Since Liberty University announced it’s intention to move to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2012, the world’s largest Christian university has worked tirelessly to find a conference willing to accept the Liberty Flames.
In 2016, Conference USA and the Sun Belt reportedly rejected Liberty’s generous offer because of the school’s religious beliefs.
An op-ed for the Virginian-Pilot briefly describes the invitation process:
“The NCAA requires a Football Championship Subdivision school to join an FBS league to move. Liberty officials intensely lobbied the two leagues that made geographic sense – Conference USA and the Sun Belt – with no luck.”
“Liberty even offered to open its checkbook. Sources told me that in 2016, Liberty offered Conference USA millions of dollars more than the usual $2 million admission fee for an invitation.”
According to President Jerry Falwell Jr., the conferences were unwilling to invite a private, evangelical school to join them.
On Tuesday, I spoke with President Falwell via telephone. He believes the rejection was based on “religious bigotry.”
Falwell said that the Sun Belt was originally very supportive, but about a week or two before the vote, a few college presidents spoke out and said they would not support Liberty joining joining the conference because of the school’s Christian ministry. Falwell said he doesn’t understand why this was an issue, as Liberty’s academics and athletics were superior to some of the Sun Belt schools.
He is correct. Liberty has spent $196 million on athletic facilities since 2010, and its facilities rival some of the Power 5 schools. Additionally, Liberty has an award-winning law school and a medical school.
In 2013, a Liberty opened a $20 million baseball stadium, which was followed by a $10 million softball stadium in 2015. This year, Liberty plans on opening a $32 million academic and performance center. In addition, Liberty has a $29 million indoor track complex, recently completed a $20 million renovation of its basketball arena, and currently has a $19 million swimming natatorium.
Overall, Falwell thinks the religion-based rejection speaks to the deterioration of freedom of expression on college campuses today across the nation.
“It’s just a shame,” Falwell said. “Colleges are supposed to be about diversity.”
“So many school administrators are very outspoken politically, but they are all on the left.” Falwell pointed out how his late father, Reverend Jerry Falwell Sr., would occasionally debate Father Theodore Hesburgh, the liberal former President of Notre Dame on controversial issues.
“Colleges are supposed to be bastions of academic freedom, places where the freedom of speech is welcome.” Falwell said. “It seems like many of these college presidents only believe in diversity and inclusion as long as it doesn’t involve conservatives.”
Falwell said least one Attorney General wanted to prosecute the presidents who discriminated against Liberty for religious reasons. He notes that Liberty did not want to take advantage of the negativity to move up, and ended up with the better end of the deal.
“We just moved on and ended up in a better spot,” he said. “Being independent gives us more options.”
Falwell added that he has “nothing but good things to say about NCAA,” noting that Liberty was given the first waiver in collegiate sport history to participate as an independent.
Liberty University will become a provisional FBS member as an independent in 2018, and will become a full FBS member with bowl eligibility in 2019.
Disclosure: I am a 2017 Liberty University graduate, and am currently a law student at Liberty University School of Law.