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The Red River Rivalry, in the Eye of the Storm

Texas and Oklahoma stunned the college football world by announcing their move to the SEC. As the schools prepare to face off on Saturday, it’s worth exploring what their realignment will change—and what’s changing around it.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Texas and Oklahoma will play Saturday in the Cotton Bowl at the Texas State Fair in Dallas, as they have since 1932, and as they will in 2032 and long beyond. Even as many big-time football games have moved from the nearly century-old venue to the fancy billion-dollar stadium in which the Cowboys play in Arlington—even the Cotton Bowl game is no longer held in the Cotton Bowl stadium—the Red River rivalry has stayed put. It is as perfect as college football can be: 90,000 screaming fans, split down the middle, with 45,000 wearing crimson and 45,000 wearing burnt orange. The game takes place in the shadow of a giant flammable cowboy, and is surrounded by billions of calories of the most egregiously fried food in human history. Nobody would change a damn thing.

But change is coming to Texas and Oklahoma. In July, both schools stunned the college sports world by accepting invitations to join the SEC starting in 2025. The Longhorns and Sooners have long been the pillars holding up the Big 12: Texas is routinely ranked as the most valuable program in the nation; Oklahoma has won the league in each of the past six seasons. The pair is heading to a conference that is already the most successful in college football, having produced 11 of the past 15 national champions. Now it will also be the biggest in major college football, not only in terms of literal size (16 teams), but also in terms of power, prestige, and profit. Earlier this year, European soccer fans shot down a proposed Super League, protesting when the sport’s biggest brands abandoned the smaller ones. I get the feeling that college football fans—famous for bragging about their conferences’ wealth and success—will not be taking to the streets.

Despite this massive news, college football has seemed to change its focus rather quickly. That’s because what feels like a decade of developments has taken place in the span of a few months. In many ways, the Texas and Oklahoma move has been discussed less than Nebraska’s 2010 move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten, which was treated like an earth-shattering change at the time. Now, I’m pretty sure Nebraska could drop its athletics program altogether and it wouldn’t even make the A-block on SportsCenter.

The plate tectonics of college football are shifting into overdrive. Continents keep smashing into each other, volcanoes keep erupting, and earthquakes keep rocking the sport to its core. Sometimes a new mountain range pops up and it’s not that big a deal, because entire regions are falling into the ocean. All of the following has happened since July:

  • Texas and Oklahoma, two of the most iconic programs in college football, decided to leave the Big 12 for the SEC.
  • To replace Texas and Oklahoma, the Big 12 announced that it would welcome four new member schools: BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF. All four have previously managed to find high-profile success from outside of the sport’s traditional power conferences. Once a regional league representing Texas and the Plains, the Big 12 will stretch all the way from Florida to Utah.
  • Since Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF are currently part of the American Athletic Conference, that league has had to scramble to reinvent its identity. Over the past few years, the AAC has carved out a niche as a home for outsiders capable of shaking up the equilibrium of college sports. Now it needs to poach teams from smaller leagues, which in turn will need to poach teams from FCS conferences, which in turn will need to poach teams from Division II.
  • The rest of college football has made clear that it’s furious at the SEC. In response to the Texas-Oklahoma realignment news, the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 formed an alliance, which was billed as a very big deal but is probably just an agreement to schedule games. A proposed expansion to the College Football Playoff was supposed to be rubber-stamped by the commissioners of the various conferences, but those plans have been derailed since SEC commissioner Greg Sankey was one of the leaders pushing for the 12-team format, and nobody trusts him after his league stole away another conference’s two top programs. (I’m not joking: The commissioners agreed that the 12-team playoff was a great idea, but then Texas and Oklahoma moved, and everybody became suspicious of Sankey. Maybe the 12-team playoff is part of his secret plan!)
NCAA FOOTBALL: OCT 11 Texas at Oklahoma
Longhorns fans during the Red River Rivalry in 2014
Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Texas and Oklahoma will keep playing in the Cotton Bowl, but their move will trigger other changes. Oklahoma has played against Oklahoma State in the perfectly named Bedlam game every season since 1910, and the two have been conference mates since the 1950s. It’s unclear whether these schools will continue to face off now that their games will no longer be part of conference play. On the other hand, Texas A&M—which proudly cut off its rivalry with Texas upon moving to the SEC in 2012—will now likely have to play the Longhorns every year. The Aggies aren’t thrilled about it.

