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Out of bounds: College football's postseason problems

There are many examples of how the BCS has been less than perfect in crowning a champion

POSTED: July 23, 2011 9:07 p.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

The Bowl Championship Series is a constant topic of conversation among fans with the way it decides the national championship in college football.

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Change, it seems, is in the air.

At the very least, it's on the lips of the NCAA's power brokers. On Wednesday, SEC commissioner Mike Slive opened this year's SEC Media Days by outlining his proposal for sweeping reforms, echoing in spirit, a statement issued Tuesday by NCAA president Mark Emmert.

"The integrity of collegiate athletics is seriously challenged today by rapidly growing pressures coming from many directions," Emmert said. "We have reached a point where incremental change is not sufficient to meet these challenges."

For the NCAA, it's been a tumultuous year. From North Carolina to Southern California, from overzealous parents to shady tattoo parlors, all manner of scandals have hit from all sides.

But of all the salacious stories that have hounded college football over the last 12 months, the one with the potential to shake the sport most has nothing to do with the NCAA.

Or does it?

The answer depends on who you ask, and when the question involves the Bowl Championship Series - whether it's how the champion is crowned or who's responsible for it - the answer is often complicated.

What is the BCS?

When the U.S. Department of Justice's Antitrust Division began asking questions about the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) postseason in May, it addressed its letter to the NCAA.

"Serious questions continue to arise suggesting that the current Bowl Championship Series (BCS) may not be conducted consistent with the competition principles expressed in the federal antitrust laws," U.S. Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney wrote in a letter to Emmert.

Emmert's reply?

Don't look at us.

"Inasmuch as the BCS system does not fall under the purview of the NCAA," Emmert wrote, "it is not appropriate for me to provide views on the system."

What Emmert means is that the BCS is managed by the commissioners of the 11 FBS conferences and the director of athletics at Notre Dame.

While each of these conferences and the teams which comprise them are members of the NCAA, the BCS is separate entity formed for the purpose of handling the FBS postseason.

But not everyone agrees with Emmert's interpretation.
"This whole play between the BCS and NCAA," said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff before trailing off. "For the NCAA to tell the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, ‘Why are you writing to us? It's the BCS that's doing it.' That's just..."

He stops and sighs, then continues.

"There is no BCS, but for license from the NCAA," Shurtleff said. "And the NCAA can't avoid their own constitution about full, free, fair competition.
"They gave her the short shrift, ‘Oh, go talk to the BCS.' That's just pretty amazing to me."

If Shurtleff sounds exasperated, it's because he's not trying to hide it.

He's gearing up for a lawsuit he plans to file before the end of the year and that he hopes will force major changes for the BCS.

"Clearly, what we're shooting at and what everybody wants is a playoff of some sort," Shurtleff said. "Because there's no problem with that. It's fairly open. You still have to use some polls and whatnot to narrow it down and decide what things you're going to use, but it gives everybody at that (FBS) level the same chance to compete, just like they do at (FCS), and Division II and III. That's what we're hoping to see."

Many experts agree with Shurtleff's opinion that there is a legitimate antitrust case to pursue against the BCS.

They also say it's a big leap from a legitimate case in court to a playoff system in college football.

BCS history

The earliest incarnation of what has become the BCS was created in 1992 with the Bowl Coalition, which after three years, gave way to the Bowl Alliance.

Both the Coalition and Alliance systems were formed for the stated goal of matching the nation's top two teams in a bowl game at the end of the season.

Prior to 1992, bowls were filled via conference tie-ins, which rarely led to No. 1 vs. 2 match-ups.

In the 56-year history of the Associated Press poll, the top two teams met in postseason play only eight times before the inception of the Bowl Coalition. Since then, it's happened 13 times.

But the Coalition and Alliance systems had flaws; chief among them was a lack of involvement from the Pac-10 and Big Ten conferences, which each sent their champions to the Rose Bowl.

In 1997, both conferences and the Rose Bowl were integrated into a new system, which eventually became known as the BCS.

Since then, the system has undergone numerous tweaks. Two of the few constants have been complaints and controversy.

In recent seasons, smaller schools have continued to make a push for BCS attention. Boise State, Utah and TCU have each capped undefeated seasons with wins over traditional powers in big-money bowl games, emboldening critics who say the BCS unfairly stiff arms the little guy.

The BCS and antitrust

The clamor for a playoff system in college football is nothing new. As far back as 1960, plans have been drafted, detailed and rejected.

In fact, it's actually against NCAA rules for an FBS school to compete in a football playoff. And when it comes to antitrust violations, at least one expert believes that's where the trouble may start.

"The single most troublesome thing, I think, is not a BCS rule, it's an NCAA rule," antitrust economist Andy Schwarz said. "There's an NCAA rule that says no team can play more than one postseason game. And not only that, there's another rule that says if you break this rule, no other NCAA team can play you, ever. So the punishment is ostracism, and it makes a playoff impossible."

Schwarz helped 20 antitrust professors draft a letter to the Department of Justice, which was cited by Assistant Attorney General Varney in her letter to the NCAA.

He's among many experts in the field who believe the BCS violates United States laws designed to promote competition and prevent collusion.

