Sports

Government finds it's no match for the BCS

There would not be a victory parade, and there assuredly wouldn't be a call from the president.

But the Bowl Championship Series appears on its way to an upset triumph.

Over the government.

The unofficial matchup — BCS versus the Department of Justice — may not be over, and the Justice Department's ability to strike quickly cannot be discounted.

But signs point to the BCS carrying on as it has in the foreseeable future, with a structure that matches the top two teams in the final BCS standings in a national title game.

Earlier this year, attorneys for the Justice Department had inquired about college football's postseason — specifically, why a playoff doesn't exist — to explore possible antitrust violations.

But it has been all quiet since a June meeting with BCS executive director Bill Hancock, much to the disappointment of the playoff crowd, which had hoped government intervention could do what their protests could not — select a college football champion through an inclusive bracket.

The 2011 football season will mark the 76th consecutive season that voters will play a major role in determining the national champion. The Associated Press poll debuted in 1936, and that poll and others have recognized a final No. 1 team ever since.

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Since 1998, two opinion polls have helped determine the BCS standings.

Voting for a champion, or as part of a system to identify finalists, has been unpopular enough to draw the attention of Washington, D.C. —and often when politicians become interested in a college sports issue, change follows.

"The government wants to win," said Angela Lumpkin, a University of Kansas professor and expert in sports ethics and management. "Politicians are responsive to their constituents, and their constituents hold them accountable."

In this case, the constituents were the citizenry of Utah and Texas' 6th Congressional District that includes Fort Worth, areas represented by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas.

Both threatened action to create an NFL-style playoff, and they found themselves with an across-the-aisle ally in President Obama, who twice in interviews has called for a college football playoff.

But as college football prepares to kick off the season through a cloud of offseason troubles at programs such as Miami, Ohio State and North Carolina, one problem that no longer seems to exist, or at least has moved to the back burner, is dealing with the Justice Department.

"The DOJ is deciding whether to commence a full-scale investigation, but I would be surprised for a couple of reasons if that happened," said David Scupp, an attorney for the New York law firm Constantine Cannon and an expert in antitrust issues.

Scupp said he believes the department has bigger issues on its plate, and limited resources.

"Also, it's questionable on its merits," Scupp said. "It's not a very strong case."

Which is what Hancock has been saying all along.

Hancock, who runs the BCS from his Prairie Village home, met with 10 officials from the department's antitrust division, and when it was over he felt "more confident about what we do than before I went in."

College sports leaders didn't usually feel that way when games have moved into the political arena.

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The NCAA owes its very existence to a decree from President Theodore Roosevelt, who twice summoned college athletic leaders to the White House in 1905 to encourage reforms because of injuries and deaths related to football.

More recently, examples abound of statehouse and courthouse involvement in college sports' scheduling and structure.

The Alabama-Auburn Iron Bowl rivalry was renewed in 1948 after a four-decade dormancy when the state passed a resolution.

The standoff between Iowa and Iowa State was about as long when state legislation brought them back together in 1977.

And politicians haven't only arranged games, they've shaped conferences.

Former Texas governor Ann Richards pushed Baylor's membership in the Big 12, and the Virginia legislature helped land Virginia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference instead of Syracuse.

The NCAA came away battered and bruised from court battles twice in the last three decades in college sports.

In 1995, a U.S. district judge in Kansas City, Mo., declared that a restricted-earnings coaching position created by the NCAA violated antitrust laws. The idea to restrict one coaching position to a $16,000 salary was enacted in 1992 and was intended as a cost-cutting measure.

It took four years, but the sides agreed to a $54 million settlement. After the NCAA paid legal fees, a total of $36 million was divided among some 1,800 coaches.

College sports at the major Division I-A level owes its shape — and some of today's realignment controversies — to a 1984 Supreme Court ruling.

That year, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens uttered a line that echoes throughout college sports today. "Today we hold... the NCAA had restricted rather than enhanced the place of intercollegiate athletics in the Nation's life."

The high court had upheld a lower-court ruling that found the NCAA had violated antitrust laws and could no longer control college football on television. That meant colleges such as Oklahoma, which was named in the lawsuit, were free to sell their product to the highest bidder.

"The big boys said they wanted the money for themselves," Lumpkin said.

Initially, the victory was hollow. By themselves, schools couldn't create great value.

But their conferences could, and those grew stronger. The landscape started changing with Penn State joining the Big Ten, expansion in the Southeastern Conference and formation of the Big 12.

From those moves, the forerunners to the BCS — the Bowl Coalition and then the Bowl Alliance — were formed to increase the likelihood of the nation's top-two ranked teams playing in a bowl game.

In 1998, the BCS was formed, and the latest antitrust questions are filled with irony. A system found to be in violation of antitrust laws in the first place put in motion the series of changes that created the current system.

Hancock, who became the BCS leader in 2009, said the system wouldn't have formed without a thorough review of the law.

"When the BCS was founded, its leaders consulted with some of the best antitrust lawyers in the business," Hancock said.

Another result of that 1984 ruling: The Longhorn Network. The University of Texas network operated by ESPN debuted Friday.

The network, worth $15 million annually to Texas, has caused enough competitive discomfort in the Big 12 that Texas A&M has openly courted membership in the SEC, which could touch off another round of conference realignment.

None of this could have happened without the 1984 decision.

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The BCS plans no major changes to its operation. The two teams in the final BCS standings will meet in the BCS national championship game, this season in New Orleans.

Four other BCS games — the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange bowls — will be played before the title game.

There has been recent talk of adjusting the structure, although it originated from athletic directors of the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences, not politicos.

Earlier this month, athletic officials said they would consider supporting a "plus-one" model, where the top four teams in the final BCS standings would be seeded and BCS games would be used for semifinals and a championship game.

The current BCS television contract with ESPN expires after the 2014 season, and it's widely assumed no change could happen until at least then.

But if and when change occurs, Hancock is convinced the impetus will be the conferences and schools.

"Commissioners will be open to ideas that will make it better, but I don't see any groundswell for an NFL-style playoff," Hancock said.

Besides, if the BCS was forced to go away, no politician or judge could order a playoff.

"A court could say the BCS is illegal and could break up the BCS," Scupp said. "But a court can't force college football to enter a playoff system."

Which gives the BCS a trump card.

"People who want to end the BCS aren't going to get what they want," Hancock said. "I think the most likely scenario wouldn't be a playoff, but it would be back to the old system, where games were arranged before the end of the regular season.

"I don't think people want that."

Not even the Department of Justice.

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