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Government needs to stay out of college football's business

The Department of Justice sends a letter to the NCAA asking why there is no playoff system. It's unnecessary as the answers are already out there and the BCS, despite its flaws, actually works.

May 04, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • NCAA President Mark Emmert says the sanctioning body would be happy to implement a college football playoff system if the majority of college presidents agree to the change.
NCAA President Mark Emmert says the sanctioning body would be happy to implement… (David J. Phillip / Associated…)

The Department of Justice on Wednesday sent a letter to the NCAA asking why there isn't a playoff in major college football.

Next week: Why do doughnuts have holes?

The letter was penned by Justice Department antitrust specialist Christine Varney to NCAA President Mark Emmert.

The NCAA said it would be happy to respond once it receives the letter. Spokesman Bob Williams reiterated Emmert has already said the NCAA would be happy to run a playoff if major college presidents want one.

Most of them don't, but the story never ends there.

The DOJ is examining whether the Bowl Championships Series, a rankings system that matches two teams for the national title, might violate antitrust laws.

One of the questions in the letter: "What steps does the NCAA plan to take to create a playoff at this time?"

The DOJ would have discovered, with a Google click, that the NCAA long ago punted its rights to run college football and — wait, this gets better — actually created the BCS "monster" it's being asked to fight.

Yep, it's true.

The NCAA had a stranglehold on football television rights until 1984, when the Supreme Court ruled in "NCAA v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma" that the NCAA violated antitrust laws.

Conferences were then freed to cut their own deals with networks and that led to the six most powerful conferences garnering most of the power and money. The networks seemed to prefer conferences with Ohio State and Alabama over those with Boise State and Kent State.

Nothing's changed.

Also on Wednesday, what on July 1 will become the new Pacific 12 Conference reached a $3-billion, 12-year deal with ESPN and Fox for the rights, mainly, to televise football.

Some countries call that free enterprise at work.

The DOJ, with a phone call, could have learned that having no playoff in major college football is intricately tied to a bowl system dating to 1902.

No one tried to sue college football before 1998 for not having a playoff because conferences had contracts to meet annually in elaborate festivals.

One was called the Rose Bowl, which since 1947 has paired the champion of the Big Ten versus incarnations of the Pac-10.

The BCS was formed to help solve that problem. It coaxed the Rose Bowl into releasing its champion to a "title game" if it had a No. 1- or No. 2-ranked team in its game.

A rankings system was designed to pair 1-2, improve access for less-powerful leagues and still keep the basic bowl structure in place.

"The bowl games have always been relatively free-standing enterprises," the DOJ could have researched Emmert saying at last month's men's basketball Final Four. "The bowl games were created mostly by local communities. It's evolved over a century. …They've always had this sort of parallel existence with the NCAA."

That's why there's no playoff.

The five conferences that don't command $3 billion from Fox and ESPN have a right to not think that's fair. Some of its members, and 21 professors, are urging the DOJ to investigate the legality of a BCS which has, in fact, provided more, not less, access.

Before 1998, Oregon and Auburn could not have met for the national title and Texas Christian could not have triumphed gloriously in the Rose Bowl.

"I remember in '98," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said last week, "everyone was giving us a standing O, because we finally came in and did a 1-2 game. We said it's not about a playoff, it's about the bowl system."

Delany has already testified three times before Congress about the legality of the BCS.

No one knows yet whether this latest DOJ inquiry will have traction.

"You never know what a judge or a jury could do," Delany said, "but we feel like we got good representation. We have a good understanding of what we created and I don't think it's changed between now and 1998."

Even if the BCS is ruled to be in violation of antitrust laws, it's a stretch to think a court could mandate a playoff.

Commissioners are dropping hints they would go back to the old system before agreeing to a playoff.

"At a certain point you wonder, is it better to go back or is it better to stay here?" Delany said. "I don't think there's any sentiment in the Big Ten for a playoff. There never has been."

Skeptics would argue college football could never walk away from the money a potential playoff could bring.

Wednesday, though, the Pac-12 walked into $3 billion. The sport could be in worse shape.

"We are confident the BCS complies with the law," BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock said Wednesday. "It does seem like a waste of taxpayer's money for the government to be looking into how college football's played."

The government, so far, is still in the waste management stage: It's asking questions that already have answers.

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