When a 13-0 Mountain West team doesn’t get into an unexpanded playoff a few years from now, that will be because of Texas-Oklahoma. When UCF’s softball team makes a five-hour flight from Orlando to Salt Lake City for a regularly scheduled conference game against BYU, that will be because of Texas-Oklahoma. When Arizona State plays Wake Forest as part of the alliance, that will be because of Texas-Oklahoma. College football is a deeply strange ecosystem. And the biggest tectonic shifts in the sport aren’t even linked to the continental crashing of realignment.

While the athletic departments of Texas and Oklahoma are poised to bring in millions of dollars in extra revenue as part of their move to the SEC, the biggest shift to the sport stems from the recent changes to decades-old policies that prevented college athletes from making money.

College athletes can appear in commercials now. For generations, the NCAA forbade athletes from capitalizing on their fame. But as politicians realized that the NCAA’s policies were increasingly unpopular—and that government laws superseded any rules adopted by the NCAA, which is not a legitimate legislative branch—they began to pass laws that allow athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness rights. Soon, state politicians were bragging about helping in-state schools land better recruits.

In another blow for the NCAA, the Supreme Court issued a 9-0 decision against the association in June in a case restricting the amount of money athletes can receive from schools to offset their academic expenditures. The legal scope of the ruling itself was narrow, but an opinion by Justice Brett Kavanaugh hinted that if the court had been given the option to rule on the NCAA’s overall business model, that model would’ve been deemed illegal. “Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate,” Kavanaugh wrote. “And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different. The NCAA is not above the law.”

Oklahoma v Texas
Sooners fans at Red River in 2011
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

After decades of courts carving out a loophole through which college sports could prevent athletes from receiving the money they generate, the highest court in the land acknowledged that none of this was rational. And NCAA president Mark Emmert quietly admitted that the association should have a much smaller role in the future. The beleaguered head of the organization said that it was time to “rethink” college sports instead of applying the same rules it has arbitrarily enforced for more than 100 years. He said the NCAA should do the “bare minimum” to constrain athletes. It’s not every day that someone comes out and admits that most of his job has been pointless. But for the first time in his career, Emmert is right.

What does the NCAA do exactly? The more you dig, the more it looks like nothing. The organization has been clear through words and actions that it doesn’t have a real role. As COVID-19 threatened the 2020 NCAA seasons in all sports, the association threw up its hands and said individual schools and conferences were responsible for making their own decisions, leading to the most disjointed year in college sports history. The NCAA didn’t alter its NIL rules until June 30, a move forced by many state laws going into effect on July 1. These were two areas in which the NCAA had an opportunity to lead; instead it sat on the sideline. The NCAA is equally useless with its own investigations: It recently issued a report on the sexual assault crisis at Baylor which resulted in head coach Art Briles’s 2016 firing; after five years, the NCAA concluded it lacked standing in the matter. It only has jurisdiction when athletes eat too much pasta.

It feels increasingly ridiculous that anybody would subject themselves to governance by the NCAA, which clearly can’t govern itself. And it feels increasingly clear that the largest schools in the sport have what it takes to separate themselves from the organization. While the NCAA still runs the famous basketball tournaments that take place every March, the College Football Playoff is run independently of the NCAA, by the 10 FBS conferences and Notre Dame. In 2014, the NCAA granted the five largest football conferences “autonomy,” allowing them to pass rules that wouldn’t have to apply to the NCAA’s thousands of smaller schools. The primary benefit of being part of the NCAA is that conferences get payouts from the men’s basketball tournament, but those payouts are dwarfed by the money conferences make from football media rights. After expanding, the SEC alone is likely to generate more money than the NCAA.

