Justice letter could signal big trouble for BCS

The Department of Justice sent a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert this week seeking clarification on why college football doesn’t have a playoff in its largest division while noting there are “serious questions” about whether the Bowl Championship Series is violating federal anti-trust laws. It is a sign the DOJ is considering a groundbreaking anti-trust case against the embattled BCS, which already may face a similar suit from the state of Utah.

Christine Varney's letter to the NCAA is the first sign the feds may look into the BCS.
(Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP)

The knee-jerk reaction: Why is the federal government messing with football? Doesn’t it have better things to do?

This is far more than football, though.

The BCS is a financially underperforming system that costs mostly public colleges and universities hundreds of millions of dollars in potential revenue while directing tens of millions in student fees and taxpayer funds to third-party bowl games. The money alone makes it a concern for any taxpayer. Then there are the current corruption charges against the bowl business – the Fiesta Bowl is under fire for out-of-control spending and potentially illegal campaign contributions.

For college football fans, coaches and players so desperate for a playoff they don’t care how it happens, the question is can the Feds force action?

The answer is an overwhelming yes, and that isn’t even contingent on whether the feds could win the case.

There are smart people on both sides of this debate. Some say the BCS is susceptible to an anti-trust case. Others say it’s safe. The BCS itself has long maintained it’s in the clear.

I have no idea if even a DOJ case would prevail. I do know it doesn’t have to.

What the BCS is most susceptible to is exhaustion.

Sources throughout college football say the system’s chief defenders – a handful of conference commissioners and university presidents – are tiring of the withering attacks and negative headlines.

The Fiesta Bowl scandal was humiliating to administrators that placed overwhelming faith in their supposed “bowl partners.” Allegations of cronyism and unethical behavior have spread to scores of commissioners and athletic directors that received gifts and vacations from both the Fiesta and Orange bowls. The political action committee PlayoffPAC has proven to be a relentless muckraker, uncovering all sorts of unflattering items and filing numerous IRS complaints which could simultaneously rock the system.

Then there is a new generation of athletic directors, younger and less married to the old bowl system. They are pushing for a true look at why schools are stuck with a money loser. West Virginia AD Oliver Luck, for one, said he’ll help lead “a legitimate and intellectually honest discussion about bowl finances” at the upcoming Big East meetings.

All of it makes propping up the BCS a trying, frustrating and never-ending chore. They are stuck arguing emotional issues in the face of facts that show the system is little more than a power struggle and money grab that infuriates so many fans.

“Fatigue,” is how Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, perhaps the chief roadblock to reform, described it last December. “The debate about the BCS is certainly wearing to some,” Penn State president Gerald Spanier echoed to the New Orleans Times-Picayune earlier this month.

Well, defending an anti-trust case against the federal government isn’t exactly going to lighten the mood.

If the DOJ files a case, everything changes in an instant. The opposition to the BCS goes from annoying to nasty, with remarkable powers and resources behind it. Let’s start with the cost.

Two anti-trust lawyers said defending the case could run up to $5 million. Who wants to argue for the allocation of millions of dollars to defend a postseason that already costs their schools millions of dollars?

BCS director Bill Hancock remains adamant in his defense of the organization.
(Gerald Herbert/AP)

Then there are the real hassles. The discovery process. The depositions. The details that will no doubt emerge.

“Intense,” is how one anti-trust lawyer described the process of battling the United States of America.

We have no idea about the finances of the BCS because they refuse to release them. They probably will now. And as much as tax documents provide a loose (and highly questionable) picture of expenditures of some bowl games (such as directors making more than $800,000 a year in salary), we’ve gotten an in depth look at just one game – the Fiesta, which conducted a breath-taking internal investigation.

It was then we learned about the depth bowl directors will go to curry favor with college power brokers. It was then we heard about $27,000 car allowances and $33,000 birthday parties and president John Junker’s racking up $4.8 million in expenses over 10 years (a whopping $1,315 per day, every day for a decade). That’s equal to a lot of gentlemen’s club visits.

Where’d the money for that lavish lifestyle come from? From mostly public universities, of course. As we researched in the book Death to the BCS, the system required schools and conferences to pay for an estimated $26.9 million for empty seats alone during the 2010-11 bowl season. There was nearly $80 million more in travel costs and other expenses.

Anyone want to risk repeating the Fiesta finances scandal? At potentially bowl game after bowl game after bowl game? It’s one thing to swear by these guys in the media. It’s another to swear it under oath at a federal deposition.

“I think the Fiesta Bowl is the tip of the iceberg,” Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff told USA Today. Shurtleff said he’ll file his own suit this summer. “I’m pretty confident from my research that there’ll be more problems with other bowls,” he said.

And that’s where the power brokers have to huddle and decide if it’s time to cut bait. They’ve stood by their bowl cronies for years. At some point, however, the bitter end is the bitter end.

Maybe the BCS can survive a federal anti-trust suit. Or maybe it can’t. Whether a few aging conference commissioners want to engage in the fight of a lifetime at this point is the first question.

There are a thousand playoff scenarios out there that can earn their schools millions, invigorate their fans, silence their critics, cement their legacies and make the DOJ go away. Pick one, compromise a little and call it a day. There will be plenty of money for the schools to continue to subsidize bowl games. A playoff is a no-lose situation except for a few bowl directors making more than a half million a year.

Not all lawsuits are designed to reach a judge. This one may not have to.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, May 4, 2011