Dick Harmon: The BCS sure won't fix itself, so Congress has to step in

By Dick Harmon

Deseret News

Published: Sunday, July 5 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

This week Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) will either trigger a meaningful debate on the legality of how our college football system works, or he'll be castigated as a grandstanding gasbag crying foul because a team from his state didn't play for a national championship in January.

So far the national media have primarily made fun of the hearing, which is scheduled Tuesday in the nation's capital. The majority of the masses, however, do not like the way college football is manipulated by the Bowl Championship Series and want it fixed.

Even the Las Vegas Sun, a newspaper circulated within Mountain West Conference borders, editorialized a few days ago that Congress has better things to do than stage a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the BCS.

But even that op-ed page blather is populist drivel. Congress, for all its power, has about as much credibility as the BCS. So, what's the harm? It might delay making us into Canada or Sweden for another day.

Something has to be done. Those who can instigate change — university presidents — are afraid to do anything to disrupt ties to historic bowls like the granddaddy of them all, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. They also fear a breakup of the NCAA with the "elite" schools forming their own, separate organization.

Those who govern the NCAA shy away from meaningful college football championship reform. They've left that to an outside contractor, the BCS, which arrogantly has bucked practically all oversight.

But let's be frank here. If the BCS is to evolve or change, it is not going to come from the six elite conferences that set up the alleged cartel. This was evident in how BCS commissioners easily dismissed MWC commissioner Craig Thompson's proposals for reform.

Change will only come from big-time political pressure — a blow with a big hammer.

While the BCS has grudgingly evolved and fine-tuned itself the past half decade — even worked to be more inclusive and share some of the gold — it only did so after tremendous pressure and criticism nationally, along with the threat of governmental involvement.

For all the praise and flak Hatch will receive in coming days, the fact that the BCS is a gigantic enterprise conducting business inside the United States makes it a legitimate topic. Its exclusionary tactics, by design, are fundamental to its existence.

By law, Congress, the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission are required to investigate an illegal monopoly.

Air Force coach Troy Calhoun put it this way: "Unfortunately, what's involved here are some similarities that's not the United States of America. We have something that's not congruent with the foundation and the principles of our country. What we have here in college football is a system that closely resembles the old Soviet presidium. If you're not one of the chosen members, you are unable to participate."

All the name calling aside this week, the issue is very simple for Hatch and the committee.

Does the BCS violate U.S. law? Specifically, in 1998 did the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC conspire to set up an organization, cartel or monopoly in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890?

A decade ago when former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer got together with four major bowls, their respective TV partners and six so-called major conferences and devised a way to take care of one another and the majority of money in college football, was it an illegal cartel?

When Kramer and his cronies hatched out a system that divided college football into two castes, the so-called BCS schools and those labeled "mid-majors," was it illegal manipulation of the marketplace?

When it separated access to revenue, using conference affiliation and bowl alignments as the fence and immediately impacted budgets for recruiting and coaches salaries, facilities and titles, was it legal?

Section 2 of the Act reads: "Every person who shall monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, shall be deemed guilty of a felony."

This law didn't intend to punish businesses that dominated their market on their own merit, only those who did so through conspiracy — like allowing Mississippi State but not TCU or its mid-major brethren automatic access to a national title.

In other words is the BCS illegally enabling embarrassing college football programs like Duke greater access to money, bowls and championships than say a BYU, Utah or Boise State? Hatch says the answer is an absolute no brainer — yes.

In defense of Hatch, he's declared publicly he'd rather the BCS fix itself. But that's like asking Congress to spend only what it gathers. The BCS is like a giant rottweiler protecting a fat juicy bone.

I don't know if it's smart for Congress to get involved in college football. But these colleges all receive federal money and nonprofit tax status. And it is a business. If we replace "college football" with just the word "money," oversight makes sense.

This one needs facts and high-level debate. Politics can be a powerful agent for change.

It is certainly a minority media opinion, but why not give Hatch and the Senate a run at it? They can sell more of our country to China another day.

e-mail: dharmon@desnews.com

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