Today at 2:30 p.m. a Senate Judiciary subcommittee will hold a hearing entitled: “The Bowl Championship Series: Is it Fair and in Compliance with Antitrust Law?”
Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), you’ll be shocked to hear, believes that the 12-0 (which later became 13-0) team from Utah was denied the opportunity to play for the national championship by the BCS system, which picks two teams to play for the title after the regular season. In a Sports Illustrated story last week, Hatch called the BCS “biased” and claimed that it “probably” violates antitrust laws.
This is the second time this year representatives of college athletics have been hauled before Congress for a dog and pony show to score cheap political points with the folks back home. Earlier it was Rep. Joe Barton of Texas (sense a trend here?), who called the BCS “communist.”
Here is the problem I have with this entire exercise. If you want to have four-team, eight-team or 16-team playoff to decide college football’s national championship, then let’s have that argument. I, for one, would like to see a four-team playoff where the teams are seeded 1-4. And if the Rose Bowl is willing to play ball (and that’s a big IF), there is a possibility that gets done when the new BCS contract begins in the 2014 season.
What I don’t like is that in criticizing the BCS, and there is a lot to legitimately criticize, those who want change show that they have not done their homework. In the interest of creating a memorable sound bite or quote, the critics show an incredible amount of intellectual dishonesty, or total lack of knowledge, about what the BCS is and is not and what it has done and hasn’t done for post-season college football.
Again, I’m not a blind supporter of the BCS. There is change that I want. But here are a few facts:
Fact: Utah was not DENIED a chance to play for the BCS national championship. Utah had as much a chance to play for the BCS title as any other school. But 175 people voted in the Harris Interactive and coaches polls, two of the three components in the BCS formula. The 114 people in the Harris poll voted Utah seventh. The 61 coaches in the USA Today poll also voted Utah seventh and no coach—NONE—voted Utah higher than No. 5. Of the 114 people who voted in the Harris Poll only five voted Utah No. 5 or better.
Fact: Even the coaches in Utah’s league, the Mountain West, did not step up for the Utes when it counted. Joe Glenn of Wyoming had Utah at No. 5. Rocky Long of New Mexico and Gary Patterson of TCU had them at No. 7. Kyle Whittingham, Utah’s own coach, had his team at No. 5.
So where was all the love for Utah BEFORE they played Alabama in the Sugar Bowl? The fact is that while Utah deserved to win because the Utes flat outplayed the Crimson Tide (who didn’t want to be there), it wasn’t until AFTER the Sugar Bowl that Utah became this incredible juggernaut which should have been given the chance to play for it all.
Fact: For all of the flaws of the BCS, the fact is that it has provided bowl opportunities that the supposedly aggrieved schools had never had in the past. How many times had Utah played in the Sugar Bowl before the BCS? How many times had Hawaii played in the Sugar Bowl before the BCS? How many times had Boise State played in a New Year’s Day bowl before the BCS? If you answered zero to all three questions you’d be right. “The fact of the matter is that the BCS has given access to those conference that they never had before,” said former SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer, considered to be the godfather of the BCS. “Look at the history of the major bowls. They had almost never invited one of those teams before the BCS.”
Fact: The original BCS agreement that was put together back in 1998 never would have happened unless the champions of those six “equity” conferences (ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, Pac-10) had been promised automatic slots.
“Those conferences already had automatic bowl bids. We (in the SEC) had a long standing agreement with the Sugar Bowl,” said Kramer. “There is no way that those conferences were going to give that up without a guaranteed slot. And remember that we were working with four bowls and those were the conferences they were used to dealing with.”
The fact is that the free marketplace determined that those six conferences would get automatic bids and there were at-large spots made available to teams that could play their way in. Maybe you believe that market forces have no place in college athletics, but that is how it happened. It wasn’t a conspiracy to keep the other teams out. It was the only way to get the deal done.
Fact: While the six equity conferences do get an automatic bid and the $18 million payday that comes with it, the five Coalition Conferences (Conference USA, MAC, WAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt) have placed a team in the BCS in four of the past five seasons. Those five conferences get an automatic $9.5 million for participating and another $9.5 million when they place a team in a BCS game. So over the past five seasons the BCS has pumped about $80 million into those five Coalition conferences.
That’s a lot of money that did not even exist before the advent of the BCS. Should the Coalition Conferences get more? Yes, and I believe they will. I also believe that in the future the conferences will be able to get more than one team in the BCS if they have two teams in the Top 10.
All of this leads us to a final fact about the BCS:
Fact: The BCS does not violate antitrust law and this Senate committee knows it. I’ve spoken to a number of top antitrust lawyers, including Tom Rhodes of Smith, Gambrell & Russell here in Atlanta. They all agreed that the BCS may not be popular with some college football fans but it does not violate the law—at least as the law is currently written and interpreted by the courts.
“The original agreement was put together by a group of antitrust lawyers and has been reviewed several times since,” said Kramer. “Now there are some political problems that the BCS must deal with but when it comes to the law, unless it gets interpreted in a totally different way, the BCS should be on solid ground.”
The fact of the matter is that whether or not you like the BCS, and a lot of folks don’t, it created something that didn’t exist before: A mechanism to match the No. 1 and the No. 2 team for the national championship. It also increased bowl revenues exponentially because it created something of value to the television networks. It also has access points for the teams in the Coalition Conferences. All they have to do is finish in the Top 12 of the final BCS standings.
Again, if you want a playoff, then let’s have that discussion. But bashing the BCS is like bashing the IRS. It’s easy. The fact is that with all of its flaws, it’s better than what we used to have. I remember Georgia Tech having to play in the Citrus Bowl in 1990 to win its national championship. I remember No. 2 Penn State not getting a shot at No. 1 Nebraska in 1994. I remember No. 2 Texas not getting a shot at No. 1 Nebraska in 1983.
The system is going to change because the marketplace is going to eventually demand it, not because Congress is going to push to make its constituents happy. And that’s a fact.