Congress and the BCS, Part 1

April 22, 2008

By now, you’ve probably seen that three representatives – Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, Lynn Westmoreland, R-Georgia, and Mike Simpson, R-Idaho – are asking the Justice Department to investigate to see whether the BCS is illegal. The charge is that only the largest universities get to play in most of the largest bowl games, making the BCS an illegal restriction on trade.

Lynn Westmoreland.

It’s a tricky issue to tackle because the BCS, after all, is not an organization but rather a selection system managed by the 11 Division I-A conference commissioners plus the Notre Dame athletics director. It is not a legal entity, unlike the NCAA or the conferences. The issue is made more complicated by the fact that the bowls are separate entities from the NCAA.

Since the payout for each of the five BCS bowls is the same, the only financial argument that can be made is about the selection process for the games as a whole. Arguing that the system is too restrictive against the smaller schools is somewhat of a troublesome argument nowadays, with Utah in 2004, Boise State in 2006, and Hawaii in 2007 making appearances in BCS games. Plus, a new system goes into effect this season that requires conferences to earn their auto bids via performance over a running 4 year period, and paves the way for a non-Big Six conference to earn an automatic bid.

The only window of opportunity I can see here is the fact that all of the Big Six conferences except the Big East have contracts with the bowl games, and the auto bid earning process mentioned above cannot override them. Those conferences will always get at least one team into the games no matter what, and that violates the principle of merit-based access to the system. Those contracts with the bowls are the restrictive part, and show that the system is a lot like the US under the Articles of Confederation where the collective goal is overridden by individual interests.

Your tax dollars at, ahem, “work.”

To get change, the congressmen would have to argue that that the bowls lost the right to make those contracts when they entered the BCS agreement. They will need to show that by banding together, the bowls have gone above and beyond their stated purpose of driving tourism for their local communities. That could be doable, since the four BCS sites are in completely separate locations and I don’t believe the local communities get a larger cut of the TV revenue that they’d get if the bowls were completely separate. The next step is showing that all Division I-A schools have a right to a fair chance at participating, which again could be doable since the NCAA regulates member schools’ participation in bowl games. That official recognition of the bowls by the NCAA could imply that point.

All I can see Congress saying (if it decides the current BCS is unfair) is that the conferences will have to pick either the BCS with no conference-to-bowl contracts, or no more pooling of the prize money and going back to the old ways of every bowl being completely independent. Should that come to pass, it would mark the end of the BCS because I truly believe the Big Ten, Pac 10, and Rose Bowl would bail on any system that doesn’t keep the three of them contractually together.

Well, that would be that, except that Abercrombie, Westmoreland, and Simpson used the C word – championship.