Sunday, July 20, 2003

Antitrust News: BCS Politics

This was inevitable:
U.S. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner says he will schedule a congressional hearing to explore the application of antitrust laws to college sports, including the role of the Bowl Championship Series.

The Wisconsin Republican is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. A committee spokesman said Friday that Sensenbrenner will hold a hearing after the August congressional recess.

Sensenbrenner also has the support of U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the committee. In a letter to Sensenbrenner, Conyers said he wanted an investigation into the Bowl Championship Series, and "recent actions by the Atlantic Coast Conference inducing the University of Miami and Virginia Tech to depart the Big East.

Conyers said that, since the founding of the BCS in 1998, "the vast majority of the proceeds and power has been concentrated among 63 schools in six major conferences. Indeed, in the 2002-`03 season, only $5 million of a total BCS revenue of $109 million went to non-BCS colleges.

"This aggregation of power would appear to create a system that favors BCS schools in the six major conferences and largely eliminates the opportunity for other universities to participate in major post-season bowl games and the lucrative pay-out packages . . ."

Conyers added in his letter that the system has left some non-BCS schools with deficits and lower athletic budgets.

"There are also concerns that the disparities created in allocating sports revenues can have a significant, negative impact on Title IX opportunities in college athletics," he said.
Since there is no legislative proposal before Congress on this issue, the Judiciary committee hearing will be nothing more than a political opportunity for whim-worshipping congressmen to join the national sports media's attacks on University of Miami President Donna Shalala and ACC officials. The hearing will not produce anything of substance, since the antitrust laws would have done nothing to prevent or improve the Big East-ACC dispute. Antitrust would only create an additional layer of bureaucracy--the antitrust lawyers--to second-guess the decisions of college administrators. No doubt members of Congress and the media would like this additional bureaucracy, since it would provide an opportunity to impose their will upon college athletics. That does not, however, make it sound public policy.

And as I've noted before, Miami had every contractual right to jump ship from the Big East. This entire public fiasco could have been avoided if Big East members insisted on a stronger exit clause in their organization's constitution. It has always been understood in college sports that a school can switch conferences at-will in the absence of express language in the conference's governing documents. The Big East, however, wants the media (and the courts) to exempt the conference from upholding its contractual duties.

Finally, Rep. Conyers' invocation of Title IX is a red herring. In fact, both the creation of the BCS and Miami's move to the ACC were largely predicated on the need for more revenue to meet existing Title IX requirements. So if anything, Title IX is a cause of the current mess in college football, not a victim.

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