How can you tell when people who hold positions of power in big-time college sports are lying? Well, there's no surefire way, but your antennae should be quivering whenever they start talking about academics or "the welfare of student-athletes."
A group of university presidents and chancellors representing the 11 Division I-A conferences and Notre Dame announced an agreement in principle Sunday night to add a fifth game to the Bowl Championship Series, which attempts to crown an undisputed national champion without a playoff system. The change would take effect with the next TV contract, in the 2006 season.
The fans want a playoff tournament, but such a thing would blow up the traditional bowl system, which makes a lot of people a lot of money. Playoffs would probably make a lot of money too, but people raking in huge profits aren't big on restructuring the very nature of their universe.
"There is not sentiment of any significance for a national playoff based upon the academic reasons and the welfare of student-athletes," said University of Oregon president Dave Frohnmayer, a member of the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee.
What he means is there isn't sentiment for a playoff among university presidents, even though they've never shown how a playoff system would harm the academic experience or welfare of the athletes any more than the bowl system does, or any more than the many profit-grabbing innovations -- an ever-lengthening schedule, games on weeknights, games in Japan -- of the last few decades have.
The public, already clamoring for a football tournament, was fairly howling for it after this year's BCS fiasco, in which the system, based on a combination of polls and computer rankings, spit out LSU and Oklahoma for the championship game, while the Associated Press coaches poll and much, though not all, of fandom had Southern Cal as the No. 1 team in the country. LSU's win over Oklahoma at the Sugar Bowl in the National Championship Game and USC's Rose Bowl win over Michigan resulted in a split title, the very thing the BCS was designed to prevent.
So the college bosses must have been meeting to somehow address the problem that the BCS is failing to do what it was set up to do, right? Wrong! It's a trick question!
The BCS -- essentially a contract between the six big conferences (and independent Notre Dame) and the four big bowls, plus ABC -- is a cash cow. The Rose, Sugar, Fiesta and Orange bowls rotate: One hosts the National Championship Game while the other three pit the six top teams that aren't in the top two. Regardless of what the fans think of it, the BCS is performing beautifully for the principals. The split-champion thing was a minor P.R. dustup, sort of like when the star of a hit TV show gets popped for a DUI. An irritant, but it'll pass.
The meeting in Miami Beach over the weekend was between the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee (a president or chancellor from each of the big six conferences and Notre Dame) and the Coalition for Athletic Reform, which represents the five non-BCS conferences in Division I-A. It's the third time they've met in the last year. What they were doing was trying to figure out a better way to divide the profits. Right now the BCS generates about $110 million for the big conferences (Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, Pac-10 and Southeast) and slides about $6 million to the smaller ones (Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, Sun Belt and Western Athletic).
Those so-called mid-majors have been complaining that they don't have access to the lucrative BCS games, because six of the eight spots in the big bowls are reserved for the big-conference champions. That leaves only two at-large bids, and even the best smaller conference schools -- Texas Christian, Marshall and Tulane have all had big years recently, for example -- aren't as attractive to the bowls as a good runner-up in a powerhouse conference. This year the at-large teams were Ohio State, from the Big Ten, and Oklahoma, which spent most of the year at No. 1 but lost the Big 12 championship game to Kansas State. Hard for the TCUs of the world to compete.
The smaller-conference schools feel their lack of access to the big bowls not only deprives them of a chance at the big money in a given year but has long-term negative effects as well because of "branding": Smaller-conference schools get branded as "non-BCS," meaning they have no shot at the national championship, and that makes it hard for them to recruit good players and retain good coaches. They're consigned to a lower tier of competition.
You'd think the big-conference people would respond to that with a dry "That's a shame," but either they saw that the smaller conferences make a contribution to the overall financial health of Division I-A football or they got spooked when representatives of the coalition sat in a congressional hearing room and said the word "antitrust." I don't know which it is, and you can decide for yourself.
Either way, they agreed to add a fifth BCS game, "if the market supports it," as Frohnmayer said in the statement announcing the agreement. That game, either an existing bowl or some brand-new one, depending on who can come up with the scratch to best ensure the welfare of the student-athletes, you understand, would be on equal footing with the current four and would join the rotation of hosting the National Championship Game. That means two more at-large spots every year. Scott Cowen, the president of Tulane University and the founder of the Coalition for Athletic Reform, said that if the agreement had been in place for the six years the BCS has existed, four non-BCS schools would have played in BCS games.
So the have-nots have won a round. With the next TV contract, now being negotiated with ABC, the smaller fries will get a bigger piece of the pie -- which also will be bigger with that fifth game -- and a better shot at the title. If the market supports the idea, that is. The problem that the BCS can't deal with three or more teams having a legitimate claim to one of the two spots in the national title game has gone unaddressed.
And of course, so has the rest of "athletic reform," so prominent in the name of Cowen's coalition. When I interviewed Cowen in November, I read him something he'd said at a symposium he'd just hosted about the reform of big-time college sports: "It is time to reel athletics in, change the culture and operations of this part of our universities, and rethink athletics' role with the context of our missions as institutions of higher learning." Then I pointed out that his coalition's main purpose was to fight to get more money from the BCS, and asked if that wasn't a contradiction.
"I think it's only a contradiction in two cases," he said. "One is if money is all we're talking about, and secondly if we weren't talking about all the other components of reform," such as stricter academic standards for athletes. He said the Coalition for Athletic Reform was addressing the BCS question first only because the BCS TV contract was coming up for renewal, so it had to make itself heard now. "If that's all we did, though, King, I would say to you you're right, we didn't do anything," Cowen said.
With the BCS mission accomplished, it would seem that Cowen's coalition, an alliance of "non-BCS" conferences, has no reason to exist without the participation of the major conferences, and sure enough Cowen told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "As far as I am concerned, our coalition is now out of business."
So BCS money is all the Coalition for Athletic Reform ever talked about, and it looks like it's "out of business" without a single reform being accomplished. But I don't mean to play gotcha. There's no reason the university presidents and chancellors who made up the coalition can't keep working for reform under some other banner, perhaps with the cooperation of the major-conference schools. Without the BCS millions on the agenda, though, it's going to be a lot harder to get people to show up for those meetings.
Cowen was unavailable for comment Monday, but a Tulane spokesman said he'd talk to me later in the week. Stay tuned.
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