by | CBS Sports

Feds barking up wrong tree asking NCAA to change BCS


Tuesday, NCAA president Mark Emmert received a letter from Christine A. Varney, an assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice. Ms. Varney, who runs the antitrust division, asked some fairly pointed questions about the Bowl Championship Series.

Some of my colleagues have written that this is bad, bad news for the BCS. It shows that the feds are getting ready to throw their weight around as the Utah attorney general threatens to file an antitrust lawsuit. Surely the burden of constant public criticism and some shenanigans at the Fiesta Bowl, combined with a letter from the DOJ, spells the beginning of the end for the BCS.

The NCAA boss' response to Christine Varney could include details of what he can (little) and can't (most) do. (Getty Images)  
The NCAA boss' response to Christine Varney could include details of what he can (little) and can't (most) do. (Getty Images)  
Call me a contrarian, but I just don't see it. Varney has legitimate questions and Emmert will give her some answers. Emmert's return letter will go something like this:

Ms. Christine A. Varney
Assistant Attorney General
Department of Justice
Washington, D.C.

Dear Ms Varney:

Thank you for your interest in NCAA football. You have raised some interesting questions and I will attempt to answer them here:

1. Why does the Football Bowl Subdivision not have a playoff when so many other NCAA sports have NCAA-run playoffs or championships?

The NCAA is, by definition, an association and not a professional league like the NFL or Major League Baseball. Professional leagues have commissioners with broad powers to oversee the entire enterprise. Athletics in all divisions of the NCAA are ultimately controlled by the presidents and chancellors of the member institutions. At this point the majority of the CEOs of the institutions have indicated no desire to have a postseason tournament to decide the FBS national championship. Because it is a member-driven organization, the NCAA has neither the power, nor the desire, to impose a format its members do not want.

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?

The NCAA has taken no steps to impose a playoff in the FBS because that is not our role. Our role at the NCAA is to determine the wishes and the goals of our membership and then assist them in meeting those goals. If the membership of the FBS wishes to have a playoff at some point in the future, the leadership of the NCAA stands ready to help make it a reality. The idea of a postseason playoff has been discussed in many venues on many occasions but it has not gained traction because the majority of our FBS institutions have not expressed any real interest in it.

3. Have you determined that there are aspects of the BCS system that do not serve the interest of fans, colleges, universities, and players? To what extent could an alternative system better serve those interests?

I'll try one more time. The NCAA exists to serve the needs and desires of its member institutions and to provide a governance structure of like-minded schools for the purposes of fielding intercollegiate athletics. Those needs and desires are conveyed to the NCAA leadership through the governance structure of those institutions. Our job at the NCAA is not to impose a postseason structure on the member institutions. It is to determine the desire of our members and to facilitate those ends.

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And one other thing, Ms. Varney. You quoted me in the New York Times as saying the NCAA was "willing to help create a playoff format to decide a national championship for the top level of football." And that is still true. What you left out was the rest of the sentence: "If the leadership of those universities wants to move in that direction." Thus far, they have not.

I suggest you go back and read the 1984 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of the NCAA vs. the Board of Regents at the universities of Oklahoma and Georgia. In that case, the high court held (7-2) that individual schools, not the NCAA, owned and controlled television and other rights pertaining to college football games. In fact, that case held that the NCAA's control of television rights for football violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. If it is the DOJ's position that the current BCS structure also violates antitrust law, I suggest that you proceed accordingly.

I know that the BCS is very unpopular with many fans and with many members of the media. And there is little doubt a playoff format would generate substantially more revenue than the current system. But under the current governance structure, the NCAA can't force anybody to change. Only the presidents can do that.

Now it could be that the presidents and the commissioners of the big conferences that run FBS football will get tired of fighting this fight. And if you haul them into court, maybe they will back down and come to some kind of compromise.

But you do need to be aware of this: If you are successful in dismantling the BCS, there is simply no guarantee that it will be replaced by some kind of postseason playoff run by the NCAA.

The big boys have a number of options. That's why they are the big boys. They could just pull out of the NCAA and form their own league. Or they could go back to the old bowl system in place before the BCS and let the final polls determine the national champion. The TV guys are sure throwing around a lot of money right now and could make it worth their while.

The bottom line, Ms. Varney, is the NCAA president doesn't have the juice to control the Big Six conference commissioners, who are doing very, very well for their leagues. They work for their conference's university presidents, and if there is one thing a college president can do, it's count dollars and cents. I know because I was one. They have a pretty sweet deal and are not going to just roll over and give it away because some people want a system that is more "fair" -- whatever that means.

I'm afraid that's all I have for you, Ms. Varney. If you want a more complete answer on why the NCAA does not have a playoff in the FBS, I suggest you contact Mr. James Delany, the commissioner of the Big Ten Conference. He seems to have a pretty firm grasp on things.


Mark A. Emmert, Ph.D.
President, NCAA

Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.

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