Realignment: A Study in Confirmation Bias

Whether or not Aggies-to-the-SEC ends up happening this summer (and it still seems likely it will), it has become crystal clear that Texas A&M WANTS to leave. However, that is just about the only thing that could be called "crystal clear" in this whole situation. It's not 100% illuminated why exactly the Ags want out; depending who you ask, it's to get out of UT's shadow, to improve their national exposure, to control their own destiny in what they see as an inevitable national realignment, to get into a conference with equal revenue sharing, or some combination of those and other reasons.

The key phrase there is "depending on who you ask." That same phrase fits neatly at the beginning of any statement regarding the driving force behind this impending shift in the college football universe. If you try to look objectively at the various theories floating around the internet, each one has some level-headed and fact-based argument to support it. However, for every one of those rational explanations, each theory also has five wild-eyed partisans waving the bloody shirt and calling everyone else dirty names. Therein lies the problem: this conversation has essentially turned into a 24-hour news network. Enough rational people support just about every theory such that people with already-developed opinions about certain schools and institutions are able to say, "See?! I told you (insert institution) was nothing but a bunch of (greedy jerks/whiny babies/sycophants/cheaters)." Let's take a look at what's out there, and who seems to believe it, and why that means almost none of its contributes to any intelligent discourse.

First, lets admit our own biases. As Texas fans, we obviously have an interest in the maintenance of the status quo. In our minds, last summer's Armageddon never happened largely because of our decision to save college sports from the impending doom of 16-team superconferences that would increase travel for teams and fans while destroying traditional rivalries and a lot of the differences we love between collegiate and professional athletics. Therefore, in our minds the Aggies are undoing a good thing and are screwing everything up way earlier than anyone expected. They want to jump to a conference with "equal revenue sharing?" Considering they're one of the three schools guaranteed to outdo everyone else in the current Big 12 deal, excuse us if we find their altruism toward Vanderbilt somewhat insincere. They want to "increase the prestige of their football program?" Again, we find this somewhat tough to believe considering it's at least as likely that they'll struggle to ever win an SEC championship as it is that this move will vault them to national prominence. Ask Ole Miss if merely playing in the SEC without a title since Manning left (Archie, not Eli) makes them feel like a national powerhouse. 

No, from where we're sitting it looks like A&M is simply acting like the petulant little brother. They don't like that this is clearly a conference anchored by Texas (and Oklahoma), and they have been taking crap from their fans all year for cowering in the face of pressure from Texas rather than leave for the SEC in 2010. They don't like that we have our own TV network and that they couldn't possibly afford to start one of their own in the foreseeable future, or that we mooted the idea of showing high school games (even though that issue seems to have been resolved). We think they're not so high on free market capitalism at its finest unless it benefits them and only them, and we think DeLoss Dodds is simply an intelligent entrepreneur who has used Texas' natural advantages to distance our athletic program from A&M's. If that makes them want to take their ball and go home, so be it. To be honest, many of us have decided (at least behind the mask of the internet) that we don't really care if the Aggies leave. They'll get pounded in the SEC; they'll become the fourth or even fifth most powerful recruiting machine in the state, staying behind Texas and OU while falling behind some hybrid of LSU, Alabama, and Auburn. They'll be irrelevant in a couple of decades and we'll still be Texas. Plus, they may not even get the game they so look forward to every year, and we'll just end the all-time series for good at 75-37-5 in favor of the good guys. That'll show 'em.

A little part of us is also probably reacting against the fact that a lot of folks are blaming us for the Ags wanting to leave. Not only A&M fans, but also others (more on this below). We feel blindsided--we're the ones who worked out the deal to keep the conference! They were happy with it a year ago, and it's not like the LHN i somehow a surprise! Why is this all of a sudden our fault because A&M decided to try and stick it to the conference now? If anything, we say, shouldn't they be doubly blamed for going along with last summer's saving of the Big 12 only to do exactly what they threatened then a year later? Shouldn't they be held accountable for their wishy-washiness?

