that would otherwise have been paid out to the program(s). The Big 12 distributed $34.5 million each to its 10 member schools during the 2020-21 fiscal year, a $3-million drop from the previous year due to effects from the COVID-19 pandemic. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby believes distributions could jump to $40 million or more next fiscal year, which could make Texas’ potential buyout hit $80 million.

Even with all the potential obstacles – Texas A&M’s fervent objections, vitriol from the rest of the Big 12, an effort by some Texas and Oklahoma representatives to turn conference realignment into a legislative issue – the belief is Texas and Oklahoma are bound for a new conference sooner rather than later.

See here and here for the background, and here for the WFAA story. The money issue will work itself out one way or another, even if it is just a matter of waiting until the current agreements expire. I suppose that might give the legislators now frantically filing bills and making unanswered phone calls to Greg Abbott some time to throw up obstacles to UT, but I don’t believe there’s a force in this world that will stop the money train. Nothing ever has.

Assuming this does happen – and you should be – there will be massive ripple effects throughout the rest of the NCAA, just as there were a few years ago when we last went through a big round of inter-conference shuffleboard.

Expect the Big 12 to be aggressive in adding schools. It’ll knock on doors at Arizona and Arizona State. Perhaps it’ll try and lure Colorado back and pry Utah. The Pac-12 is weak now, but the core of USC, Oregon, UCLA and Washington are all more attractive to be aligned with than any of the Big 12 schools.

From there, the Big 12 will decide how big it wants to get. It has to decide whether to add two, four or six schools. Four seems like the most reasonable number, with Cincinnati, UCF, USF, BYU and Boise State the most likely candidates from outside the state of Texas. The potential addition of Houston and SMU becomes complicated, as Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech wouldn’t have much interest in more in-state competition.

Remember, it’s streaming subscriptions, not cable boxes, that matter most. BYU would appear to have the best option for that, with its national following. But BYU is always complicated, which prevented the Big 12 from adding it in 2016 when the Cougars’ complicated LGBTQ history became a factor.

UCF and USF have great markets, but would the Big 12 want two Florida footholds? Cincinnati is a preseason Top 10 team that has been working hard behind the scenes to build for this moment. It also brings a big market and fertile recruiting area.

This is all sub-optimal for the American Athletic Conference, as it’ll be a familiar trickle-down. In a similar food chain fallout that followed the ACC cannibalizing the Big East a decade ago, the Big 12 will go after the most attractive AAC candidates. The AAC will do its best to hold on to its top programs but a reconstructed Big 12 without Texas and Oklahoma should offer a more attractive financial landing spot than the current AAC.

[…]

The ACC is in a difficult spot because it ate a bad deal from ESPN to get a linear network. Now it is frozen for two decades in an antiquated agreement, as the ACC gives schools more than $32 million per year.

[ACC Commissioner Jim] Phillips needs to do something dynamic to blow up that deal and get back to the bargaining table. Those options are limited, and ESPN isn’t going to be eager to give up a sweetheart deal on its end.

The loss of Texas as an option is a huge blow to the ACC’s ambitions, as multiple sources indicated that the ACC was caught by surprise Wednesday. The ACC’s other big play was Notre Dame, but the league failed to use any leverage it had on Notre Dame as a quasi-member the past few years. The new College Football Playoff proposal doubles as a security blanket for Notre Dame’s independence, which means little incentive for it to find a league home. Especially with its own lucrative TV deal coming.

The best remaining option for the ACC will be some type of scheduling arrangement or merger with the Pac-12. And that hints at another potential ripple from this move – is this going to be remembered as the pivot point toward super conferences?

There has long been a notion in college athletics that the Big Ten and SEC were pulling away from all the other leagues because of the financial success of their networks and the corresponding success on the field. Now, the Big Ten will go to market without the adrenaline jolt that the SEC got in its deal. The only corresponding move the Big Ten could make would be a play for Notre Dame, but that remains unlikely because of how secure Notre Dame’s future is in the new football playoff.

