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Death To The BCS - A Book Review

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The BCS - like many corrupt and bloated organizations - exists and operates in alliance with the bowl system manipulating the landscape of college football with relative impunity largely because no one knows what it is, what it does, or how it operates in its own self-interest.

In fact, most can't even agree who exactly runs it (Jim Delany, more or less, along with five other commissioners of the major conferences) and who benefits most from its presence (backslapping golf pricks wearing garish Century 21 jackets, the aforementioned commissioners, corrupt athletic department employees).

This confusion is evidenced by the fact that the NCAA gets thousands of angry letters and phone calls every football season, as college football fans erroneously assume that they must be in charge of this thing, given that screw-up and NCAA are used in synonym as often as politician and shameless.

To understand a thing, one must call it by its proper name.

For a group of Yahoo reporters (Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter, and Jeff Passan) who wrote Death To The BCS, the proper name for the BCS is clear:

Cartel.

Whether the BCS meets the strict legal definitions of a cartel is a matter of debate as it isn't a truly organized structure, but rather a gentleman's agreement between two dozen major bowls, the major conferences, and key athletic directors. However, the arguments against BCS proponents and the clear evidence that they offer of cartel-like behaviors (collusion, exclusion, bid rigging, total industry output, political manipulation) suggests that the BCS and bowl system is far more interested in the self-preservation and enrichment of a few - and by few I mean individuals, not necessarily schools or conferences - than the strengthening of college football as a whole. Indeed, Wetzel estimates that a 16 team playoff system is worth 750 million dollars to the coffers of FBS schools, with payouts vastly dwarfing BCS payouts (the current system generates around 150 million) - a figure that even BCS apologists like Jim Delany agree to.

Wetzel argues capably that the personal enrichment of a bowl representatives and the appeal of a monopoly on power for a few ADs is holding the game hostage from greater revenue generation and a creation of a post-season tournament that would eclipse March Madness in excitement, fervor, and, arguably, create some fairness in a broken system. This financial windfall isn't understood by most college administrators as the BCS has done an effective - if intellectually absurd - job of providing disinformation.

I can't possibly cover the numerous choice morsels of corruption and good-ol-boyism detailed in the book, but a few choice excerpts include:

Perjury

Alamo Bowl CEO Derrick Fox - representing the BCS (and his own $400,000 a year salary for acting as the figurehead for a once-a-year event which requires almost no event staging from the Bowl itself) in testimony to the House and Energy subcommittee perjures himself rather spectacularly when he claims that "almost all postseason games are put on by charitable groups and local charities receive tens of millions of dollars from them each year."

The problem, of course, is that none of the bowl games are charities - one quarter of them are strictly for profit - and the rest simply enjoy 501c status which exempts them from paying taxes. Not-for-profit doesn't mean charity, by the way. It simply means that there is no distribution of profit to owners or shareholders. It's an accounting designation, not a moral right. Bowl chairman and reps spend millions of dollars on lavish swag, parties, their own salaries - and, in the case of the Fiesta Bowl, illegal campaign contributions to bowl friendly politicians.

As for charity, the bowls actually draw a toll from local municipalities while often donating not a single red cent. The Sugar Bowl made 11.6 million tax free dollars in 2007, still received an amazing 3 million dollars in direct funding from the state of Louisiana, and drew massively upon public resources: fire, police, traffic, clean up - with no recompense. How much did this noble "charity" give to the state? A state still in the throes of Katrina?

Zero.

Not a penny.

The Sugar Bowl was no outlier. What was the total combined payout of all bowls to charities? 3.2 million dollars. From a group of bowls that made 186 million dollars in revenue, had 140 million in net assets, and carries 80 million in combined cash reserves. And half of that 3.2 million came from the Orange Bowl and Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

The Lie of Bowl Payouts

Most schools come out even or lose money in bowl games. Even the big money BCS games. Bowls encourage schools to engage in bidding wars for guaranteed ticket sales to determine invites, charge for band and administration seating, and athletic departments knowingly operate at a fiscal loss to attend a bowl in order for athletic directors, coaches, and administrators to collect hefty contractual bowl bonuses and live it up with friends and family at the school's expense.

Right now there are Division I sports being cancelled at major universities blaming revenue shortfalls while athletic departments knowingly operate at a loss in collusion with bowl reps. The BCS, it seems, is present in all of us.

The Bad Blazers

There's no group of golf pricks quite like bowl representatives in their loud jackets, quaffing martinis in luxury boxes in college football's best stadiums as they "scout" teams for their bowl that the team will never be in, while running up absurd expense accounts at their non-profit, non-taxable enterprise. However, these buffoons are smarter than we are. For one week of "work" - work done by the schools themselves, a simple contract event planning hire, and the local municipality - two dozen bowl directors made in excess of $300,000 last year. That doesn't include massive expense accounts, paid travel, fringe benefits, and "scouting excursions" - some of them at the local Gentleman's club. The Sugar Bowl CEO made $607,500 last year.

Those loud jackets disguise the sound of robbery.

And we're supposed to take seriously those who question whether there are vested interests in preserving the current structure of the BCS?

