Many commentators relish saying that the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) and big-time football is all about money. They are wrong. It is not really about money nor does it have anything to do with academic values or student welfare. It is about power — a cabal, possibly even a cartel, made up of presidents and athletic personnel from select conferences working behind closed doors, using intrigue and diversion to maintain the power base of its members. The latest BCS selections for a seriously flawed bowl system are plain evidence of the true ends of the BCS.
Let me dispense first with the argument that "it is all about the money." If it were all about maximizing revenues, the BCS would embrace a national championship. A 16-team national championship would generate far more revenue and excitement for the universities involved than a bowl system, with its middle-men skimming off dollars to pay exorbitant salaries and fund their questionable and sometimes indictable purposes. The problem with moving to a national championship is not about money, although it may be about members of the BCS cabal maximizing their share of the bowl bounty, relegating their competitors to non-BCS bowls where participants often spend more money than they make.
The cabal has overreached. Hunger for power, which can be a greater temptation than greed itself, can do that. Members of the cabal, including college presidents and conference commissioners, some of whom I count as friends, like to respond by saying that a real national championship would be harmful to academic values and student welfare. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If academic values were really at issue, bowl selections would be made based at least in part on the most significant measure of academic success: graduation rates. According to federal graduation rate (FGR) figures for 2010-11 for football, Louisiana State University sports a 48 percent FGR, Alabama has a 64 percent rate, Oklahoma State has a 53 percent rate, and Stanford leads the pack by many lengths with an 84 percent rate. Texas Christian, in turn, which was rebuffed, has a very respectable 75 percent FGR.
My BCS friends next argue that a bowl system would be harmful to student-athletes, requiring them to play in more games, risking more injuries and causing student-athletes to miss too many classes. Again, this sentiment is worthy, but reality tells a different story. The length of the season and the number of games being played by BCS teams has expanded significantly in the past decade. The allure of conference championships, which has placed additional dollars and power in the hands of the cabal, at the expense of student-athletes, has been but one culprit. Since 2005, the number of classes missed by students has increased by 40 percent, as the length of the bowl season has expanded well into January.
The cure is simple. Shorten the regular season to nine games. Even 10 regular season games, which used to be a norm, would be preferable to the 12 or 13 game pre-bowl seasons that have become so common in the realm of the BCS. With 9 or 10 games, and a 16 game championship, beginning late in November and ending before classes start in January would address student-welfare concerns.
The cabal has shown its true colors. It is not going to play fair. Either the NCAA, college presidents as a whole, should step forward and offer a solution that will be in accord with academic values and student welfare, or Congress can do their work for them.
Rodney K. Smith is director of the Sports Law and Policy Center at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and previously served as a university president.