Last week the Justice Department sent a letter to the NCAA expressing concern that the Bowl Championship Series violates antitrust law. Justice asked a simple question: Why doesn't college football have a playoff? Today I asked an antitrust lawyer a less simple question: Does the Justice Department have a case?
1. The Case Against the BCS
"Serious questions continue to arise suggesting that the current Bowl Championship Series (BCS) system may not be conducted consistent with the competition principles expressed in federal antitrust laws," Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney wrote to the NCAA.
The BCS is essentially an arrangement among six conferences to reserve space in the lucrative end-of-year bowl games, which confer about $100 million to participating teams each year. Only two non-conference teams get a shot at the eight-digit reward from appearing at a BCS game. But the burden of proof is on the Justice Department to prove that the conferences collude to prevent the NCAA from holding a playoff that would benefit worthy teams.
"Here's how an antitrust lawyer would look at it," said Dale Grimes, an antitrust lawyer at Bass, Berry & Sims. "If each conference would be better off individually to have a playoff system, but they've agreed to hang together to protect their interests collectively, that's a cartel."