U.S. senator Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican, on Wednesday drafted a letter to U.S. attorney general Merrick Garland asking for the Department of Justice to launch a formal investigation into ESPN and what role, if any, the network played in the defections of the universities of Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 Conference to the Southeastern Conference.
The intended moves were announced in a joint statement by the schools a week ago Monday, and by week's end the SEC membership had voted unanimously to allow Texas and OU into a new 16-team league by 2025. That left the Big 12 with only eight teams and a lot of questions about the future of the conference.
“I write today to ask that the DOJ investigate ESPN’s role in the potential destruction of the Big 12 Conference,” Marshall wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Wichita Eagle, “and if any anti-competitive or illegal behavior occurred relating to manipulating the conference change or ESPN’s contractual television rights.”
Last week, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby sent a cease-and-desist letter to ESPN, accusing the TV network of conspiring with at least one other conference to break up the Big 12. As reported by the Eagle, Bowlsby suggested that ESPN helped the Sooners and Longhorns find a new conference home and that ESPN worked with the American Athletic Conference in hopes of poaching several of the Big 12’s remaining teams, such as Kansas and Kansas State.
Bowlsby and others believe ESPN played a role in breaking up the Big 12 as a way to add value to its partnership with SEC. If more teams decided to leave for the American Athletic Conference, that would allow ESPN to get out of the remainder of its lucrative Big 12 contract and enhance the AAC.
“Our conference has never strategically aligned or plotted with ESPN to influence conference structures,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said, as reported by the Eagle. “We wouldn’t do that. ESPN has never done that and would not do it. We do consult with our television and business partners on issues related to our conference. Everyone does, of course. But any suggestions or statements that we colluded with ESPN with regard to the structure of any other conference is a completely unfounded and grossly irresponsible accusation.”
Bowsly, who went so far as to say that ESPN was engaging in a clear act of deception against the Big 12 and claim he had irrefutable proof without providing any, has since agreed to deescalate public rhetoric on the topic.
However, Marshall, who graduated from KU medical school and also holds a biology degree from K-State with a minor in nuclear physics, continues the legislative fight.