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The BCS has remained one step ahead of the law -- until now

By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 12, 2009

The administrators of college football's Bowl Championship Series use math as a cover-up. They complicate their rankings and revenue formulas until they distract us from the fact that the system is fundamentally illegal. Let's set aside the numbers for a moment, and concentrate on letters: The BCS is such a blatant robbery that its initials should stand for Bonnie and Clyde Stickup.

In any other business, if six major manufacturers got together and acted in concert with their distributors to ensure that, even if their product is lousy and market demand is low, they are guaranteed a vast majority of profits, what would you call that? Unlawful, that's what. Yet that's exactly how the BCS operates.

How long can the BCS stay ahead of the law? The call by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) for a Department of Justice investigation of the BCS no longer seems soreheaded, but right. Criticism is reaching a peak. Nike founder Phil Knight gave a speech at the National Football Foundation's annual College Hall of Fame banquet this week in which he said the BCS "debases" the game. A House commerce subcommittee wants to forbid the BCS from calling itself a "national championship." The Mountain West Conference and Boise State, tired of inequities, have retained the Washington law firm Arent Fox to study their legal recourse.

It's unclear what action they will take, but their attorney, Alan Fishel, has arrived at his own opinion. "It's well settled that a group of competitors can't agree with major distributors that, no matter what, they get the vast majority of revenue every year," Fishel says. The phrase for such behavior is antitrust violation. And antitrust violations are the business of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and the Department of Justice.

It's hard to believe that Justice Department officials could study the BCS and not see a revenue-allocation scheme, given how much major bowl money flows into so few hands, namely the 65 teams in the six founding BCS conferences (plus Notre Dame). What's more, the BCS blatantly restricts market access. None of the other 55 teams (from the five other conferences, plus Army and Navy) has ever been permitted to play for the championship, thanks to the mystery-shrouded BCS ratings, by which an outsider can win every game by a margin of 100 points and still not be rated highly enough to get into the title game. Try finding a mathematician, a master of ciphers, vector bundles or covariant derivatives, who can explain why TCU and Boise State never had a chance of overtaking Texas in those enigmatic BCS computers despite going unbeaten against comparable schedules. That's because it's a scam. The non-BCS schools simply did not start the season with the same mathematical opportunity of winning a championship as Texas.

To get a full dose of the BCS's obfuscations, go to its official Web site, http://BCSFootball.org, and click the link that says "BCS revenue sharing: It's pretty simple." You will read this nifty piece of misdirection: "The non-[BCS] conferences received $19.3 million in total in 2008-09; 18 percent of the net BCS escrow revenue goes to those conferences if one of their members participates in a BCS game."

Allow me to translate: "Put the money in a bag, mister, or I'll shoot."

Underneath the parsing and the tortured syntax, what the BCS revenue scam really amounts to is this: Between 2005 and 2009, the six fortune-kissed BCS conferences raked in $492.5 million in major bowl money. The others got just $61.9 million, according to data offered by the Mountain West Conference to the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Let's spell that out. That's four hundred and ninety two million dollars against sixty two million. And you wonder why the BCS fights a playoff system?

Better yet, let's put it in percentages. Over the last five years, the six favored leagues split 88.8 percent of the BCS bowl revenue. The other five leagues got just 11.2 percent -- no matter how good their record or performance.

Obviously, the 55 non-BCS schools have been ghettoized. They are treated as if they are all part of one large and inferior league, which deserves only the backwash of the major bowl proceeds, and even that they have to split. The BCS rajahs always suggest that their conferences deserve the largest cuts because they are competitively superior. Recently, Nebraska Chancellor Harvey S. Perlman referred to them as the "essential conferences" in an editorial in the Washington Times. But it's hard to see how some BCS conferences are so essential when some outsiders are regularly beating the snot out of them in bowls.

The Mountain West has the best winning percentage in bowls among the 11 conferences over the past five years, with a 14-7 mark. It has outperformed the Southeastern Conference and the Pacific-10, and it has stomped the ACC. For its hard work it got $18,092,400 in BCS proceeds over the past four seasons. That sounds like a handsome number until you compare it with what the mediocre ACC received over the same period: $71,648,753. Last season, the Mountain West had three teams ranked in the final BCS top 25, all ranked 16th or higher, while ACC champion Virginia Tech was ranked just 19th. Yet guess who got more BCS bowl money? The ACC -- by $9 million.

The bottom line is that under the current crooked, dishonorable scheme, the six favored conferences are guaranteed anywhere from $7 million to $10 million more apiece in BCS money than the other five. Period. No matter what. Regardless of who has the higher rankings, or the better teams. That fact alone should invite the Justice Department to take a look at the workings of the BCS, and whether it's a legal enterprise.

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