Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Big Game Isn't Always on the Field

The Big Game Isn't Always on the Field

By Evan Weiner

9:30 PM EST

January 7, 2009

(New York, NY) -- It is time to crown a new US college football champion or is it time to crown a new US college football champion? Oklahoma is playing Florida for the Bowl Championship Series title but there are a whole lot of people including President-elect Barack Obama and the Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff who believe that the college football champion needs to be decided in a different way. President-elect Obama would like to see a college football playoff while Shurtleff plans to take his gripes to court.

The BCS is college football's championship caretaker. How teams get to the championship game may be construed as convoluted. The BCS uses a complicated formula based on polls and computer rankings to determine who plays in that game. The winner of the game is college football's champion but that doesn't necessarily mean that everyone recognizes that team as college football's best. The Associated Press also hands out a championship based on a poll of sportswriters. Sportswriters probably are not qualified to pick college football's best team for a variety of reasons including that fact they can't watch a lot of games, also sportswriters should be disqualified from voting on any awards because it is a conflict of interest, you simply can not vote on something you cover professionally. It is unethical.

Shurtleff plans to take a closer look at the BCS to determine whether the Bowl Championship Series is violating American antitrust laws after the undefeated Utah Utes football team failed to qualify for national title game for the second time in five years.

Utah is a member of the Mountain West Conference and that grouping does not get an automatic bid to the "big" bowl games and that could put Utah and many other schools at a competitive and financial disadvantage.

Obama has not signaled to Congress that he would like a House or Senate hearing on the BCS and with the US economy in shambles, with the US fighting two wars and other problems like the Israeli-Hamas fighting, Obama cannot afford to use any political capital to look into what is really at best a trivial issue, the college football championship.

However, as trivial as the game might seem to most Americans who will not bother watching the contest, the US government is deeply involved in the BCS and as recently as last April, House members Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), Lynn Westmoreland (R-Georgia) and Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) introduced a resolution claiming that the BCS was an illegal restriction on trade because only the largest football playing universities compete in most of the major bowl games. The bill went nowhere, after Obama's comments that he would like to see a college football playoff, Abercrombie decided that perhaps the new Congress should take up his bill.

College football may be a game to some, but to a lot of people connected to the industry, it is a big money maker. Six conferences, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big East, the Big 10, the Big 12, the Pacific Athletic Conference and the South East Conference all get automatic bids to the big bowl games and about $18 million that is split among the conference schools and if there is a second team from any of those conferences that ends up in a bowl game, more money flows into those conferences.

Non BCS conference members from Conference USA, the Mid-American, Mountain West, Sun Belt and Western Athletic Conferences get about $9.5 million. If a school from one of those conferences gets a BCS invite for a bowl game, they get a certain percent of revenues.

People like the three Congressman and the Utah Attorney General look at how the money is distributed to the big time schools and how the big time schools can pay big sums of money to schools thanks to the BCS but what they aren’t addressing is how boosters, marketing partners, TV networks and others also contribute to the coffers through tax loop holes. The BCS dollars, while substantial, are just a piece of the money pie.

In 2005, the US House of Representatives held a hearing on the BCS but nothing came of it.

The American government gives tax exempt status to big time college sports programs. In 2006, Rep. Bill Thomas, a California Republican, brought up the question of whether the NCAA should retain its tax-exempt status given the amount of money it receives from TV contracts and championship events. He also wondered whether the federal government should subsidize college athletics when money helps pay for escalating coaching salaries. Thomas, who was the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, decided not to run for re-election in 2006 and the tax exempt status has not been questioned since.

Believe it or not, the BCS and college sports can bring in money and not have to worry about paying taxes because of a tax loophole as it qualifies for a 501(c)3 charities exemption, people buying luxury boxes for bowl games are giving to education, and it is tax deductible.

The college football system for deciding a championship will not be changed by the bully pulpit of the President although Barack Obama could lean on college presidents and chancellors and athletic directors, boosters, cable and over the air TV networks to accept a college football playoff after Congress takes a serious look at college football. But Congress has shown absolutely no inclination to address college sports issues and there are a whole range of issues that can be addressed from the 501(c)3 charities exemption to the rights of college athletes including the "voluntary" practices to outside work to whether or not an athlete is really pursuing an education. They could also look into a college basketball problem that Bobby Knight has brought up in the past. Are talented freshman players attending second semester classes knowing that they are leaving for the NBA? There is also a question of compensation for playing in big time college football or basketball games and also whether a big time athlete whose jersey is being sold to fans is entitled to get some of those dollars.

If Congress was serious, they could address those issues because of the tax breaks given to big time football/basketball schools. A college football playoff pales in comparison to the economic woes and growing unemployment, two wars, a standoff in the Middle East and far more serious issues but college sports leaders can be summoned to appear before Congress and if they want to change the way a football champion is crowned, they could.

Shurtleff is reviewing the Sherman Antitrust Act. The Utah Attorney General can also cause some major problems for the college establishment if he decides to go ahead with a lawsuit. Oklahoma and Florida are playing for a championship but there is far more to this football game that meets the eye.

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