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Federal government to bring charges against BCS?

Photo by Charles Dharapak

Photo by Charles Dharapak

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is considering several steps that would review the legality of the controversial Bowl Championship Series, the Justice Department said in a letter Friday to a senator who had asked for an antitrust review.

In the letter to Sen. Orrin Hatch, obtained by The Associated Press, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote that the Justice Department is reviewing Hatch's request and other materials to determine whether to open an investigation into whether the BCS violates antitrust laws.

"Importantly, and in addition, the administration also is exploring other options that might be available to address concerns with the college football postseason," Weich wrote, including asking the Federal Trade Commission to review the legality of the BCS under consumer protection laws.

Several lawmakers and many critics want the BCS to switch to a playoff system, rather than the ratings system it uses to determine the teams that play in the championship game.

"The administration shares your belief that the current lack of a college football national championship playoff with respect to the highest division of college football ... raises important questions affecting millions of fans, colleges and universities, players and other interested parties," Weich wrote.

Weich made note of the fact that President Barack Obama, before he was sworn in, had stated his preference for a playoff system. In 2008, Obama said he was going to "to throw my weight around a little bit" to nudge college football toward a playoff system, a point that Hatch stressed when he urged Obama last fall to ask the department to investigate the BCS.

Weich said that other options include encouraging the NCAA to take control of the college football postseason; asking a governmental or non-governmental commission to review the costs, benefits and feasibility of a playoff system; and legislative efforts aimed at prompting a switch to a playoff system.

Weich noted that several undefeated teams have not had a chance to play for the national championship, including TCU and Boise State this year and Utah last year.

"This seemingly discriminatory action with regard to revenues and access have raised questions regarding whether the BCS potentially runs afoul of the nation's antitrust laws," he wrote.

Hatch, a Utah Republican, was steamed that his home state team was deprived of getting a chance to play for the title last year.

"I'm encouraged by the administration's response," he 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. The current system runs counter to basic fairness that every family tries to instill in their children from the day they are born."

Under the BCS, the champions of six conference have automatic bids to play in top-tier bowl games, while the other conferences don't. Those six conferences also receive more money than the other conferences, although the BCS announced this week that the ones that don't have automatic bids will receive a record $24 million from this year's bowl games.

Bill Hancock, executive director of the BCS, said that officials there would need more time to review the letter before commenting on it. He did say, "We're confident that the BCS structure complies with the laws of the country."

"The consensus of the schools is to go with the BCS," Hancock added. "We feel strongly the people in higher education are the people best equipped to manage college football."