Jason Miyares. Official portrait.
Jason Miyares. Official portrait.

Scarcely a day goes by that I don’t come across some news story speculating about realignment of college athletic conferences.

Or, should I say, further realignment.

College conferences have always been in flux but those changes used to take place at a more glacial pace and involved tweaks here or there. Now those changes are coming more quickly and involve some pretty seismic changes. The most recent was the announcement that the University of Southern California and UCLA were going to split from the Pac-12 and join the Big Ten, which used to be thought of as a Midwestern conference. 

Geography now seems something of an afterthought. Instead, the primary driver behind a lot of these conference changes is money, specifically in the form of TV revenues. College sports at the Division I level has involved the so-called “Power 5” conferences but increasingly we’re seeing two of those conferences — the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference — pull away from the others in terms of TV dollars. The Big Ten has a TV deal that will pay each school $80 million to $100 million. The SEC deal will pay each school about $70 million. By contrast, the Atlantic Coast Conference — of which Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia are members — are locked in a deal that pays each school about $30.6 million. 

You don’t have to be a math major to see there’s a big difference there. That’s created some unease (that might be a mild word) among some ACC members. Seven of them — Clemson, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Virginia and Virginia Tech — have been meeting to explore their options. The ACC responded by promising to rejigger the way it distributes that money, to give more money to the more athletically successful schools, but it seems difficult to rejigger it enough that the top schools are getting Big Ten- and SEC-level money. That has set in motion an internet full of speculation about which schools might go where if they are somehow able to wriggle free from the ACC’s “grant of rights” that binds schools together until 2036. One of the more popular scenarios is Virginia going to the Big Ten with others sending Virginia Tech to the SEC. I discussed a lot of these possibilities in a previous column. The nightmare scenario — for Virginia Tech fans — would be that Virginia goes into the Big Ten (or the SEC) while Tech is left out because those conferences might want other schools (read: other markets) instead. 

I offer up this as context for the curious phone call I received Friday afternoon from Attorney General Jason Miyares.

I had contacted the AG’s office last month to see if he had anything to say about all this and was told by a spokesperson that it was “too soon to comment, but the AG is a big college sports fan and should something happen, I’ll let you know.”

Has something happened behind the scenes? I don’t know, but Miyares definitely wanted to talk about college sports realignment. I’ve been around politics long enough to know when a politician is trying to send a message and I got the clear sense that Miyares wanted to send a message. I’m not quite sure who needs to hear it, but here it is.

“College football realignment is changing rapidly and I view my number one role as attorney general is to protect the interests of the people of Virginia, including protecting the interests of our public universities,” he said as he traveled east out of Danville following a visit there. He pointed out that his office provides legal representation for each of the state’s public universities. “College football realignment can have an absolutely seismic impact,” he said. “It is my fervent hope that Virginia Tech and UVa never make the decision to weaken the other institution.”

Who plays whom in college sports might seem a topic unworthy of an attorney general, but Miyares emphasized some fiscal realities. “First, it impacts student-athletes by reducing their NIL income.” That refers to name, image and likeness, and the new rules that allow college athletes to profit when their image gets plastered all over some marketing campaign. I’m no lawyer but I can sure see how some student-athlete might feel their earning potential was reduced because an athletic conference fell apart and their school wound up with some lesser-market affiliation. Is that actionable? We’ve probably seen legal action for less, right?

Miyares went on to note that “both UVa and Virginia Tech have athletic departments that generate large amounts of revenue” — some of which helps benefit the academic portions of those universities. If that revenue got reduced, that would have a negative impact on all students, Miyares said. 

“Obviously if one of these schools wound up in a smaller or less profitable conference, not only does that cost student-athletes NIL money but also students and potentially the state,” he said. 

Again, I’m no lawyer but my political reading of this is that Miyares is sending a clear signal: Neither Virginia nor Virginia Tech should do anything that jeopardizes the other.

There’s no sign — at least in public — that they are working at cross purposes, but who knows what’s happening behind the scenes? Conference realignment is like an iceberg — most of it is below the surface, and the schools sure aren’t talking. If something’s truly happening, I suspect Miyares knows and just can’t say. “All I can say is what I can say publicly,” he said.

Does he think Virginia and Virginia Tech should stay in the ACC? Or just that if they make a move they both wind up in power conferences? 

“My only view on conference expansion in my role as attorney general is to aggressively protect the interests of Virginia Tech and Virginia no matter what happens. But personally, as a longtime ACC fan, I’d like to see the ACC thrive and not [be] picked apart,” he said. “I think the ACC is a great fit for both schools, but if they decide to explore other options I hope neither makes that decision in a complete vacuum and weakens the other institution.” 

Should Virginia and Virginia Tech try to stick together if they both left the ACC? Miyares wouldn’t address that except to say, “I thought it was a historic moment when UVa locked arms with Virginia Tech to make sure they weren’t left out in the cold when they did their expansion” of the ACC in 2004. (For those curious about such things, Miyares doesn’t have ties to either school. He went to James Madison University and then to the College of William & Mary for law school.)

“I hear regularly from alumni at both schools,” Miyares said, referring to Virginia and Virginia Tech. “They bring up worries about conference expansion” — about how it would impact their school. He said he is “telling anybody and everybody that I will protect everybody and hope nobody makes a decision in a vacuum.”

Now, all these sentiments are well and good, but what could an attorney general actually do about conference affiliation? More than you might realize. First, as Miyares pointed out, his office acts as the lawyer for state schools. Second, attorneys general have been known to sue. In 2020, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said that Ohio State had a legal basis to sue the Big Ten if the conference canceled the football season over COVID concerns. That same year, Nebraska Attorney General Douglas Peterson, unhappy that the college football season had been delayed by COVID, sent a sternly worded letter to the NCAA, informing the governing body of college sports that it was in violation of several state laws and could be subject to civil fines because it had neglected to file some required state paperwork. In 2022, Marshall University — presumably with the approval of West Virginia’s attorney general — sued Conference USA to hasten its departure from that conference so it could join the Sun Belt Conference instead.

And then there’s a more pertinent example in Virginia. In 2003, when Virginia Tech was still a member of the Big East Conference and the ACC was contemplating expansion by inviting (some might say raiding) members from the Big East (but not Virginia Tech), then-Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore authorized Virginia Tech to join a lawsuit against the ACC. Other plaintiffs included attorneys generals from Connecticut and West Virginia, who were representing Big East schools in those states. Kilgore later said that lawsuit helped slow down the ACC long enough to allow Virginia Tech to make its case for being added — which, of course, it was. “Virginia Tech is the economic catalyst for Western Virginia,” Kilgore said at the time. “My role is protecting Virginia Tech.” In news coverage at the time, Kilgore often got equal billing with then-Gov. Mark Warner for helping engineer Tech’s entry into the ACC.

Working in Kilgore’s office at the time was an intern from Virginia Beach. His name was Jason Miyares. “I remember it quite well,” Miyares told me. Two decades later, that former intern may have a chance to put those lessons to work. Perhaps, through his statements above, he already is. 

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org...