The Computers Are Dead

The BCS process of evaluating which teams are worthy of inclusion are a mixture of the beauty pageant opinion of human pollsters - many of them sports journalists - a substantial number of them functionally retarded if what I read in my local paper or see on Around The Horn is any indication - and coaches (read sports information directors) who haven't seen any other teams play and are notoriously corrupt in supporting their conference or burying an axe in high profile peers (see 2008 Texas Longhorns, Stoops Sewing Circle, Gary Patterson punitively voting down Cincinnati in '08). Remember the coach's revolt when the public demanded that they make their ballots public? People with nothing to hide welcome transparency.

Then there are the computers.

The BCS has tweaked their computer formulas three times in its short existence, dropped computer models, added computer models, disallowed reasonable differentiation by factoring in margin of victory, and almost universally the participants in the BCS computer models agree that they don't stand by their rankings because the BCS forces them to adhere to precepts that are both irrational and unscientific.

Other than that, the BCS model for determining worthy championship participants is ironclad.

Criticisms

I recommend you purchase and read this book, so take any criticisms within that context. These guys are real reporters with discernible intellect and Yahoo Sports continues to engage in actual, real substantive journalism (see USC investigations) while many of their peers could be mistaken for the Bowl representatives of the newsroom.

If the book has any weakness, it's that its own criticisms about competitive fairness and the implicit contention that none of us can truly identify or discern quality (i.e. the Boise State conundrum) forces a non-optimal solution in the structure of their 16 team playoff. Namely, they can't decry the arbitrary nature of the BCS without including everyone and so they recommend every conference champion be seeded in a 16 team playoff along with 5 at large bids. That means Conference USA, the MAC, Sun Belt and God knows what else springs up, receive automatic bids to determine the college football champion.

Thus they spend 192 pages critiquing the BCS for its illogic and irrationality and then push for the inclusion of a number of teams in the playoff that may not rank among the Top 75 teams in FBS. They mistake inclusion for fairness and equality for justice. Mostly to shelter themselves from the same criticisms of arbitrary selection that they pound the BCS for.

It's unnecessary.

First, the notion that some athletic body called a conference has some innate meaning or significance for qualification is foolish. As we saw this offseason with the Pac 10 and Big 10 and with Boise State and TCU's migrations, a conference has no inherent meaning. It is a loose confederation of shared interests, as fungible and arbitrary as a Las Vegas wedding. There is nothing that magically imbues an affiliation of teams with some innate value or a qualification for participation in a playoff. Conferences thrive or disappear. Conference quality rises and falls. One could argue compellingly that the SEC West probably deserves 2 or 3 teams in a post-season playoff this year, yet we must indulge a potential Florida Atlantic instead? March Madness dodges this bullet with a 64 team field, but the nature of basketball - in which a team can play twice a week - allows it. Further, the fundamental structure of basketball allows upsets far more readily.

The Sun Belt champion isn't taking down 2009 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Spare me your counterarguments. It's a meaningless sacrificial lamb on the altar of inclusiveness.

As with the NCAA tournament, a group of disinterested parties, working with data, their own eyes, and transparency, could identify the best 16, 12, 10, or 8 teams in college football. Conferences would be also competitively rated. The top 6 get their champion an automatic invite. In that way, you don't guarantee any conference a presence and you account for shifting tides. The Big East could very well fall out and the WAC could rise. There's no need to create artificial fairness so that you can make your argument ironclad against the criticisms you levy against the Cartel. Inclusiveness as an absolute good in our society is vastly overrated and consistency of argument is too often confused with logic.

Under their proposed structure, using last year's teams, their playoff would begin with Alabama facing Sun Belt champion Troy at home, Texas hosting East Carolina, Cincinnati hosting Central Michigan from the MAC. A layer of unnecessary games of dubious quality that excludes additional at-large bids from better teams or disallows bye weeks for the top teams (my preference).

My way is better.

How It All Blows Up

These are my thoughts, so spare Wetzel et al the criticism if you disagree.

All cartels are brought down by the same thing: the members themselves. Whether it's OPEC, Colombian coke lords, corrupt unions, or lazy auto manufacturers. As the Cartel fights and bickers within its own ranks - attempting to lasso each other's teams, lying to each other about "production", plotting against some member's future inclusion, engaging in reckless expansion - they sow the seeds for their own destruction.

The eventual creation of super conferences guarantees a playoff.

Why?

Because massive conferences with quality guarantee losses. And the sharp delineation between have (member of 4-5 elite conferences) and have-not (everyone else) will only be highlighted. And losses - the great taboo no-no of BCS qualification - necessitate that the power schools find alternative constructs for fulfillment that outweigh the corrupt interests in their own athletic departments and bowl tie-ins.

Further, the most compelling and broad-based argument against the BCS is not found in the little guy left out from the main table. Whatever you think of Boise State and TCU, they have no pull, no fan base, and no clout. And when they develop sufficient capital, they are co-opted into the haves (see TCU and the Big East). That is the nature of all effective dissent - co-option into the mainstream. Political, corporate, or otherwise. Ask Nelson Mandela. Ask the next competitor that Google acquires. Ask the guy who used to bitch about accounting errors at Enron that shut up after a pay raise.

Thankfully, all Cartels eventually slit their own throat. It's basic game theory, a form of the prisoner's dilemma. Human beings struggle to maintain agreements that limit short term self-interest, even at the expense of shared longer-term interest.

Indeed, members of the Cartel almost managed suicide this offseason, but DeLoss Dodds unwittingly slapped the razor out of their hand.

Someone else will wield that knife eventually.