It's time for Congress to sack the BCS

Sally Jenkins
Thursday, November 11, 2010; 1:04 AM

The Bowl Championship Series must be destroyed down to the ground, and the people behind it made to answer for their money-grasping arrogance. With every passing year, it's more obvious how incurably corrupt the BCS is, and how above the law its perpetrators consider themselves. It's time for Congress to quit hawing in committees and act.

Will the people up on that hill please get together and pass a bill killing the BCS? Your approval ratings will soar, I promise. The nation will thank you for removing its stench from our public universities, and our personal nostrils.

It's going to take a law - a tough one - to stamp the BCS out of existence. The BCS officials who represent the six member conferences won't listen to reason, don't respond to legal threats, and couldn't care less about education.

Their counterfeit national championship kicks back too much real money.

The BCS has totally debased the sport in return for massive coin. Between 2007 and 2009, total payouts from the BCS bowls amounted to $410.1 million. Of that, $355.1 million (86.6 percent) went to the 65 schools in the BCS, by prearranged design. They've conducted this heist in broad daylight with total impunity.

They flaunt a disregard for the overall welfare of college athletics, with "tweaks" to the system made only grudgingly, and under the most extreme pressure, and even then they never really fix anything. They weren't bothered when the Associated Press withdrew from the BCS rankings system, citing a lack of integrity, or when Vice President Biden called the BCS "a rigged deal." The rankings remain a scandal. They weren't even bothered when President Obama threatened to use his office to back a playoff.

So they certainly weren't bothered by Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff's effort to stir a federal antitrust inquiry. BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock responded that it was "hard to imagine a bigger waste of taxpayer money than to involve the government in college football."

That's the standard position taken by the BCS, and it's the most galling and supercilious attitude of all. Anytime you have a group of institutions conspiring against another group of institutions over hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and millions more in free marketing and exposure, that's a situation the government should take an interest in. Especially when a lot of those institutions are public universities.

There happen to be excellent grounds for antitrust case, according to an assessment by economist Andrew Zimbalist for the Antitrust Bulletin in 2009, recently republished in his new book, "Circling the Bases," a collection of essays on issues confronting the sports industry.

At the moment, the undefeated but non-BCS member TCU has no hope of playing for the national championship if BCS conference members Oregon and Auburn win out. Zimbalist points out that smaller schools in college football can never have the experience of the Rice University baseball team, which despite the small size of its athletic department rose up to win the 2003 College World Series.

The consequences of hoarding 86 percent of bowl money while leaving the rest for the other 55 division I-A schools to fight over are far-reaching in terms of anti-competitiveness.

When huge amounts of revenue go to some athletic departments and not others, the unfairness iterates throughout college athletics: A gymnast that gets hurt at Alabama likely will have better medical/rehab care available to her than one that gets hurt at Utah. And it goes beyond athletics: The applicant pool at South Carolina likely will be deeper and wider than the one at Nevada, as a result of the money and exposure of the BCS.

Football money makes its way down to benefit non-revenue athletes, and football on TV makes people interested in applying to a school, and alumni in giving to their school. If big-time football matters the way the power schools say it does to justify their bloated budgets, then everyone in division I-A should have the same right to participate in it equally.

The most damning indictment of the BCS comes from Bernie Machen, who was president of the University of Utah before he moved to the Florida, a BCS school, in 2004. Zimbalist quotes Machen: "When I was at Utah, our athletics budget was around $20-22 million per year. Our budget here is $84.5 million . . . and the major difference is the bowl revenue and TV revenue. . . . I don't think most people begrudge what we got because of being in the championship game, but all SEC schools got the same amount of money that we got. And Utah could beat a lot of SEC schools. That's the unfairness. I think that's got to be fixed one way or the other."

Unfortunately, we can't rely on an antitrust suit to fix it. While the Justice Department makes noises about antitrust, and attorney generals make threats, "such efforts have not proceeded to court and are more likely public relations displays of frustration, holding out for the possibility that the BCS will throw a few more crumbs in its direction," Zimbalist says. The BCS is not going to really reform itself because lawyers rattle pens at them.

Nor is the NCAA going to step in. Too many university presidents and athletic directors, who could have stood up to the BCS from the start, are shamefully invested in protecting the golden goose. The NCAA is virtually run by BCS members, who hold five of 18 seats on the NCAA Executive Committee, and 6 of 18 seats on the Division I board of directors.

That means it's up to Congress. Lawmakers have a simple available means to get rid of the BCS and force the NCAA to replace it with an equitable playoff system: tax exemptions. As I've written so often, the only thing that keeps BCS bowl money from being taxable income is the fact that, for the moment, Congress considers college athletics to be an educational endeavor. The day that legislators on Capitol Hill decide the BCS is a business, schools will lose their tax exemptions.

They should write a law stripping the tax breaks from any college that participates in the BCS. That will kill it. Whatever takes its place won't be perfect - college football has always been a messy affair - but it will be better than stealing.

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