In what could be the first meaningful legal salvo against the BCS, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has indicated he will bring a federal anti-trust suit against the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). Though threatened in the past, this appears to be the first serious legal action challenging the BCS’s role in determining college football’s national champion.
Shurtleff began exploring this option back in 2008 after his home state Utes thrashed Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, finishing the season as the FBS lone undefeated team. Despite this accomplishment, Utah was not considered for the BCS championship game and did not earn a national championship. According to Shurtleff, the suit seeks to address the inherent inequities in the BCS system and legal relief for those “non-automatic qualifiers” who, according to the suit, have been subject to irreparable financial harm.
Shurtleff also indicated that other states attorneys general may follow his lead and join in this action. His ultimate hope would be that the United States Department of Justice would see fit to enjoin an investigation into the charges levied against the BCS.
Shurtleff is in a much better position to launch this effort now than in 2008. Then, it was easy to dismiss him as a disheartened “homer” trying to gain retribution for a slight against his home state. Beginning next year, Utah will join a BCS conference, the PAC 10, and thus be a part of the automatic qualifying system. Additionally, Shurtleff serves a sizable contingent of BYU fans. BYU, left out in the seismic shifting of conference alliances this past season, now is making a go of it as an independent. The inclusion of BYU in this argument brings to the surface some troubling issues for the BCS.
Though the BCS claims increased access for smaller schools, the truth is only 7 of 114 BCS berths in the 13 years of the BCS’s existence have gone to such schools. It can be argued that a school like BYU is at a greater disadvantage now under the BCS, with practically no chance at a national championship, than under the old bowl system in which BYU won a national championship in 1984. Furthermore, with BYU now an independent, the BCS will be under pressure to explain how it grants fellow independent Notre Dame an exemption to the automatic qualifying standards depending only on Notre Dame meeting a threshold of wins. Further, Notre Dame is guaranteed a fraction of BCS revenues. Simply by fielding a team, they bring home a 1/66th share (approximately $1.7 million).
Of course the answer is obvious: Notre Dame’s inclusion in the BCS is a guaranteed money-maker, the sole reason for the system’s existence. With this suit, the BCS is going to be hard-pressed to defend the inequities in TV revenue distribution and access to the BCS cash cow of bowl games. Will that amount to a “restraint of trade” in the eyes of the courts? That remains to be seen. What is obvious is the “Animal Farm” type of disparity in revenue distribution. Apparently, some FBS schools are “more equal than others.”
Although the BCS can cite the recent “bones” thrown to non-AQ schools like Boise St. and TCU, providing for at least one of these schools to be a part of the BCS bowl bonanza, they will have a difficult time explaining why only one slot is allotted for over 50 non-AQ schools while the ACC and Big East get an automatic bids. Arguing the quality of competition here is a non-starter. Perhaps most importantly, the fact that non-AQ schools are for all intents and purposes out of the national championship picture denies their access to millions of dollars of resultant merchandising revenue .
If Shurtleff and other states’ AGs are successful in arguing this case, the results could have a seismic effect on the college football landscape. Of course a playoff system would be the most obvious ramification, giving all FBS schools access to a championship and any revenue produced from a playoff. This would, in effect, destroy the BCS, and with it, the influence of bowl commissioners. In turn, it would empower the NCAA to step back into major college football and begin to police it more effectively. Perhaps the greatest effect, however, would be a shift back to more traditional conference ties. With the need to align in a “power conference” in order to get into the BCS eliminated, so would be the pressure for a school like TCU to sever long-time rivalries to enter the Big East. They could remain in a geographically natural alignment and still have access to the championship.
It will interesting to see this process unfold. How many other states’ AGs will come on board? Will the DoJ join the fray? How much money is the BCS willing to spend to defend itself? Will this process uncover even more shenanigans on behalf of BCS commissioners? Stay tuned.