Put aside for a minute the nature of the argument, true or false, who knows what when. That it’s happening this way is a reflection on who has more and more power in college sports. Not coaches or longtime sports administrators, but television executives.
“As described below, the existence of the impermissible project is proven,” Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti wrote to Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel initially. three-game suspension for Harbaugh last Friday. “As other investigative agencies continue to develop additional evidence about the scope, extent and individual knowledge of the system that may advise additional or enhanced sanctions in the future, taking immediate action is appropriate and necessary as part of the Conference’s sportsmanship policy.”
Um, well, no. Even now that the issue is (at least temporarily) resolved, the decision was rushed, so much so that it felt as if Petitti had caved in to pressure from coaches and administrators at other schools in his conference, many of whom have a personal and professional disgust for Harbaugh. .
If you don’t support Michigan or one of its conference rivals (hello, Buckeyes), this remains a delicious college football scandal worthy of grabbing a bucket of popcorn and putting your feet up on a beanbag. One of the sport’s blue bloods using clearly illegal tactics (sign stealing is allowed, but not through prior reconnaissance at other schools’ stadiums) to potentially gain a marginal advantage in games he was all about. way to win? It’s both silly and serious, with the most volatile of all sports entities — college football fan bases — in a tithe. Not to mention the Michigan state legislature.
“We know that college football is a topic fraught with emotions on all sides,” wrote state Rep. Graham Filler. in a report announcing a bipartisan letter sent by 11 lawmakers to Petitti, urging due process for Harbaugh. “The important thing here is to let the facts determine the outcome of this investigation.”
Among Filler’s credentials: being co-founder of “Off-Tackle Empire,” a Big Ten athletics blog.
You can’t make this stuff up.
This situation constitutes Petitti’s first major public challenge as Big Ten commissioner, a job he accepted in April. Google “Tony Petitti.” What appears under his name: Television producer.
Now, that’s not entirely accurate. But it’s telling. Petitti’s CV: Harvard Law School. Vice President of Programming at ABC, where his major accomplishment was helping create the Bowl Championship Series that delivered college football’s first true national championship game. Executive vice president of CBS Sports, where his main accomplishment was helping the network regain the rights to NFL broadcasts. A top executive in Major League Baseball, where one of his major accomplishments was the launch of MLB Network.
TV, TV, TV and more TV. Clearly, Petitti is a passionate and brilliant executive. But a person’s background can only shape their worldview. Such a comprehensive record reveals what is important to them. And now he’s supposed to respond to 14… almost 18 years old – college presidents and, by extension, the athletic directors they employ and, by extension, the frothing fans they represent.
These are difficult waters for anyone to navigate, let alone someone doing it for the first time.
This is not a plea for conferences or schools to traditionally hire career sports department enthusiasts, people like SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey or ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips, neither of whom hasn’t worked a day outside of college athletics. College sports move at the speed of light. It is clear that the status quo will not work in a generation, a decade or a year. Change is good.
But consider the hiring trend among conferences in recent years. Petitti replaced Kevin Warren, a lawyer and longtime NFL executive who was hired by the Minnesota Vikings and left being president of the Chicago Bears. Warren’s signature move would appear to be adding UCLA and USC to the Big Ten. It’s more likely to land a seven-year, $7 billion media rights deal this will go a long way toward funding the conference’s massive athletic departments.
The other recently hired commissioners: Brett Yormark, who arrived in the Big 12 in 2022 after three years as COO of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, 14 years as president and COO of Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment (which oversees the Nets of the NBA and its arena), and six years at NASCAR; and George Kliavkoff, who came to the Pac 12 after serving, among other things, as director of MGM Resorts International.
Kliavkoff faces an existential crisis with his conference. Yormark had to pull schools from the crumbling Pac-12 to save his own. Part of the Pac-12’s collapse stemmed from Kliavkoff’s inability to strike a media rights deal that seemed to suit its member schools. That television funds college sports has been true for generations. The financial fuel of the entire effort will remain the same even if the means of distribution change – from cable to streaming or whatever.
But hiring businesspeople to lead deals has consequences for the players who make the product and the coaches who provide year-over-year stability to implement it. The commissioners’ duties are carried out in closed-door meeting rooms, where all that matters is the bottom line: a television contract and the “how much” in years and “how much” in cash it brings in. Leadership in these situations is very different from leading in public, where process is important and firmness and transparency are paramount.
Suspending Harbaugh before an NCAA investigation is complete at least leaves the impression that Petitti has capitulated to the mob with their pitchforks and torches. This does not mean that a leader without experience in college sports cannot successfully lead a conference or school through a crisis. This simply means that there is no experience in the matter, and it leaves open the possibility that, for example, a television executive does not have an idea of all the stakeholders involved. In this case, “stakeholders” does not mean network partners. That means the institutions, sports programs, and people who devote much of their time, emotions, and finances to them.
A lot of things in college sports revolve around that feeling. It’s an idea of the story. It’s a feeling of tradition. It’s a feeling of passion. TV money fuels the modern version of all this, and it’s much more of a business than an extracurricular activity at academic institutions. But handing that power over to C-Suite executives risks moving college athletics further away from what still makes it special, which is everything that existed before TV money mattered. way.