April 28, 2008

Government unlikely to help push for playoff

MORE: Wetzel: BCS ready to take first steps toward playoff?

A U.S. congressman has cried out for change in this case, the abolishment of the Bowl Championship Series in favor of a college football playoff.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) said the campaign to dismantle the BCS hinges on the issue of fairness and a level playing field.

"People are so sick of being taken advantage of and publicly insulted," he said. "It demoralizes the population. They hate it, so they love the opportunity to say 'We don't have to take that anymore.'"

Yet about a week ago, when Abercrombie and two fellow congressmen introduced a House resolution that calls on the Department of Justice to investigate whether the BCS violates antitrust laws, no one broke out into chants of "Yes we can."

College football power brokers essentially rolled their eyes, and political analysts and BCS experts know why: The chance that Congress, the courts or the Department of Justice will strike down the BCS, they suggest, is about as likely as Ralph Nader winning the presidential election. Here's why:

The Department of Justice can investigate the matter even if the House resolution fails to pass. Turns out the Department of Justice already has looked at whether the BCS violates antitrust laws and decided against an investigation.

"It's never warranted any further review," spokeswoman Gina Talamona said.

That wouldn't preclude a future investigation. After all, the Department of Justice has taken action on sports-related matters in the past. In 1984, for example, an investigation helped set in motion a case in which the Supreme Court ruled the NCAA violated antitrust laws by refusing to let schools negotiate their own national TV deals.

But the Department of Justice examined the BCS before the six power conferences presumably reduced anti-competitive restraints when they created a fifth BCS bowl game and increased the payout and access for the five non-BCS conferences.

A state or federal court could rule the BCS is illegal, and antitrust expert Gary Roberts said a plaintiff "has a reasonable chance of winning." The problem, Roberts said, is finding a willing and qualified plaintiff.

If angry fans have started a legal fund and are looking for an attorney, forget it. "You've got to be legally injured by the illegal conduct in order to have standing," said Roberts, and that means non-BCS schools or the five non-BCS conferences are the potential plaintiffs. But Wright Waters, commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference, explained why none of those non-BCS conferences or schools is likely to file suit.

Last year, the Sun Belt Conference received $1.5 million from the BCS even though none of its teams qualified for the top six bowl games. If the BCS were ruled illegal, and the six power conferences reverted to the previous system where bowls simply contracted directly with conferences, the Sun Belt would have received zilch.

"That's my nightmare," Waters said. "Would I like more access? Yep. Would I like more money? Yep. But at least I know what I've got now and there's no reason for me to believe that tearing it down will bring me more money."

Congress called for hearings in 2003 when a coalition of presidents at non-BCS schools threatened to sue the BCS schools and pressed for change. Though Congress grilled the likes of Jim Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten and an ardent opponent of a college playoff, the politicians backed off when the two sides signed an agreement that made it easier for non-BCS schools to qualify for a BCS bowl game.

During an election year when the economy, health care and foreign policy have emerged as hot-button issues, it's hard to imagine more than a smattering of politicians mostly those pandering to constituents in states without BCS schools (i.e. Hawaii and Idaho) will embrace the cause. But Lynn Lashbrook, a former professor at Oregon State who runs bcsbusters.com said he hopes to mobilize what he touts as another powerful group: college students.

Lashbrook pointed out that college students collectively pay tens of millions of dollars in annual student activities fees that help finance athletic departments. If students refuse to pay activity fees unless the schools agreed adopt to a playoff system, Lashbrook said, the move could prompt change that seems beyond the reach (or interest) of the courts, Congress and the Department of Justice.

He cited the student protests of the 1960s as evidence.

"Students got us out of Vietnam," he said. "Surely they can get us a playoff."

After years of searching for students to lead the charge, Lashbrook said he finally found two. "I got them (business) cards made," he said. "I thought these are my guys."

He sent them to the student senate with a resolution that demanded activities fees be withheld until the school worked toward the adoption of a football playoff.

The student senate immediately rejected the idea. The two students quickly disappeared with their business cards.

"But I haven't given up," Lashbrook said.

MORE: Wetzel: BCS ready to take first steps toward playoff?

Josh Peter is a writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Josh a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.


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