Even bickering partisan hacks can agree: The U.S. Department of Justice has had kind of a lot on its plate over the last 15 months. So if its January 2010 promise to review the legality of the Bowl Championship Series amid a flurry of threats and grandstanding on Capitol Hill just happened to fall through the cracks, well, BCS haters would understand.
But hark! Amid renewed appeals from prominent economists and attorneys general over the past month — and in light of new NCAA president Mark Emmert's concession that he would be "willing to help" with a playoff effort if university presidents and conference commissioners came around — the Justice Department's antitrust head sent Emmert a letter Tuesday with three questions about how the byzantine postseason system works. Specifically:
1. Why does the Football Bowl Subdivision not have a playoff, when so many other NCAA sports have NCAA-run playoffs or championships?
2. What steps, if any, has the NCAA taken to create a playoff among Football Bowl Subdivision programs before or during your tenure? To the extent any steps were taken, why were they not successful? What steps does the NCAA plan to take to create a playoff at this time?
3. Have you determined that there are aspects of the BCS system that do not serve the interests of fans, colleges, universities, and players? To what extent could an alternative system better serve those interests?
All good questions. But as Emmert's "willing to help" line suggests, they're not necessarily directed at the right person: The NCAA hasn't made a significant move on individual conferences' right to make their own schedules, negotiate their own television contracts and organize their own postseason cabals in 25 years, since the Supreme Court decided the association's efforts to exert control over television contracts amounted to an antitrust violation in 1984. University presidents and conference commissioners have had virtually free reign from the NCAA ever since, and ever-escalating payouts from television contracts and the BCS are the fruit of their endeavor. From the NCAA's perspective, there's no NCAA-sanctioned playoff because the NCAA doesn't have the authority — legally or practically — to impose one on constituents that don't want it.
The real answer for why there's no major college football playoff is that the most powerful of these particular constituents remain staunchly opposed to one, even in the face of mounting fan pressure and (by their own admission) a likely windfall that would accompany an end-of-year bracket. If the attorney general or anyone else manages to get a straight answer from the conference commissioners and university presidents clarifying that position, I'd be interested to hear it. At this point, a playoff makes so much more sense than the BCS in every way that the only compelling reason to hold on to the status quo — as opposed to the endless parade of non-compelling reasons, led by grizzled canards like "academics" and "lengthening the season" — is that it's the status quo, and the status quo's still turning a profit. Bowl games are the way we've always done it and it ain't broke and so that's the way it's done.
If the DOJ is genuinely concerned with unspooling the genetic sequence of an organism that has evolved the sporting equivalent of a third arm growing out of its forehead over a century with no overarching design or collective goals, more power to it. A billion-dollar enterprise being run through taxpayer-funded, nonprofit institutions is a legitimate area of governmental concern. It's just that it's not so hot at coherent solutions.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.