DOJ may come down on BCS

Osama bin Laden? Check.

The Bowl Championship Series? Next.

Think we’re kidding? Not.

Consider this: attorney general Eric Holder referenced both bin Laden and college football’s Bowl Championship Series when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

First, Holder explained that Sunday’s raid on the Al Qaeda kingpin’s hideout was a “kill-or-capture mission” and then implied that the BCS was next up in the crosshairs.

Responding to a remark from Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in which he called the BCS a “mess”, Holder replied, “I don’t disagree with you.

“You and I have talked about this issue,” the Attorney General said, “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.”

Earlier this week, assistant attorney general Christine Varney sent a bluntly worded two-page letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert questioning the legality of the BCS.

“Serious questions continue to arise,” wrote Varney, the head of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, “suggesting that the (BCS) system may not be conducted consistent with the competition principles expressed in the federal antitrust laws.”

Varney inquired why the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) does not have a playoff when most other NCAA sports, and other college football divisions, do. What steps, she asked, has the NCAA taken to create a playoff among FBS programs?

Varney’s note followed last week’s announcement by Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff that he would file an antitrust lawsuit against the BCS.

Why are Beehive State politicos buzzing about the BCS? It may have something to do with the football team at one of the state’s largest institutions, the University of Utah, finishing the regular season 11-0 in 2004 and 12-0 in 2008 and not having an opportunity to compete for the national championship in either season.

Still, they might be on to something here.

“I think the jig is up,” says Deborah Davidson, a vice president of governance research at BoardSource, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit agency that promotes good governance and author of a blog entry entitled “From Fiesta to Fiasco”. “We no longer have a situation where it’s fair to all in college sports, if we ever did. But now with what has come to light with the Fiesta Bowl – boys and toys – it begs the whole question as to whether these bowls should have nonprofit status in the first place.”

Both the NCAA and the BCS are digging in with their goal-line defenses to preserve the status quo. “Goodness gracious,” said BCS executive director Bill Hancock, “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.”

Kind of like how the $33,000 tab for former Fiesta Bowl executive director John Junker’s 50th birthday party was a waste of money. Junker was fired in March for "improper and inappropriate" activities and financial misconduct, headlines that put the Fiesta Bowl — and the BCS — under fire.

The NCAA noted that a direct quote from a New York Times article that Varney referenced in her letter was incomplete. Varney reminded Emmert that the NCAA had said in the March 2, 2011 story that it was “willing to help create a playoff format to decide a national championship for the top level of college football.”

NCAA spokesperson Bob Williams noted yesterday that Varney omitted the conditional addendum to that statement, “… if the FBS membership makes that decision.”

There are 120 colleges in the FBS.

The NCAA claims it is acting in the best interests of its member institutions (even if the “Death to the BCS” gang may be able to demonstrate there is a more lucrative way).

The Department of Justice is suggesting that college football has a greater responsibility than that.

“The purpose of our letter is to determine whether to open an investigation into the legality of what the BCS is doing in regard to anti-trust laws,” Department of Justice spokesperson Gina Talamona told The Daily. “We are not currently investigating them.”

How does this play out? If an antitrust case goes forward, there would be depositions and discovery of other bowls’ financial records that could make Junker’s four-figure strip club tabs look downright thrifty. Do the NCAA and BCS really want to step into the Octagon for that cage match?

Don’t forget that President Obama has said he would “throw my weight around a little bit” to nudge college football in the direction of a playoff.

Consider it nudged.