The issue for the Big Ten would be that Ohio State is isolated as the league’s power. Could the Big Ten leverage the potential of its next deal with a move to answer, adding Virginia, Georgia Tech, Florida State, North Carolina and Clemson to cover the league’s Eastern flank and fortify the Interstate 95 corridor? There will be pressure on Warren to be bold. But the ACC is protected by a grant of rights through the length of its TV deal.

“It’s about combining forces now,” said a high-ranking college official. “Who teams up with who? Do we end up with four leagues? Do we end up with three? Or do we go to a 32-team NFL model. This is going to be earth-shattering.”

[PAC 12 Commissioner George] Kliavkoff joked on Twitter about his active first month as commissioner getting more interesting. The Pac-12 is last in line to go to market, and there’s a feeling that it needs to do something creative. There’s still great value in the West Coast, even if the football has been subpar for the past five years. But this move, the Big Ten deal and an upcoming deal for Notre Dame potentially put the Pac-12 in a position of weakness thanks to a lack of suitors.

The ripples of this potential SEC deal will be felt from coast to coast. And it’s not good news for any of the other leagues because of how much ESPN oxygen this sucks up. As one industry source put it: “The current schools in the SEC wouldn’t agree to this if all of a sudden their games are relegated to ESPNU. It’s not just money, it’s exposure.”

The ACC, PAC 12 and Big 10 all have new commissioners whose jobs just got a lot more stressful. New Big 10 Commissioner Kevin Warren had his first media day after the UT/OU story broke, and that subject was a big part of the conversation. I have no idea what’s going to happen, but assume that whatever the college football world looks like now – and as that Yahoo story notes, this is entirely driven by football, with basketball at best an afterthought – it will be different soon. If your school isn’t part of the action, it’s being left behind. I don’t make the rules and I don’t like it any more than you do, but that’s how it is.

Some legislators want to keep UT out of the SEC

This is kind of hilarious.

As the college athletics world roils over the possibility of the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 conference, a group of Texas legislators with ties to other universities in the state has mobilized.

Four prominent lawmakers — one each with ties to Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas Tech University and Texas A&M University — met with Gov. Greg Abbott’s staff Thursday, one day after news broke that UT and OU had reached out to the Southeastern Conference about joining, according to a source briefed about the meeting and an Abbott spokesperson. Abbott is a UT alumnus and outspoken Longhorn fan.

The four lawmakers were Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who chairs the influential House Appropriations Committee and attended Texas A&M; Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, who received his law degree and MBA from Texas Tech and chairs the powerful House Calendars Committee; Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who chairs the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence and was a student body president at Baylor; and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee and a former TCU athlete. Kolkhorst declined comment and the other three lawmakers did not immediately respond to requests for comments Thursday evening.

Leach and Burrows have already expressed their concern about a potential move on social media, with Leach saying on Twitter that he was “working on legislation requiring legislative approval for UT to bolt the BIG XII.”

“This is about much more than college sports,” Leach wrote. “The impact UT’s decision would have on communities & businesses all across Texas would be real, substantial and potentially devastating. On behalf of those concerned Texans, the Texas Legislature has an obligation to be involved.”

See here for the background. Nothing is happening in the Lege right now, for obvious reasons, and one wonders what motivation “outspoken Longhorns fan” Abbott would have to stop his alma mater from making this move, since he’d have to add the item to the next special session agenda. For sure, if UT and OU leave the Big XII it will consign TCU, Baylor, and Texas Tech to a diminished future, but that’s a result of longtime forces in college sports. Their foundation wouldn’t be any firmer, they’d just be holding off the tide for another day. Speaking again as a fan of a team that was left behind in the 90s, I understand their fears, but by the same token since they were among the leavers, I trust you’ll forgive me if I don’t rush to sympathize. Sean Pendergast, Jerome Solomon, and the Chron have more.

UPDATE: There’s now a bill to effect this end, HB298. If it gets added to the call, and if there’s a quorum when that happens, then maybe that has a chance. Don’t hold your breath.

UPDATE: I’m dying:

Sources: Gov. Abbott not returning calls from top Republicans in the Texas Legislature about UT trying to head to the SEC

Republicans like Chairman Dustin Burrows and Chair Brian Birdwell have filed bills to block UT from changing conferences, but of course that’s not on the special session agenda. The governor’s office has gone quiet.

