May 10, 2011   |No Comments

It’s About Time the Justice Department Investigated the BCS

Last week, the Justice Department sent a letter to the NCAA asking why it does not have a postseason playoff in college football.  Specifically, Justice suggested that the current Bowl Championship Series (BCS) system may violate antitrust laws.

“Serious questions continue to arise suggesting that the current BCS system may not be conducted consistent with the competition principles expressed in federal antitrust laws,” assistant attorney general Christine Varney wrote to NCAA president Mark Emmert.

It’s about time the Justice Department got involved. Why is college football the only sport with a postseason the NCAA does not immediately control? More importantly, why can’t the NCAA control college football?

The current system exists because those in power in college football now – the major conference commissioners and the athletic directors, coaches and presidents at the largest schools in those conferences – would rather have a bigger piece of a smaller pie than make wholesale changes that would dilute their own power.

The current BCS system is actually costing us all money. By leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table – money that could be generated with a college football playoff — the NCAA is doing a disservice to its member schools, to taxpayers and to fans.

The current BCS bowl system is unfair not only in the way it determines a national champion, but in the way it distributes revenue. Consider that 5 out of the 11 conferences — Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, Sun Belt and Western Athletic — don’t have automatic qualifier status with the BCS and get less revenue from the system. A group of 21 economists and legal professors who recently sent a letter to the Justice Department asking them to investigate the BCS estimates that over the last 7 years that disparity in revenue distribution amounts to $614 million.

Further, the current system fosters corruption within the bowl organizations. For example – and there are many — the Fiesta Bowl last month fired its CEO after it was revealed that he was basically running the non-profit “charity” as though it was a for-profit business (and in some cases, as though it was his own bank account), as well as illegally reimbursing employees for political contributions.

You can bet that right now, on Capitol Hill, the BCS and its supporters are trying to lobby lawmakers to stay out of college football. They’re likely going to convince a few of them to criticize the Obama administration for focusing on how football determines its national champion when there are far more important things to worry about.

Their rhetoric will echo what BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock stated when asked about the letter from Justice: “Goodness gracious, with all that’s going on in the world right now and with national and state budgets being what they are, it seems like a waste of taxpayers’ money to have the government looking into how college football games are played.”

But that’s exactly why the government should look into the BCS.

A college football playoff could actually help alleviate some of those state budget crises. Experts believe that a college football playoff could generate as much as $750 million a year compared to the current bowl system’s $220 million per year. And the bowls could still make about half of that much even with a playoff. So that’s $860 million in total.

If that $500+ million was evenly distributed among NCAA Division 1-A schools, it could really help some of them out and thus, help keep budget-crunched states from having to fund university athletic programs. According to the NCAA, in 2009, almost 25% of revenue for athletic departments in Division 1-A “came from tax dollars and other revenues directly allocated to the university.” Only 7 Division 1-A schools have generated more revenue than expenses during the past six years.

The system is clearly broken.

Contrary to what the BCS likes to claim, a playoff won’t ruin the regular season of college football – it will likely make it even more compelling. Nor will a playoff interfere with academics or ruin the tradition of football. As MSNBC’s Cenk Uygur points out, “The real football tradition is constant change.” Indeed, the BCS system itself was a change. That change was an attempt to address the concern that the two best teams were not playing at the end of the year. That concern persists…

It’s simple. The NCAA needs to organize its own 16-game playoff, thus giving every one of the 11 conferences an automatic berth and leaving 5 spots open as at-large berths, which would make the regular season even more compelling. Games should be played on the home campus of the higher seeds, ensuring that the money goes back into the campus community and visiting teams aren’t stuck footing the bill for unsold tickets (since those tickets would immediately be scooped up by home fans). And fans would be happy – they’d be guaranteed 15 compelling playoff games. (Think of the bracket pools!) And there would finally be a true national champion.

At the turn of the last century, President Theodore Roosevelt convened leaders of the major academic institutions to the White House to fix college football. At that time, a lack of a uniform rule system was leading to numerous injuries and deaths. As a result of Roosevelt’s leadership, changes were made, the institution that became the NCAA was created and college football flourished.

We know that President Obama is in favor of a playoff. But there is now enough evidence that the current system is not only unfair and possibly illegal, it’s costing our states money.

It’s time for the President to step in again to save college football from itself.

Brian Frederick is the Executive Director of Sports Fans Coalition. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication and lives in Washington, D.C. Email him at brian@sportsfans.org and follow him on Twitter here.

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