Senators Battle Over Big 12 NCAA Football

Politics and sports aren't such strange bedfellows.

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The Big 12 athletic conference has officially invited the West Virginia Mountaineers into its ranks, signaling yet another shift in the unstable college football landscape. It also was the result of furious lobbying from lawmakers all across the map to push for their alma maters and favored colleges to gain the upper hand in negotiations with powerful football conferences.

West Virginia's move to the Big 12 had long been rumored, but was allegedly put on hold earlier this week. According to a New York Times report, one reason the conference suddenly got cold feet was because of calls from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who pushed for the University of Louisville to get the spot rather than WVU. The reports sparked fury from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat and former athlete for the Mountaineers. (His college career was cut short by an injury during practice.) "If these outrageous reports have any merit—and especially if a United States Senator has done anything inappropriate or unethical to interfere with a decision that the Big 12 had already made—then I believe that there should be an investigation in the U.S. Senate, and I will fight to get the truth," Manchin said in a statement released on Wednesday.

[Slideshow: The blurry line between sports and politics.]

It may seem ridiculous that senators are squabbling about college football at a time when unemployment is at 9.1 percent and the national debt is at nearly $15 trillion. But ridiculous or not, college football, and athletics is general, is a multibillion-dollar business that employs thousands of people. Both college and professional athletics determine how millions of dollars of public funds are spent. In this case, WVU's new membership in the Big 12 could mean a potential windfall in shared revenue. In a way, sticking up for the Mountaineers and the Louisville Cardinals is exactly what voters expect out of Manchin and McConnell. "Federal law lends itself to Congress at least having opportunities to investigate. There are potentially antitrust implications in conference realignment and NCAA activities," says Michael McCann, professor at Vermont Law School and an expert on sports law. "Whether it's a good idea is another question." McCann said that Congress has pushed sports toward meaningful changes, such as Major League Baseball's new policies on steroids.

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In addition, many sports leagues might not exist today if it weren't for Washington and government. Professional sports leagues rely on antitrust exemptions from Congress and the Supreme Court for leeway to create nationwide television contracts, and without public assistance from state and local governments to build stadiums and other venues, many franchises would fold. Supposedly outraged by the brutality of college football in its early days, President Theodore Roosevelt called the presidents of the major universities to the White House in 1905 and helped create the precursor to the NCAA. Like it or not, politics and sports have always been joined at the hip.

Twitter: @AlexParkerDC