SBJ/Dec. 14, 2009/Opinion

Lack of fairness in BCS system invites antitrust scrutiny

A surprisingly strong chorus of voices, including President Barack Obama and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is calling for a serious examination of the lucrative college football’s Bowl Championship Series. Almost since it began in 1998, college football fans have demanded changes that would create a March Madness-like postseason and crown an undisputed national champion. 

Determining a true No. 1 program on the field of play rather than in a smoky backroom would seem to make perfect sense, except that millions of dollars are at stake for a handful of universities. For them, the status quo works just fine.

This year’s matchups include more of the same controversy: Texas, which barely eked out a win against No. 22 Nebraska and didn’t beat a team that finished in the top 20, was granted the privilege of playing against Alabama in the national championship game. Undefeated Cincinnati gets a shot at Florida State in the Sugar Bowl, while TCU (12-0) and Boise State (13-0) are left to battle it out in the Fiesta Bowl. It’s the cruelest of ironies in that two Davids who’d love a shot at a Goliath get to face each other.

Lost in all the standard BCS controversy over a true playoff system are other more egregious flaws in the current competition. Hatch recently asked the Department of Justice to examine the BCS for possible antitrust violations. The senator raised several inequities in the current system that are only tangentially related to the determination of the ultimate national championship.

Hatch’s position is not disinterested, as the University of Utah, undefeated last season, was passed over to play in the BCS title game in favor of Florida and Oklahoma, each of which had one loss. Utah instead played in the Fiesta Bowl, where it easily beat Alabama, a team that had previously been ranked No. 1 that season.

Despite its undefeated record, TCU will not get
a shot at the BCS national championship.

That said, his arguments, which boil down to three points, are solid and, in fact, unassailable.

The system creates an upper class of “privileged conferences” including the Atlantic Coast, Southeastern, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-10, along with Notre Dame. The champions from these conferences receive an automatic bid to play in the BCS title game regardless of their overall performance. The champions of the remaining “nonprivileged” conferences (Mid-American, Mountain West, Sun Belt, Western Athletic and Conference USA, plus independents Army and Navy) must hold their breath until early December to learn if they’ve been granted an invitation to the party.

After the season, schools in the privileged conferences walk away from the competition with more money. If a privileged school meets a nonprivileged school in a BCS bowl game, the revenue distributed to the privileged school can be greater regardless of the result of the final contest, regardless of record, and regardless of ranking. According to Hatch, “during the past four seasons, privileged conferences received more than $492 million, or 87.4 percent, of the total BCS revenue, whereas the nonprivileged conferences, whose collective membership consists of nearly half of all the schools in the FBS, received less than $62 million or 12.6 percent.”

The membership of the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee is weighted in favor of the privileged conferences, and it’s unlikely the committee would vote to give the five nonprivileged conferences a larger piece of the financial pie.

Attorney General Eric Holder recently responded to Hatch’s inquiry, confirming that antitrust laws were applicable to NCAA sports. In his own words, “antitrust laws are enforced to maintain competition in every industry, including college sports, which is financially significant to the colleges involved.” Although the Justice Department has not decided whether to act on Hatch’s call for the Department of Justice to investigate the BCS, it seems like only a matter of time before some of the nation’s largest universities face the same scrutiny as Big Oil, Ma Bell, and the great American railroad barons.

The BCS, at its core, is a classic “Animal Farm” where all of the creatures contribute to the greater good but some animals have carved out special considerations for themselves.

Fundamentally, the BCS violates the one requirement that is universally necessary in all sports — fairness.

Jason Maloni (jmaloni@levick.com) is a vice president with Levick Strategic Communications in Washington, D.C., and heads the firm’s sports and entertainment subpractice. He also writes for Bulletproof Blog. Bruce Fryer (bfryer@levick.com) is an account executive with Levick’s crisis and litigation practice.

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