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Complaints about the college football Bowl Championship Series are nothing new. Indeed, it seems every year an obviously deserving team is left out of the BCS due to its arcane and, to put it bluntly, biased nature.
Leaders in Washington are catching on to—and even echoing—the negative feelings about the BCS. During his campaign for president, Barack Obama said he believed the system should be scrapped in favor of a playoff, a stance he reiterated after he was elected. In May the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on the BCS. And the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee, of which I am a member, has announced it will hold hearings later this month to investigate the antitrust implications of the system.
Although there seems to be a fair amount of public support for these efforts to expose and potentially remedy the unfairness of the BCS, some have questioned whether, given all the challenges our nation faces, it is appropriate for the federal government to expend time and resources on college football's bowl system. However, I believe the case for government involvement—whether from Congress, the courts or the Justice Department—is compelling.
First and foremost there are serious questions regarding the legality of the BCS. The Sherman Antitrust Act prohibits contracts, combinations or conspiracies designed to reduce competition. I don't think a more accurate description of what the BCS does exists.
Under the current plan six conferences, which include slightly more than half of the teams in Division I-A, receive automatic bids to play in the five most prestigious and lucrative bowl games—even if teams from the other five conferences have had better seasons. For instance, in 2008 the only two undefeated I-A teams (Utah and Boise State) were from non-BCS conferences. And two other outside teams (Brigham Young and Texas Christian) finished higher in the BCS rankings than at least one of the champions of an automatic-bid conference. Yet only Utah was invited to play in a BCS game. And although the Utes had plenty of big wins, the BCS system denied them the chance to play for the national championship. So while every conference is technically part of the BCS agreement, the existing arrangement intentionally and explicitly favors certain participants.
In addition, every team from a preferred conference automatically receives a share from an enormous pot of revenue generated by the BCS, even if they fail to win a single game. On the other hand, teams from the less-favored conferences are guaranteed to receive a much smaller share, no matter how many games they win. The numbers are staggering. Last year the Mountain West Conference had one team qualify for the BCS, Utah, as did three of the automatic-bid conferences. Yet under the BCS formula the Mountain West received $9.8 million—roughly half of what the three bigger conferences got. And despite having the nation's only other undefeated team, Boise State, the Western Athletic Conference received just $3.2 million in BCS revenue.
This disbursement scheme places teams from these smaller conferences at a disadvantage when it comes to hiring staff and improving facilities. Because of their increased visibility and status BCS schools also receive an unfair advantages in recruiting top players and coaches. These inequities also extend far beyond the football field, as many schools in the country depend on the revenue generated by their football teams to fund other athletic programs and academic initiatives.
There's no denying that college football is a business. Most schools advertise and market their teams as they would a commercial product. There are also television networks, advertisers and the corporate sponsors that invest in and profit from these bowl games. All told, the BCS games generate hundreds of millions of dollars every year. If the government were to ignore a similar business arrangement of this magnitude in any other industry, it would be condemned for shirking its responsibility. In essence, those making the argument that the BCS is too trivial a matter to receive governmental attention are saying that we should hold colleges and universities to lower standards of fairness and ethical behavior than we would a commercial entity. I must respectfully disagree.
These justifications aside, government intervention into the BCS would be regrettable. There are many issues and challenges competing for Congress's attention. Those with the power to reform the system should do so voluntarily. If not, legislation may be required to ensure that all colleges and universities receive an equal opportunity. Most have argued that some sort of playoff system would be the fairest approach; frankly, almost anything would be better than what we have now. One thing is clear: No changes will take place if Congress does nothing.
Longtime football fan Orrin Hatch is the senior Republican in the senate.