Long a loser in the court of public opinion, the Bowl Championship Series may now have its day in a different, more formal court. On April 20 the news broke that Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff intends to bring an antitrust lawsuit against the BCS, whose critics have long described it as a cartel.
Speaking to USA Today, Shurtleff decried "serious antitrust violations that are harming taxpayer-funded institutions to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars."
"I'm not an attorney," rejoined BCS executive director Bill Hancock, "but I know antitrust laws challenge entities that limit access, and the BCS provides access in spades."
That will come as news to the 51 teams in the five conferences comprising college football's peasantry—the so-called non-automatic qualifying conferences. For all but two or three of the non-AQ teams, the reality is this: They have no shot at a national title. Had Nevada of the Western Athletic Conference gone undefeated last season (the Wolf Pack went 12--1, losing only to Hawaii), there's no way Nevada would've leapfrogged any number of one-loss teams from the power conferences.
In the suit Shurtleff is sure to highlight the disparity in BCS revenue between the six AQ and five non-AQ conferences. (The former made $145.2 million this year versus $24.7 million for the latter.) And he'll illustrate how the deck is stacked against non-AQs qualifying for any BCS game. But that's if the lawsuit even sees a courtroom. One antitrust lawyer believes a deal could be reached before the case gets to that stage because the BCS "recognizes, despite its public statements, the weakness in its case, and because it may not want to have all of the inner workings of the BCS come to light."
It's been a tough month for the BCS. On April 12 a collection of 21 high-profile economists and antitrust experts sent a letter to the Department of Justice, urging it to investigate the BCS for its anticompetitive practices. Last Saturday a hastily convened "task force" of the BCS met in Chicago to discuss its relationship with the scandal-plagued Fiesta Bowl. When an internal investigation conducted by that bowl uncovered massive impropriety—taxpayer money spent at strip clubs and on golf-club memberships, to name a few choice tidbits—Hancock was quick to voice his outrage. The BCS wasted little time distancing itself from its partner in Arizona, requiring officials of the bowl "to demonstrate why it should remain a BCS bowl game."
With Shurtleff's lawsuit, it could be BCS officials themselves who'll be required to justify their existence.
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SIMON BRUTY (BCS)
GREENER GRASS? Shurtleff (inset) says that antitrust violations by the BCS are costing colleges hundreds of millions of dollars.
STEVE C. WILSON/AP (SHURTLEFF)
[See caption above]