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BCS supporters don't get it: current system isn't better than playoff


You don't tug on Superman's cape, if I may paraphrase the late Jim Croce. You don't pull the mask off the ole Lone Ranger, and you don't trifle with the potentates of the BCS. So I was not surprised, after co-writing this week's SI cover story with Death To The BCS author Dan Wetzel, when the blowback began -- when the tsunami of trenchant, well-reasoned counter-arguments hit my inbox. I got two notes, actually.

"For future reference," scolded a representative of the Fiesta and Insight Bowls, "it's the Insight Bowl, not" Sorry about that, Insight Bowl. I regret the error.

(The spokesman's second bone to pick with the story had nothing to do with the BCS. He disagreed with my contention that no conspicuously dominant team has lorded over the sport this season.)

Mind you, this was a seven page story accusing BCS officials -- conference commissioners, bowl execs, ADs, presidents -- of being the beneficiaries of a glorified racket; of obstructing a playoff so they could keep lining their own pockets. A playoff would quadruple revenue available to Division I schools, we noted. But even as cash-strapped athletic departments are cutting entire sports, these honchos didn't want to go there, because it would force them to relinquish some power. They don't want a bigger pie if it means they have to hand over the knife.

Not long after the Fiesta chimed in, I got an email from the Rose Bowl -- accompanied by the red exclamation point denoting urgency!

To underscore the pedigree of his iconic, 96-year-old bowl, executive director Scott McKibben used a medieval-looking font (Eras Medium ITC, if you must know) to craft his 257-word "anti-playoff response." He took the high road, choosing not to attack the SI story, or dispute any of its specific allegations, but instead to heap praise upon his and all the other bowls, which must never go away because they "allow communities the opportunity to showcase their grandeur."

How true that is. Aside from bringing us crackling good games, the New Mexico, UDrove Humanitarian, Little Caesars Pizza, AdvoCare V100 Independence and New Era Pinstripe bowls do a splendid job showcasing the grandeur of, respectively, Albuquerque, Boise, Detroit, Shreveport and the Bronx. You can have the games, in fact: I'll take all that grandeur.

Referring to the Rose Bowl's "exclusive agreement" between the Pac-10 and Big Ten to pair their champions, McKibben asserts that "The threat of a playoff would destroy this long standing, successful relationship which has prospered in the bowl system."

Two points:

• The threat of a playoff has existed for some time, yet your bowl has not been destroyed.

• Nor would it be destroyed by a playoff, voluminous research shows. It would merely be overshadowed. Zeppelin-sized young men in coats and ties would still make awkward conversation with the "princesses" of the "Royal Court" of the Tournament of Roses parade at Lawry's Beef Bowl. The Granddaddy and its offspring would survive -- albeit without the power to hold an entire sport hostage by means of an illegal cartel.

Pro-BCS types can never acknowledge that a playoff probably wouldn't doom the bowl system; a bowl-less landscape is too integral to their specious case against a postseason tournament.

The result: a ceaseless romanticizing of the "the bowl experience," or, as BCS executive director Bill Hancock describes it, "a multi-day experience in a different culture."

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True, Hancock allows, the current system means that undefeated Boise State or TCU is likely to be denied a chance to play for the national title. Every year there is similar heartbreak, "And every year, my heart goes out to" to the left-behinds, he says.

But "people lose sight of the fact that TCU and Boise are in rarefied air for teams from non-AQ (automatic qualifying) conferences. And I think they're probably only there because of what the BCS allowed their programs to do."

Got that? You owe your lofty rankings, Horned Frogs and Broncos, to the BCS, which, in its magnanimity, allowed you the showcase of last season's Fiesta Bowl. So pipe down, please. Let's have less complaining, and more gratitude for what the BCS has given you?

True, anti-trust lawyers at the Justice Department are seriously considering bringing charges against the BCS. But maybe they won't! This is the thrust of a Sports Business Journal opinion piece forwarded to me by Hancock, and written by Gordon Schnell and David Scupp, partners at the New York City-based law firm Constantine Cannon, which specializes in anti-trust litigation.

Their basic point seems to be: because college football requires "coordination and cooperation among the competing conferences and teams" in order to arrange postseason play, anti-trust laws "are applied much more loosely in this context." While the authors point out -- repeatedly, and in plain language that must have caused Hancock at least some discomfiture -- the numerous shortcomings of the BCS system, their claim is that, because it represents an improvement on the system it replaced, it cannot be illegal. "If it has allowed for a higher-quality product, the anti-trust laws do not kick in."

I ran that by Alan Fishel, a partner with the Washington, D.C.-based firm, Arent Fox. He and his colleagues described Schnell and Scupp's analysis as "extremely superficial and one that ignores every argument for why it is actually an anti-trust violation." Says Fishel, "The problem is that most attorneys have no idea of the facts behind this system. Once you fully know the facts, the conclusion that it is an anti-trust violation is an easy one to make.

"It seems to me their argument is, 'It's better than the old system and therefore it can't be illegal.' First of all, that's false, legally. Secondly, in many ways, the current system is worse than the old system."

How? Look at the non-AQ teams now, and look at them 20 years ago. "Twenty years ago," says Fishel, "Miami, Florida State, Penn State -- those teams had chances to win national championships. Even BYU won a national championship" in 1984.

In seven of the 10 seasons between 1982 and '91, he points out, the national champion was a team not from what are now known as AQ conferences. In one of the greatest title games ever, the 1983 Miami Hurricanes upset mighty Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Miami lost an early game that season to sixth-ranked Florida, 28-3, but clawed its way into the title game. Today, says Fishel, "They wouldn't finish in the top 15."

Another thing: Miami got the same amount of money as Nebraska for that appearance. Non-AQ teams that battle their way into BCS bowls earn $12 million less than their BCS conference foe.

And this is an improvement how, exactly?

Fishel and I also had a chuckle at Schnell and Scupp's contention that "The BCS accomplished its goal. It guarantees a championship matchup between the top two teams and ensures marquee matchups in the four BCS bowls."

That marquee matchup featuring the champion of the Big East should be one for ages, we agreed. "Hopefully," said Fishel, "they'll crack the top 30 before the game."

This merriment, mind you, came courtesy of an article forwarded to me by the BCS, once again begging the question:

Is that all you got?