Obama administration contemplating probe into college football

The Department of Justice is contemplating a wide variety of actions intended to reform the current college football championship system, according to a letter made public Friday. 

The letter, sent in response to a request by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), says that the Justice department is still determining whether or not to open a formal investigation into the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). 

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"The Department of Justice is reviewing your letter as well as other materials to determine whether to open an investigation into the legality of the current system under the antitrust laws," wrote Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich. "Importantly, and in addition, the administration also is exploring other options that might be available to address concerns with the college football post-season."

Hatch is a long-time opponent of the BCS and requested that the Justice department open an investigation into the BCS last October. The Utah senator's office released the letter Friday evening.

Weich did not say if an investigation will be opened, rather he layed out a variety of options the administration and Congress could take to reform or break apart the BCS.

Opponents of the BCS, a group that includes several members of Congress, say that the system is unfair to the five smaller BCS conferences that receive less bowl revenue and automatic bids to the four BCS bowls.

They say that because of this, it is almost impossible for "mid-major" colleges to play for the national championship (a group that has included several undefeated teams over the past several years, including Hatch's home state Utah Utes in 2008). Thus, opponents contend that the BCS is a oligopoly intended to benefit large athletic conferences.

"I’m encouraged by the administration’s response,” Hatch said in a statement. "I continue to believe there are antitrust issues the administration should explore, but I’m heartened by its willingness to consider alternative approaches to confront the tremendous inequities in the BCS that favor one set of schools over others."

In a statement, BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock said that Hatch blew the meaning of the letter out of proportion.

"This letter is nothing new and if the Justice Department thought there was a case to be made, they likely would have made it already," he said.  There is much less to this letter than meets the eye. With all due respect to Senator Hatch, he is overstating this importance of the letter he received from the Office of Legislative Affairs."

 Supporters of the BCS say that smaller conferences still get sizable portions of the bowl revenue pool. Overall the five mid-major conferences received $24 million in revenue. By comparison, the six larger conferences received at least $17 million each.

BCS proponents also argue that the system matches up the first and second ranked teams in the national championship (though opponents question the complex ranking system to determine the contenders) and say that the system allows historic bowl games to continue to operate and thrive.

The assistant attorney general said that the NCAA, which is the major governing body for college athletics, could be encouraged to take over operation of the BCS, which is currently maintained by the 11 BCS conferences.

He also opened the possibility of commissioning a study of the costs and benefits of the BCS and asking the Federal Trade Commission to examine the legality of the BCS. 

Weich noted legislation that passed a House subcommittee by voice that would ban the BCS from promoting a "national championship game" unless it came as the result of a single-elimination playoff.

But House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), whose panel contains the subcommittee that passed the bill, said in December that the measure would likely not see a full committee vote. 

This story was updated at 8:22 p.m.

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