I was initially reluctant when my editor asked me last week to write a column previewing Tuesday's Senate Antitrust Subcommittee hearing on the BCS. Between writing a book about the politics of college football two years ago, chronicling SEC commissioner Mike Slive's ultimately anticlimactic quest last year to adopt a plus-one system and continually reaffirming my long-held, albeit unpopular, anti-playoff stance, it seems I've developed a reputation among some as a "shill" for the BCS.
Believe me, I'm no fan of the BCS, though perhaps for different reasons than the playoff proponents. The 11-year-old system, which is contractually scheduled to run until at least 2014, has irreparably destroyed the century-old tradition of college bowl games by moving them away from New Year's Day, watering down the matchups and stripping the individual bowls of their uniqueness. When addressing the real reasons behind the system's existence, BCS leaders have been continually evasive and often disingenuous with the public, masking their largely fiscally driven creation as some noble cause that benefits academia. Meanwhile, in rejecting the plus-one, they failed to address the sport's rapidly changing landscape, one in which it has become harder than ever to authoritatively distinguish two elite teams at the end of a season.
Yet with all that said, Tuesday's Senate hearing will almost certainly be a complete and utter waste of time. Not only will all these self-serving efforts by Sen. Orrin Hatch (who is orchestrating Tuesday's hearing on behalf of his disgruntled constituents back in Utah), Rep. Joe Barton (the big-talking Texan who oversaw a comical May 1 House hearing on the BCS) and Mark Shurtleff (the Utah attorney general who keeps threatening to sue the BCS) prove futile in terms of bringing about a major-college playoff, they may in fact hurt the sport's chances of ever adopting a true championship.
Let's not forget college football's reigning powers went down the antitrust road once before -- and the highest court in the land ruled in their favor. In 1984, the Supreme Court examined television rights in college football in NCAA v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma. Up to that point, the NCAA had maintained exclusive negotiating rights for all of its member schools, employing a largely egalitarian system that assured a piece of the pie for everyone from Auburn to Appalachian State. In a case originally brought by Oklahoma and Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the NCAA model violated the Sherman Antitrust Act by preventing more marketable teams like the Sooners and Bulldogs from attaining their true TV value.
Hatch invoked this very same law last week in a Sports Illustrated essay decrying a BCS system that "intentionally and explicitly favors certain participants." While there's no disputing the BCS draws a line in the sand between the six founding conferences (and Notre Dame) and teams like Hatch's Utes, surely someone on his staff has informed him an antitrust case paved the way for the BCS in the first place.
At its core, the BCS is basically one big TV contract between the four major bowl games and the nation's most marketable conferences, nearly all of which were already in business together long before they decided to stage a No. 1 vs. No. 2 championship game. Hatch claims "the BCS system denied [undefeated Utah] a chance to play for the national championship," but in actuality, the title game was open to anybody. No rule prevented the coaches and Harris Poll voters from tapping Utah for the title game had they seen fit, though the Utes' chances were unquestionably hurt by the stigma of playing in a so-called "non-BCS" conference.
Again, strictly from an on-field standpoint, no one would rationally call this system "fair." But there's a pretty big difference between "unfair" and "illegal."
If the government were to actually pursue an antitrust case against the BCS -- and let's be honest; these hearings are mostly for show -- the bowls and the major conferences would presumably trot out all manner of evidence proving the system has actually promoted competition from the second-tier conferences. The Mountain West and WAC, for example, have placed four teams in BCS bowls over the past five seasons. Prior to that, no current member of either league had played in the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta or Rose bowls since BYU's 1974 Fiesta appearance. Nor did such leagues previously receive annual BCS financial handouts like they do today. The MWC, WAC, MAC, C-USA and Sun Belt shared a combined $19.3 million in BCS revenue last season.
Meanwhile, one couldn't help but laugh at Rep. Barton during that House hearing in May when he waved his big, scary trump card at stone-faced BCS coordinator John Swofford. Barton threatened to pass a piece of legislation that "will prohibit the marketing, promotion, and advertising of a postseason game as a 'national championship' football game, unless it is the result of a playoff system." That's it? A name-change? I'm sure House leaders will clear their calendars for that vote.
But suppose I'm wrong. Suppose my admittedly amateur interpretation of federal antitrust and commerce laws is off, and suppose that, in some parallel universe in which such things proceed in a timely manner, an anti-BCS lawsuit or congressional bill actually succeeds.
Even then, the BCS still would not be obligated to adopt a playoff. The more likely result is that the BCS would simply dissolve. The bowls would go back to making their own individual deals with conferences. The Rose Bowl would go back to hosting the Big Ten and Pac-10 champs, the Sugar Bowl the SEC champ, etc. Maybe the Fiesta would still take an occasional stab at an undefeated Utah or Boise State, or maybe it would take 9-3 Notre Dame instead. Whatever would sell more tickets.
The sport existed in this manner for nearly the entire 20th century, and there's absolutely nothing stopping its leaders from returning to it, as Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman -- recently appointed chairman of the BCS' Presidential Oversight Committee -- told the Nebraska State Paper last week.
"The alternative is not a playoff," said Perlman. "The alternative is to go back to the system we had. That's fine. Many of us would think that's not a bad outcome."
In other words, your elected officials are dedicating valuable time and tax dollars toward a cause that, even if successful, would actually move the sport further than it is now from determining a true champion.
I'd sure hate to be running for reelection if that happened.