The modern NCAA is a scarecrow guarding a Fisher-Price hoop—if you want to dunk on it, go right ahead. All nine Supreme Court justices, both conservative and liberal, took a chance to throw down on the association. In our deadlocked political environments, Democrats and Republicans are teaming up to alley-oop on the NCAA. A report about the NCAA basketball tournaments not only noted that the association suffered from systemic gender inequity issues, but also pointed out that it would make significantly more money from the TV rights to its women’s basketball tournament if it hadn’t downplayed the event’s importance and lumped it in with other, less valuable tournaments. Everyone is dunking on the NCAA, but You’re so sexist that you’re going broke is the 360 tomahawk.

Oklahoma Sooners v Texas Longhorns
A view from the stands during the 1955 Red River Rivalry
Set Number: X3157

For all the drastic changes happening around college sports, most of the things being discussed aren’t new. Take the NIL conversation. Ten years ago, Ohio State lost quarterback Terrelle Pryor after he and other players exchanged memorabilia for discounts on tattoos. Not even free tattoos! Discounts! Now, Clemson’s quarterback is in a Dr Pepper commercial.

But this progression feels natural. We’ve long known that college football all but prints cash. Coaches and athletic directors are millionaires, and teams boast lavish, hundred-million-dollar practice facilities. The sport has a game called the Cheez-It Bowl in which the winning coach gets a Gatorade cooler full of Cheez-Its dumped on his head. It’s not news that there’s a market for players cashing in on endorsements—it’s just that the NCAA has always punished players for taking the money people were willing to give them. Really, there has never been anything more perfectly college football than an offensive line promoting a local BBQ joint in exchange for free food.

Similar logic applies with Texas and Oklahoma’s realignment. Those programs playing in the SEC feels wrong—but it’s not even the first time these specific schools have changed conferences for money. Texas used to be part of the Southwest Conference, and Oklahoma used to be part of the Big Eight. They linked up to form the Big 12 back in the 1990s, pursuing a more nationally relevant league and bigger payouts. Back then, the schools getting screwed were the SWC teams that didn’t get the Big 12 call-up, like Rice and SMU; now, the schools getting screwed are Big 12 teams being abandoned, like Kansas State and TCU. While the SEC superconference is novel, the premise of brand-name programs joining up to create a more profitable league is one of college football’s true constants.

What’s unique about this moment in college football is not that changes are occuring—it’s the intent of those changes. For years, the sport changed so that schools and conferences could maximize profit under the extant NCAA power structure. Now, it feels as if schools are capable of existing without the NCAA, a once-authoritative organization that is clearly dying. The SEC superconference could probably live on its own; so too could the budding alliance. Why should they subject themselves to the NCAA’s chaos and potential punishments in exchange for so little?

One thing that remains unclear: If the NCAA dies—and it’s a walking corpse—will the prohibitions against players getting paid die with it? Is the widespread acceptance of players receiving NIL benefits an earnestly held belief that players have long been wronged by the system? Or is it simply a concession made to prevent giving up bigger gains? I’m skeptical that larger, stronger conferences will be a net good for college football—but if some of the cash from these cash grabs goes to the players, I’m all for it.

Texas and Oklahoma will play Saturday in the Cotton Bowl at the Texas State Fair in Dallas, as they have since 1932, and as they will in 2032 and long beyond. They played there as respective members of the Big Eight and Southwest Conference; they played there as members of the Big 12; they will play there as members of the SEC. They played there after Big Tex burned down and was rebuilt; they played there through countless innovations in the fried foods sold outside the stadium. They will play there whether the NCAA lives or dies. The Red River rivalry is a tale of how college football can change in a million ways and stay exactly the same.