The BCS: College Football’s Monopoly

As we settle-in to cheer on our favorite college football teams this bowl season, it’s important to remember that an undisputed consolidation of power and money — the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) — controls which schools play in the major bowl games and National Championship game.

The BCS operates independently from, and without accountability to, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). It is controlled by commissioners from the six major college football ”power conferences” (also referred to as ”BCS conferences”) plus the Athletic Director of the independent Notre Dame. This arrangement is agreed to, reluctantly, by the commissioners of the remaining five ”mid-major” conferences (also referred to as ”non-BCS conferences” because they do not receive automatic bids to the BCS bowl games as do the others).

The BCS is responsible for concentrating the wealth that comes from the major post-season events (Fiesta, Orange, Rose and Sugar bowls, and the National Championship game) among the schools in conferences with BCS influence, and leaving the other Division I-A, non-BCS schools at a competitive, financial and recruiting disadvantage. It’s like telling nearly half of your members that they are not welcome at the club and are not eligible for the benefits that membership provides.

According to Brent Schrotenboer of the San Diego Union-Tribune: ”The six major conference commissioners have gained increasing power in the past 10 years and have turned it into television deals worth more than $110 million per year. They broker their power by representing their member school presidents and negotiating with bowls and television networks on their behalf. This year, they will distribute the vast portion of $210 million in bowl payouts to their members.”

The biggest area of controversy with the BCS system is unquestionably the disputed method for deciding a national champion. For starters, since the creation of the BCS in 1998, the convoluted mix of polls and computers to decide what schools should be appointed to play in the title game has succeeded only twice without controversy.

But no system could succeed that has to ”decide” among schools with equal records and valid claims of inclusion when only two spots are available. And no system could succeed that leaves such a remote chance for a non-BCS school to compete for the championship, even with a perfect record.

Excluding deserving teams and student-athletes from the chance to compete also amounts to consumer fraud for the fans. Such matters should be resolved on the field like every other NCAA sport and every other football division, all of which have tournaments to determine a national champion.

The shrinking number of BCS defenders say the system preserves the tradition of the bowl games. But first, there’s no reason why bowl games can not thrive either outside or within a tournament structure. Secondly, what tradition is left? Traditional match-ups are gone, as is the traditional New Years Day schedule, and the games have been commercialized to the point of destroying the bowl game experience and tradition for schools, student-athletes and fans.

Finally, bowl games are private businesses that should have no right, in partnership with the BCS, to prevent college football from a fair method of determining a national champion.

Those attempting to preserve the BCS, like the presidents of schools that make up the six BCS conferences and enjoy the BCS payouts, also say a playoff could mean less time for players to concentrate on classes and point to concerns that education would be sacrificed for money. But the BCS is influenced by persons and entities without respect to the interests of student-athletes or educational missions.

Where was the worry from presidents for student-athletes when they recently signed-off on an additional regular season game for every team, or when some conferences added a championship game, or when the presidents agree to allow more and more games every year on weekdays during the academic calendar, all to showcase their conferences and enjoy the television payouts? How do these developments give student-athletes more time for classes and exams?

Scale all these events back for the 119 Div. I-A schools, and add a national tournament for, say, the best 16-teams (including a few of the very best from traditionally overlooked conferences), and there would be far fewer games played overall. This would leave increased study time for all but the top 8-to-16 teams, depending on whether they currently play a conference championship. (Somehow this issue does not come up during the NCAA Basketball Tournament).

What has withstood change from outside pressure by excluded schools, alumni, fans, sportswriters, and even from a U.S. House subcommittee, is now experiencing some unrest from within — at least regarding the method of deciding a national champion. Two presidents from schools in conferences with BCS influence, University of Florida President Bernard Machen and Florida State University President T.K. Wetherell, are pushing for a playoff tournament.

”A playoff is inevitable,” Machen told Bloomberg News. ”The public strongly favors a playoff, but university presidents are in denial about that. They just don’t see it. Whatever the format, I believe we need to get ahead of it and create the system rather than responding to external pressures.”

Whatever the changes or replacements to the failed BCS, the NCAA needs to take control of Div. I-A college football in the interest of all member institutions, their student-athletes, alumni and fans. There should never be so much power in the hands of so few without accountability as the BCS demonstrates each year.

(For more information on this and other sports reform issues, visit www.leagueoffans.org).


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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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