Complaints about the college football Bowl Championship Series are nothing new. Indeed, it seems every year an obviously deserving team is left out of the BCS due to its arcane and, to put it bluntly, biased nature.
Obviously deserving team? Who are these obviously deserving teams? While the term ‘deserving’ can be used in a vague and broad sense, it is up to the BCS to choose the most deserving teams to play in the BCS. Each year there are many teams who can claim to be deserving of playing in one of the five most lucrative bowls, depending on what definition of deserving is used. To say that there are teams that are obviously deserving necessarily implies that there are teams who obviously do not deserve to be included in the BCS. Anyone who follows college football and debates the merits of various teams with others knows that there is little that is obvious about who deserves to play in which bowl. Suggesting that the deserving teams are obvious demonstrates either a lack of understanding of the system or a disingenuous attempt to vilify a selection system.
According to Orrin Hatch, these teams are left out because the BCS is arcane and biased. Arcane? The BCS uses a formula that is widely known and understood, hardly mysterious or secret. I’m not sure it is arcane, but I think that Hatch’s main point, as expounded in his article, is that the BCS is biased and chooses teams who are obviously not deserving over teams who are ‘obviously deserving’.
Deserving and not deserving are subjective judgments that can be based on any number of factors and values. The BCS formula is one way, among myriad alternatives and possibilities, of trying to determine which teams are deserving and which are not. The formula is public and all of the teams in the NCAA know the formula before the season and have voluntarily agreed to play under those rules. To cry foul after the fact, without any allegation that the rules were not followed, simply because your team wasn’t chosen smacks of sour grapes.
Leaders in Washington are catching on to—and even echoing—the negative feelings about the BCS. During his campaign for president, Barack Obama said he believed the system should be scrapped in favor of a playoff, a stance he reiterated after he was elected. In May the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on the BCS. And the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee, of which I am a member, has announced it will hold hearings later this month to investigate the antitrust implications of the system.
Many people express opinions that the BCS is not perfect and that there are alternatives. Many also support these alternatives. Politicians advocating popular positions held by their constituents is hardly news, or really relevant.
Although there seems to be a fair amount of public support for these efforts to expose and potentially remedy the unfairness of the BCS, some have questioned whether, given all the challenges our nation faces, it is appropriate for the federal government to expend time and resources on college football's bowl system. However, I believe the case for government involvement—whether from Congress, the courts or the Justice Department—is compelling.
First and foremost there are serious questions regarding the legality of the BCS. The Sherman Antitrust Act prohibits contracts, combinations or conspiracies designed to reduce competition. I don't think a more accurate description of what the BCS does exists.
Without going into the complicated issues regarding antitrust legal actions, Hatch’s contention that the stated aim of the Sherman Antitrust Act is an accurate description of the BCS is a bald legal conclusion which is neither proven nor supported. Legal conclusions must be supported by specific facts and findings which are not present in Hatch’s article. The conclusion is merely an attempt to label the BCS as ‘illegal’ without buttressing such an accusation.
Under the current plan six conferences, which include slightly more than half of the teams in Division I-A, receive automatic bids to play in the five most prestigious and lucrative bowl games—even if teams from the other five conferences have had better seasons. For instance, in 2008 the only two undefeated I-A teams (Utah and Boise State) were from non-BCS conferences. And two other outside teams (Brigham Young and Texas Christian) finished higher in the BCS rankings than at least one of the champions of an automatic-bid conference. Yet only Utah was invited to play in a BCS game. And although the Utes had plenty of big wins, the BCS system denied them the chance to play for the national championship. So while every conference is technically part of the BCS agreement, the existing arrangement intentionally and explicitly favors certain participants.
Hatch unintentionally points out one of the chief weaknesses in his argument: the fact that the BCS is a voluntary agreement. The NCAA teams, their conferences and the bowls agreed to play under this system. It is not some BCS conspiracy that results in teams from big conferences playing in those bowl games, it is what the bowls, their TV partners, and ultimately, many fans want.
