The Big 12 hits stop button on expansion: So ESPN avoids faith issue in new coverage?

I grew up in Texas during the glory days of the old Southwest Conference (which was a pretty tough time to be a Baylor University fan, until the legendary Grant Teaff came along). Thus, even though I live in the heart of SEC Country, I still pay close attention to what is happening over in the Big 12 (yes, which currently has 10 members).

At the moment -- in terms of journalism -- there is much more to Big 12 gazing than watching football. Yes, there is a religion-news hook here. The question of whether the Big 12 will add new members to get back to 12 has turned, in part, into yet another battle between LGBTQ activists and allies of traditional religious groups.

Notice that I did not say this is a religious-liberty conflict.

The Big 12 is, of course, not a government agency. We are talking about a private, voluntary association of schools and, thus, the conference's leaders are pretty much free to create and tweak their membership requirements whenever and however they choose to do so. Voluntary associations -- left and right -- can define their own rules and, well, doctrines.

This brings us to the Big 12 candidacy of Brigham Young University and, in the long run, it's easy to see questions being raised about the Big 12 status of charter-member Baylor. Yes, this is another story linked to religious private schools having the right to promote and even protect the religious doctrines on which they were founded. Hold that thought.

As always, if is good to pay close attention to the ESPN coverage of this controversy. It's significant that the BYU controversy received zero ink in the most recent report on the Big 12 decision not to expand. Here is the key material from the top of that report:

Even though the Big 12 announced that its decision not to expand was unanimous, sources told ESPN on Tuesday there were schools that ultimately agreed to go along with the plan when it became obvious the conference would not reach the supermajority needed to expand.
In a 714-word league memo covering the league's talking points, obtained by ESPN, the first two items instructed officials to "Indicate the Board arrived at a "Unanimous Consensus" and say "the Board was unanimous in its desire and commitment to stay at 10 members."
The internal Big 12 memo also suggested conference officials not "indicate that TV influenced [its] decision" and that the Big 12 was not "psychologically disadvantaged" because it didn't expand.

What schools were being considered?

The Big 12 initially considered 19 schools and that list was trimmed to 11 -- Air Force, BYU, UCF, Cincinnati, Colorado State, UConn, Houston, Rice, South Florida, SMU and Tulane -- all of which conducted in-person meetings with conference officials in Dallas last month.

If you follow college football at all, it's easy to see that the University of Houstonand BYU would be at the top of that list, in terms of BYU's national following and, with Houston, the potential to reach a massive TV market. In other words, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has lots of members all over the place and UH is located in Houston. #DUH

This ESPN report also included a very interesting pair of lists that were distributed after the meeting. One list told officials from Big 12 members what to say about this decision and the other told them what topics to avoid. Here is that second list.

Do not:

• Say we are at a competitive disadvantage.
• Say revenue determines strength.
• Say expansion is dilutive.
• Say candidates were not deemed Power 5 worthy.
• Refer to any specific expansion candidate/school by name.
• Indicate that TV influenced decision.
• [Say] we are psychologically disadvantaged.
• Discuss 2024-25 as a grant of rights issues.

That's an interesting list, especially when you compare this with a previous ESPN report on what was happening during crunch time, as the Big 12 meetings drew near. In that article, BYU received its own sub-headline, in the list of issues to be resolved. As in:

Months ago, BYU was viewed as the frontrunner in any Big 12 expansion scenario. With a passionate national fan base, strong football tradition, top-35 TV market in Salt Lake City and solid academic credentials, BYU checked every box of the criteria the Big 12 said it would be analyzing.

You can hear the word "but" is just ahead.

But the LGBT community's opposition to BYU because of its honor code has turned BYU's candidacy "toxic," as one Big 12 insider characterized it. "Their appeal doesn't outweigh the baggage, even though the appeal is great," another said.

How many schools would it take to block expansion? That would be two out of the 10 schools. And:

Earlier this month, Iowa State's student government passed a resolution opposing a BYU Big 12 invite, noting that "BYU's discriminatory policies and practices are inconsistent with the values of the Big 12."

But on the other side of the debate:

"BYU makes all the sense in the world from a football perspective," said one Big 12 source.
Given the current climate, however, that might not be enough for the Cougars to get an invitation, at least without some give on its honor code.

So, if a doctrinal code is out of line if it stresses that sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin, then what is Baylor's status -- short- and long-term -- in this Power 5 conference? After all, even after recent changes (leading to major press coverage and the this earlier GetReligion post) the Baylor policy handbook still contains a reference to the Baptist Faith and Message document of 1963, which teaches:

Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime. It is Gods unique gift to reveal the union between Christ and His church, and to provide for the man and the woman in marriage the framework for intimate companionship, the channel for sexual expression according to biblical standards, and the means for procreation of the human race.

So here, for sports journalists and others, is the big question lurking in the background as this story rolls on, and you know debates about this topic will continue.

Did Big 12 officials decide that adding BYU would create a critical mass on the LGBTQ issue? Thus, it was best to play it safe. I mean, was this topic -- which received major attention in that earlier ESPN story and elsewhere in the mainstream (and gay) press -- too hot to even be included in the "do not discuss" PR list?

Once again let me stress: The Big 12 is a private, voluntary association. It is perfectly free to change its membership requirements. Also, private religious schools -- such as BYU and Baylor -- are currently free, under the First Amendment, to defend the doctrines that define life on their campuses.

Journalists: The question is whether the powers that be in big-money sports will continue to tolerate religious groups that teach doctrines that clash with Sexual Revolution orthodoxy. There is no away around that clash and that clash is a big, big story in American sports, religion and culture.

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