DOJ: Why no college football playoff?
NCAA says it’s willing – if FBS membership makes that decision
The Justice Department has sent a pointed letter to the NCAA asking why there isn’t a playoff system for college football, saying “serious questions” continue to be raised about whether the current Bowl Championship Series complies with federal antitrust laws.
Critics have urged the department to launch an antitrust investigation into the BCS, saying that it unfairly gives some schools preferential access to the national championship game and top-tier bowls.
In a letter this week, the Justice Department's antitrust chief, Christine Varney, asked NCAA president Mark Emmert why college football doesn’t use a playoff system to determine its national champion, while other NCAA sports do; what steps the NCAA has taken to create one; and whether Emmert thinks there are aspects of the BCS system that don’t serve the interest of fans, schools and players.
“Your views would be relevant in helping us to determine the best course of action with regard to the BCS,” she wrote.
Varney noted that the attorney general of Utah, Mark Shurtleff, has announced that he plans to file an antitrust lawsuit against the BCS, and that 21 professors recently sent the department a letter asking for an antitrust investigation.
“When we actually receive the letter from the Department of Justice we will respond to their questions directly," said Bob Williams, the NCAA’s vice president of communications. “It should be noted that President Emmert consistently has said, including in the New York Times article, that the NCAA is willing to help create a playoff format for Football Bowl Subdivision football if the FBS membership makes that decision.”
Shurtleff, who met with DOJ officials last fall to discuss a possible federal probe, said at the time that such an investigation was critical to the effort to get a playoff system.
“You get the DOJ behind one and the BCS will finally say, ‘OK, we'll go to a playoff,’ ” Shurtleff predicted.
Bill Hancock, the executive director of the BCS, who was copied in on the letter, said he was confident that the BCS complies with the law.
“Goodness gracious, with all that’s going on in the world right now and with national and state budgets being what they are, it seems like a waste of taxpayers’ money to have the government looking into how college football games are played,” he said.
Under the BCS, the champions of six conferences have automatic bids to play in top-tier bowl games, while the other conferences don’t. Those six conferences also receive more money than the other conferences.
Attorney General Eric Holder referenced Varney’s letter at a Senate hearing Wednesday, in response to a statement from Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican and BCS critic. Hatch called the BCS a “mess,” and said that “privileged conferences” have tremendous advantages over the unprivileged.
“And I just hope that you’ll continue to follow up on that particular issue,” he said. “It’s an important one, I think.”
“I don’t disagree with you,” Holder responded. “You and I have talked about this issue, and I think I’m free to say that we have sent a letter to the NCAA about this issue and will be following up.”
Hatch also has urged the department to begin an antitrust investigation. Last year, the department told him in a letter that the Obama administration was considering several steps that would review the legality of the BCS. The department said then that it was reviewing Hatch’s request and other materials to determine whether to open an investigation into whether the BCS violates antitrust laws.
Before he was sworn in as president, Barack Obama said in 2008 that he was going to “to throw my weight around a little bit” to nudge college football toward a playoff system.