For comparison, look at the teams selected for the four BCS bowls that existed before the BCS (Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange). For the twelve years preceding the BCS (the BCS has been around for 12 years now) there were exactly ZERO (0) teams who are not Notre Dame or currently in one of the six Big conferences selected to play. Not one. The BCS formula, whether arcane or biased, actually results in more mid-major participation in the major bowls.
In addition, every team from a preferred conference automatically receives a share from an enormous pot of revenue generated by the BCS, even if they fail to win a single game. On the other hand, teams from the less-favored conferences are guaranteed to receive a much smaller share, no matter how many games they win. The numbers are staggering. Last year the Mountain West Conference had one team qualify for the BCS, Utah, as did three of the automatic-bid conferences. Yet under the BCS formula the Mountain West received $9.8 million—roughly half of what the three bigger conferences got. And despite having the nation's only other undefeated team, Boise State, the Western Athletic Conference received just $3.2 million in BCS revenue.
The Big Six conferences produce more revenue, as explained below, which is why they are entitled to more revenue. The BCS was largely the creation of the large conferences. If Utah or Boise State or Hawaii or whomever, doesn’t like it, they aren’t compelled to play in the series.
This disbursement scheme places teams from these smaller conferences at a disadvantage when it comes to hiring staff and improving facilities. Because of their increased visibility and status BCS schools also receive an unfair advantages [sic] in recruiting top players and coaches. These inequities also extend far beyond the football field, as many schools in the country depend on the revenue generated by their football teams to fund other athletic programs and academic initiatives.
The BCS is not the reason smaller conference schools are at a disadvantage in terms of money. They are at a disadvantage for many reasons. They don’t license as much apparel; they don’t sell as many tickets; they don’t attract large television audiences and contracts, and, most importantly, they haven’t historically invested as much money into their programs. It‘s these large schools that make the BCS viable, profitable and lucrative. Try pitting the WAC and MVC champions against each other and see how lucrative it is. Hatch wants the mid major schools to be able to play against the BCS schools and reap an amount of revenue disproportionate to the amount they generate.
There's no denying that college football is a business. Most schools advertise and market their teams as they would a commercial product. There are also television networks, advertisers and the corporate sponsors that invest in and profit from these bowl games. All told, the BCS games generate hundreds of millions of dollars every year. If the government were to ignore a similar business arrangement of this magnitude in any other industry, it would be condemned for shirking its responsibility. In essence, those making the argument that the BCS is too trivial a matter to receive governmental attention are saying that we should hold colleges and universities to lower standards of fairness and ethical behavior than we would a commercial entity. I must respectfully disagree.
The propriety and wisdom of government intervention into any business is a complicated matter that depends on many subjective factors as well as the political and economic viewpoints of those that would favor or disapprove of intervention. Just because college football is a business that generates millions of dollars every year does not, in and of itself, justify intervention. I will leave further debate about government intervention to other commentators.
These justifications aside, government intervention into the BCS would be regrettable. There are many issues and challenges competing for Congress's attention. Those with the power to reform the system should do so voluntarily. If not, legislation may be required to ensure that all colleges and universities receive an equal opportunity. Most have argued that some sort of playoff system would be the fairest approach; frankly, almost anything would be better than what we have now. One thing is clear: No changes will take place if Congress does nothing.
Read this last section carefully. This is not a suggestion for action or the persuasive end to a position piece. It is plain and simple coercion. If you don’t do what Senator Hatch wants you to do, he will use his position within the government to do what he wants you to do. Despite any attempts made by the Senator at persuasion, understand that, ultimately, he is threatening the force of the Federal government to get the college football arrangement he wants.
The BCS is not perfect as it is. The bowl system that preceded it wasn’t, and a playoff wouldn’t be either. None of these systems is perfect, but Senator Hatch using his position in the Senate to push what he wants or what most benefits his hometown team is regrettable.