Powerful Republican Utah Senator Orrin Hatch is progressing toward hearings examining the BCS (probably in the fall). He recently took the time to answer these e-mail questions from me.
Dennis Dodd: You've long been a critic of the BCS, when did it reach the stage, in your mind, that hearings needed to be convened?
Sen. Hatch: I’ve thought for a number of years that there were significant problems with the BCS. We held hearings on the matter back in 2003 when I chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, and I said then that the system was unfair.
After that time, there were some efforts made to expand the system and make it more open. For example, they’ve added a fifth game and made it slightly easier for teams from conferences that don’t receive automatic bids to qualify for one of the games. But, as we saw last season, these changes haven’t been good enough. First of all, there were only two teams to finish the regular season undefeated – Utah and Boise State – but, only one of them was invited to play in a lucrative BCS game. And, of course, neither team had even a remote chance of qualifying for the national championship game – the BCS system makes it impossible for outside teams to do so.
The bigger problem is the money and the principles of fair play being taught to our young people by those who they look to for leadership. Teams from the conferences that receive automatic bids share an enormous pot of money generated by the BCS, even if they lose every game and finish at the bottom of the standings. At the same time, nearly half the teams in college football share a much smaller pot, even if they are fortunate enough to play their way into a BCS game. This creates an inherent disadvantage, not just on the field, but with regard to recruiting, facilities, and funding for other athletic programs. Given the amount of money involved here, which is unprecedented in the history of collegiate sports, I think these inequities warrant the attention of Congress.
Dodd: Who do you expect to call to testify? (Maybe not specific persons but NCAA, BCS officials, ADs, players?)
Hatch: That is yet to be determined. I think we need to make sure we hear from all sides of the debate, so we get a clear picture as to how the system works, what its effects are, and how it can be improved.
We’ll also need to include some sharp legal analysis of the antitrust issues. These hearings, particularly in this subcommittee, aren’t just about airing grievances. There are serious questions about the legality of the BCS system, namely, whether it constitutes a coordinated effort to eliminate competition. The main objective of the hearing will be to find answers to those questions.
Dodd: What's the likelihood the hearings actually come about, and when?
Hatch: I have a commitment from my colleague, Senator Herb Kohl, the Chairman of the Antitrust Subcommittee, to hold a hearing this year. So, I believe that a hearing on the matter is more or less imminent. I expect it to take place later this year.
Dodd: Are you working in concert with some of the Congressmen and Senators -- Abercrombie, Miller, Barton, etc? Does it matter that there seem to be separate battles against the BCS going on?
Hatch: The BCS system has been condemned by almost everyone who follows college football, from coaches and university officials, to sportswriters and analysts, to Members of Congress, and even the President of the United States. So, I’m well aware that I’m not alone in my concern regarding these issues.
Some House Members have introduced legislation on this issue and I am currently exploring similar options here in the Senate. I’ll be willing to work with any of my colleagues to see if we can fix this system.
Dodd: Obviously, the BCS leaders have lawyers and they think their position is solid. How specifically can the BCS be attacked?
Hatch: I’m sure they have a team of lawyers ready to defend this unfair system. That doesn’t surprise me at all. But, I think there’s a pretty decent antitrust case to be made here. Put simply, our antitrust laws are designed to prevent people from working in coordination to reduce competition in the marketplace. I think that’s pretty clearly what we have going on here. Make no mistake, college football is a commercial enterprise. The colleges and universities market their football programs like they would a business.
In addition, there are television contracts, advertising revenue, and corporate sponsors for each of the bowl games. So, this isn’t what we had decades ago when the bowl system first started -- two schools deciding to meet up at a neutral field and play a bowl game. We’re talking about a national, multi-million dollar business enterprise.
Dodd: Have you spoken to Mountain West representatives? They made the rounds through the House and Senate last month promoting their own agenda.
Hatch: I’ve been talking with the Mountain West folks about this issue. As you know, the commissioner of the Mountain West Conference, Craig Thompson, recently unveiled an alternative proposal to the current BCS system. I thought this was a constructive step, and I hope to see more options put on the table.
Dodd: Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is OK with the current system, or at least didn't cry out against it. The Utah administration is on record as wanting to work within the system. How do react to that?
Hatch: Coach Whittingham has expressed his disappointment with the way the Utes were treated by the BCS last year. He even broke with convention and voted his team No. 1 in the final coaches poll, even though the BCS system more or less requires the coaches to vote for the winner of the so-called “national championship game.”
He felt strongly enough to buck the system there. I think Coach Whittingham would have liked the opportunity for his team to play for the national championship and, quite frankly, had that occurred, I would have liked their chances.
But, the problems with the BCS are not specific to the University of Utah, they are much broader. The BCS system affects nearly every aspect of college football, which in turn affects schools throughout the country. Obviously, I want to see the schools from my state treated fairly, but I think we need to make sure the system is fair to everyone.
Dodd: I have found that many of the Congressmen and Senators don't know the basics of this system -- re: the NCAA has virtually nothing to do with the postseason. Do you understand that this a system that all the conferences have agreed to until 2014?
Hatch: The NCAA is clearly not involved in the college football postseason, and that may be part of the problem. As it stands right now, the decisions regarding the postseason and the road to the national championship are decided, in large part, by the elitist conferences involved in the BCS, working with television networks and corporate sponsors to generate massive amounts of revenue.
Obviously, I understand that the non-automatic bid conferences are signatories to the BCS and share some of the responsibility. But, it’s not as though they have the power to initiate the necessary changes. The five conferences without automatic bids collectively share one vote on the BCS board, while the six other conferences and the University of Notre Dame each have a vote. So, it’s difficult to assign to them any culpability for the actions of the BCS cartel.
As far as the current agreement is concerned, it is my understanding that the current BCS agreement expires next year and that there is a proposal on the table to extend it through 2014. The deal is not yet in place and a number of the conferences, particularly the Mountain West, have expressed serious concerns about the proposed extension. Frankly, I think this proposal is the reason for Congress to get involved right now. The current system has been condemned by virtually everyone, yet the interested parties see nothing wrong with continuing the status quo for the foreseeable future. I think that’s just outrageous.
Dodd: Do you have a specific playoff plan? What is it?
Hatch: I don’t have a plan of my own. There are enough alternatives out there and, keep in mind, people have been dreaming and speculating of a national playoff system for years. So, I am looking forward to working with a variety of individuals to create a fair system.
Dodd: How should profits from such a system be allocated?
Hatch: Again, I don’t want to be in the business of writing a new system from scratch. I don’t think that’s the Senate’s proper role in this issue. But, in general, I think the funds should be allocated in a way that is based on the teams’ performance on the field. Right now, the money may as well be handed out at the beginning of the season because, in the end, we all know which schools and conferences will be getting the money. That, more than anything, is the problem with the BCS.