There’s been a real distinct lack of high comedy this legislative season. I want to thank the universities of Texas and Oklahoma for providing the opportunity to bring a little of that back.

Are the college conference dominoes set up for a tumble again?

This would be a big deal.

A decade after major conference realignment shook up college football, big changes might again be on the horizon.

Texas and Oklahoma of the Big 12 have reached out to the Southeastern Conference about joining the powerful league, a high-ranking college official with knowledge of the situation told the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday.

An announcement could come within a couple of weeks concerning the potential addition of UT and OU to the league, the person said, which would give the SEC 16 schools and make it the first national superconference.

“Speculation swirls around collegiate athletics,” UT responded in a statement Wednesday. “We will not address rumors or speculation.”

OU, in its own similar statement, offered: “The college athletics landscape is shifting constantly. We don’t address every anonymous rumor.”

[…]

Another person with knowledge of the schools’ interest in jumping to the SEC said it could be the first step in the long-awaited break between haves and have-nots in the college sports world. Most of those scenarios have involved four superconferences of 16 schools each, but the observer said the eventual winnowing down could result in an NFL-like scenario with as few as 20 to 30 schools in the top tier.

The eventual impact, the second source said, could be the biggest change agent in college sports since the 1984 court decision involving Oklahoma and Georgia that allowed schools to market certain media rights without being limited to conference-only agreements.

“You’re going to see shifts happen like they’ve never happened before,” he added, “but it’s not going to happen for another three years.”

The recent developments in athletics (possible expansion of the college football playoff) and legal circles (players’ ability to profit from their name, image and likeness) are leading Oklahoma and Texas to consider moves based not on regional or competitive ties but on economic forces.

The Big 12’s TV contract with ESPN and Fox expires in 2025. Texas Tech president Lawrence Schovanec said in May that the two networks had declined to discuss extending the contract past 2025.

“The general result is that, at this time, with so much uncertainty in the media marketplace as well as the landscape for collegiate athletics, our partners, ESPN and FOX, are not interested in acting preemptively with regard to our contract,” Schovanec told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in late May. “They recognize the importance of our partnership, but there’s just too much uncertainty, and they do have four years to go.”

As colleges face new challenges with name, image and likeness reforms and the recent Supreme Court decision that cast doubt on the NCAA’s beloved “student-athlete” model, the second source said, more powerful schools will seek to protect their economic base by flocking to like-minded superpowers.

“Schools have worked so hard to hide the fact that the collegiate game is nothing but the NFL hiding behind the veil of education,” the second source said. “Sports is mirroring what is happening in the broader context of society. It is not exempt from the same forces that affected K-mart or Blockbuster, who enjoyed success but were not able to change. To survive, you have to be able to change in real time.”

As the story notes, it’s been nine years since Texas A&M and Missouri left the Big XII for the SEC; Nebraska and Colorado also departed the conference, for the Big 10 and the PAC 12, respectively. A&M’s athletic director is quoted in the story as being unfavorable to the idea – basically, A&M got there first and they deserve to have the SEC to themselves – but I doubt that will carry much weight in the end. Money talks, and UT and OU represent a lot of it.

If this happens, and I’m inclined to believe it will, we will wind up with a vastly different college athletics landscape in short order. For one thing, the Big XII will lose pretty much all of its glamour, and may well end up on the outside looking in when that “four 16-team superconference” world comes into existence. (On the plus side, UH might finally get accepted into the Big XII.) As a longtime fan of a school that’s never going to be more than cannon fodder in this world, I’m not interested in the palace intrigue of it all. You have to be able to handle a lot of cognitive dissonance to be a college sports fan. The recent NCAA ruling over “name, image, likeness” rights makes things a little better for the athletes themselves, but this is never going to be an equitable world. You make your peace with it or you find some other thing to occupy your Saturdays in the fall and weekends in March. ESPN and Texas Monthly, which is warming up the death knell for the Big XII, have more.