"(The NCAA rule preventing playoffs) sort of buttresses the argument that the BCS ... kind of dominates this area, and because the NCAA regulations, there's no way for anybody else to get in and compete with them," said Nathaniel Grow, a business law professor at the University of Georgia. "And so it strengthens the argument that we should look critically at the BCS, because it's not operating in a true free market where some other system could come along and implement a playoff, because the NCAA rules limit participation and opportunities in that regard."

The unlawful stifling of competition is only one of the antitrust issues that may be examined as part of Shurtleff's lawsuit or the Department of Justice's inquiry. The unfair distribution of money could be another.

"They clearly have a monopoly when it comes to bowl games, and not just championship bowl games, all the BCS games, the big-money bowls, Shurtleff said. "They have a scheme in place, just by the way it's set up, that clearly favors certain teams and conferences over others that are on the same (FBS) level.

We're talking a lot of money that is being denied schools from even having a crack at that. Therefore, they're put at a competitive disadvantage."

The 11 conferences that comprise the BCS aren't all on equal footing.

They are divided into six Automatic-Qualifying conferences (AQs) and five non-Automatic-Qualifying conferences (non-AQs).

The AQ champions receive automatic bids into one of four BCS bowls or the national championship game, all of which far outrank other bowls in gross payouts.

The most recent revenue numbers show that the 73 schools in AQ conferences raked in a total of $1.4 billion in profits through football and men's basketball, while the 56 non-AQ schools profited $1 million.

There is also a discrepancy in the way funds are divided, leading to more antitrust issues, Grow says.

"Even when TCU goes to the Rose Bowl like this year, the Mountain West will receive probably $8-$10 million less than the Big East will for UConn's appearance (in the Fiesta Bowl) based on the way the BCS derives its revenue formula," Grow said. "And as a result, there's argument about is that fair, is that anti-competitive; is it the big guys ganging up on the little guys to ensure that they'll always get a larger chunk of the revenue?

So even in years when a non-BCS school does get into that elite group, if you don't make as much, is that over time, going to cement the dominance of the six, established power conferences?"

In the face of such questions and criticism from places as high up as Capitol Hill, Bill Hancock, the BCS executive director, has defended the system at every turn. After meeting with Justice Department officials on June 30, he sounded as confident as ever.

"They asked good questions," Hancock told USA Today. "They asked how the BCS operates, and talked about access and finances. I gave them some history.

"We had an opportunity to explain what we do and why it doesn't pose any antitrust concerns.

"Obviously, the next step will be up to them."

A Department of Justice spokesperson said no investigation has been launched, but that information is still being gathered.

In Utah, Shurtleff says he has no doubts about his course of action.

"We're definitely going to sue," he said.

How any of the procedures might turn out seems to be anybody's guess, though.

"For antitrust cases, they're always really unpredictable, because so much comes down to how a jury decides," Grow said. "Does the BCS have more pro-competitive, good benefits? Do those outweigh the bad? That's kind of the barroom discussion, and it varies. At the end of the day, I wouldn't bet a dollar either way, but there's definitely a credible case to be made."

What happens next?

Regardless of what - if anything - becomes of Shurtleff's suit or the Justice Department's inquiry, getting from the current system to a playoff is a big leap.

As Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany pointed out to USA Today in May: "There's no judge or jury in the world that can make you enter into a four-team, eight-team or 16-team playoff."

Shurtleff and Schwarz agreed that the best the BCS critics can hope for in the short term with regard to the antitrust issues is an opening of the system through legal wranglings.

"The DOJ can fine somebody, but I highly doubt they would fine the BCS," Schwarz said. "I think they would merely change the way you practice in the form of something called a Consent Decree, which is basically a legal settlement.

"That settlement spells out things like changing a certain rule," he continued. "Like, ‘you can continue to exist as long as you invite everyone.' To me, as an antitrust economist, I'm not so sure that really solves the antitrust problem.

"As a free market person, I say the DOJ should take away the things that prevent competition, and let's see how competition plays out. But what they might do, because the DOJ is also a political beast, they might instead say, ‘you can continue to exist as long as you do these things.' In some way or another, you open it up."

A change to the current system could also come from within.

At a retreat to be held Aug. 9-10, Emmert will meet with numerous university presidents, athletic directors and conference commissioners.

He said this week on NCAA.org that he hopes to take steps toward "aggressive and strategic changes."

"The huge financial differences across Division I make it very hard to create one-size-fits-all rules," Emmert said. "In order to address the real issues in front of us I believe we have to be more flexible and aggressive, while recognizing the different needs of our members and the financial situations they face."

That has led to speculation that a separate division could be created for the schools which currently comprise the AQ conferences.

"It already exists in all but name," Schwarz said. "Effectively, within the BCS, there already is the AQ schools and the non-AQ schools. And a few that are sort of on the fringes, like Gonzaga in basketball. And their best way (to succeed) is to get absorbed into the system, so Utah joins the Pac-12 and TCU goes to the Big East.

"It's absolutely logical, and publicly smart, for the NCAA to recognize that there are already two leagues within FBS. If you look at the revenues for the six AQ conferences in football, it's completely different.

"They're just two different leagues with the same name."

So while stories of pay-for-play schemes and player suspensions have captured public attention, it's the droll legalese found under headlines about lawsuits and possible antitrust violations that could dramatically alter the way college football determines its most cherished prize: the national championship.

 



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