But we only feel this way because we are Longhorn fans. We're not looking for something to tell us what's really happening; we're looking for something to confirm what we already believe about the Aggies, or what we want to believe about ourselves. A lot of that is probably true; hell, we're inclined to believe almost all of it is true. But we went to Texas.

What of the Aggies? Again, to judge only by the internet chatter, they're elated that their administration seems finally to have grown a pair. The way they see it, the reason people want to blame Texas for "blowing up" the conference both last summer and with the Ags' possible departure is that Texas is to blame. How much money is enough, Longhorns? Do you really need to antagonize everyone else in the league in the name of starting your own network, and then rub it in by announcing that you'll broadcast high school games on it? And are we really supposed to believe that having the top prep stars in the state appear on your network won't be a recruiting advantage for you? (Yes, but...nevermind).

Texas (texas?) fans griping that the Aggies will be bottom-dwellers in the SEC are really just showing their ignorance and jealousy. If anything, the recruiting shift will be in A&M's favor, as kids can now stay home in Texas and still compete in the SEC. That advantage will be even more pronounced if Texas ends up someday moving to the Big Ten or the Pac 12: all else being equal, won't most parents prefer to have their kid playing where the travel is a more manageable trip to Baton Rouge or Tuscaloosa rather than Tempe or Salt Lake City? And it's not the entrepreneurial spririt of the LHN that bothers them; if Texas fans really want to pay for it, go ahead. It's the audacity to ask other conference teams to put Big 12 football games on Texas' own network; plus, if every school is free to use its bargaining power to improve itself the way Texas did with the Network, who should the Aggies not be able to do the same by moving into the SEC?

But they only feel that way because they are Aggies. They want the story to confirm their own preconceived notions about the universe: A&M is righteous and truly Texan, while t.u. has sold its soul for the almighty dollar and represents all that is wrong with college sports. So that's what they have decided is going on here.

Then there's everyone else. Last summer, Nebraska decided they were leaving, and Colorado got spooked so they left too. Texas fans see Nebraska's departure in much the same way we see A&M's apparent desire to move on: it was an immature move that jeopardized the future of traditional programs like Kansas and Iowa...K-St...Bayl...OK, just Kansas. Still, they had helped create a league where the biggest TV draws got a disproportionate amount of the TV revenue, and now that Texas was the biggest TV draw and Nebraska wasn't they whined and joined the Big Ten. Nebraska's version of events was that the league had become too Texas-centric, that the entire state--but mostly the Longhorns--had received an invitation from the prestigious Big Eight as a life-raft from the dying SWC and that Texas had shown its gratitude by becoming the bully on the block and running the league from Austin. Heading to a conference where they would be treated with more respect was simply the rational and intelligent thing to do.

The split on which version of events to believe seemed then, as now, to depend on preexisting biases. For Big 12 fans who were already predisposed to hate Nebraska more than Texas, the Huskers were the bad guys who had ruined everything. For people who hated Texas more, the Longhorns had driven Nebraska out of its own conference with strong-arm tactics and bullying. The same thing is happening now; anecdotally, a friend of ours who is an Arkansas fan declared that all this is happening "because of UT greed." Some fans of what used to be the Big 12 North have similarly piled on, blaming Texas for "blowing up the conference twice in two years." However, with a year of perspective and with the realization of what might happen to them if Texas used Aggie's departure as an excuse to join a new league or go independent (K-State to the MAC, anyone?), most such fans have decided to side with Texas here. It's the Aggies taking affirmative steps to undo what was done a year ago, they reason--the Ags hold the future in their hands as Texas is perfectly content to stay in bed with the Iowa States of the world (at least for now).

The point, though, is that everyone's opinion on all this is based exclusively on self-interest. The real version of the events and motivations and appropriate blame and everything else is, as it almost always is, probably some combination of the various theories out there. Both the Longhorns' and the Aggies' preferred narratives of what an SEC move would do to recruiting in Texas, for instance, are plausible. But they both predict the unpredicatble; the fans of each school will latch onto whichever provides them comfort. No one really wants to learn anything; no one really wants to challenge themselves. They just want the "facts" to make them feel like the good guys.

Of course, the real future may result in no change at all. But we tend to doubt it.

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