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BCS: Justice Department antitrust attorneys want to meet with us

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • DOJ attorneys want a "background briefing" on how the BCS operates
  • That meeting will take place later this summer, the BCS says
  • The BCS system makes it difficult for some college football teams to qualify

(CNN) -- Attorneys at the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division are requesting a "background briefing" on how the Bowl Championship Series operates, BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock said Thursday.

The request comes after the Justice Department said last month in a letter to the National Collegiate Athletic Association that "serious questions" continue to arise suggesting the current BCS system "may not be conducted consistent with the competition principles expressed in federal antitrust laws."

"Late last week, staff attorneys ... contacted me to request a voluntary background briefing" on BCS operations, Hancock said in a statement. "I told them I would be happy to provide it."

The briefing will likely take place this summer, he said, although no date has been set.

In the NCAA letter released in May, the Justice Department said it had received several requests for an antitrust investigation into the current BCS system and wanted information to help it decide what to do.

The controversial system makes it difficult for teams in some athletic conferences to qualify for major football bowl games, potentially costing millions of dollars in revenue to teams not chosen.

The decision to release the letter came after U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a major opponent of the current system, demanded further consideration of the BCS system in a face-to-face conversation with Attorney General Eric Holder at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

Holder responded by disclosing the Justice Department had sent the letter to the NCAA on the issue.

In the letter, Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney asked NCAA President Mark Emmert to explain why college football does not have a playoff when so many other college sports do. She also asked what steps, if any, the NCAA has taken to create a playoff, and whether the NCAA has determined that there are aspects of the BCS system that do not serve the interests of fans, colleges, universities and players.

Officials acknowledged at the time that the NCAA was not legally required to respond, although lawyers following the case said they expected it to do so.

"The BCS was carefully created with antitrust laws in mind, and I am confident that it is fully compliant with those laws," Hancock said in the Thursday statement. "It has improved competition by delivering a national championship game between two top-ranked teams, which only rarely existed before the BCS. It has also dramatically increased access to top-tier bowl games for schools from non-AQ (automatic qualifying) conferences. I look forward to a conversation with the attorneys at the Justice Department."

Antitrust lawyers have been watching the debate increase for more than two years, to see whether the Justice Department would enter the case.

One antitrust expert who declares himself neutral in the case said last month that he doubts the Justice Department will launch an investigation because it has a full plate of more pressing issues.

"There is a problem, but not an antitrust problem," said Gordon Schnell of the New York firm Constantine Cannon. A court could never mandate a playoff game, he said, but it could break up the current BCS system.

Currently, the system limits automatic bids to the winners of the Big Ten, Big East, Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference, Pac 10 and the Southeastern Conference, thereby leaving out other conferences, including almost all the schools in the Rocky Mountain Region. Only two remaining at-large spots are available to all other colleges and universities.

CNN's Terry Frieden contributed to this report.