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Now that it’s done with its nearly eight-year, multi-million-dollar pursuit of the infamous perjurer Barry Bonds, the Justice Department has moved on to a bigger target: College sports.

Which, in all seriousness, is a great thing and tragically long overdue. The players who generate billions of dollars in revenue for the member schools and the NCAA are treated like indentured servants, rendered largely powerless, unpaid except for a one-sided scholarship that is pitched as fair compensation for their work.

Utah football being shut out of the BCS has raised concerns about the fairness of the system. (AP Photo)

They’re also routinely punished through a Byzantine network of rules specifically designed to keep them from ever profiting from anything they’ve ever done as athletes. No selling their own game-worn jerseys, or their awards or trophies or knick-knacks earned by their play, for money or goods. Even to get residuals for their likenesses being used after they leave school, they have to do as Ed O’Bannon did and sue in federal court. (Just recently, a judge tossed the portion of the class-action suit against EA Sports, but the portion against the NCAA continues.)

Meanwhile, coaches who break the rules even more capriciously barely get punished at all. (Jim Calhoun’s wrist is still stinging from last spring’s slap, while Jim Tressel is still recovering from fearlessly falling on his stickpin.)

And let’s not get into the patently-discriminatory imbalance suffered by women, brought to light by a New York Times investigation that revealed that in order to bypass Title IX requirements, some schools go as far as listing male students as female scholarship athletes.

Too bad the Justice Department isn’t going anywhere near that.

Nope, it’s going after the Bowl Championship Series.

Can’t you just hear the peals of delight from the young student-athletes on campuses all over America? Our government in action, to assure that the billions earned on the backs of football players are distributed among all the schools instead of just a few – while bypassing, once again, all the athletes regardless of sport or school.

“This is tremendous!’’ the football players likely are saying. “What a relief that my coach at my non-BCS program gets a shot at doubling his salary thanks to potentially greater bowl revenue. And my family that’s still living in the projects will be thrilled, too, because they need me to experience the benefits of a free education, rather than me getting their water and electricity turned back on.’’

The women must especially be thrilled: “Yes, that’s exactly what the intercollegiate athletic system needs – more attention to football! That means more blame for us when some school cuts the men’s wrestling program in order to avoid federal sanctions! And nobody prevents us from being listed on the rosters of teams we don’t even compete for.’’

Nah. No need for the government to look into any of that. The NCAA, after all, is a not-for-profit educational institution formed to govern college athletics. The last thing the feds want to spend time worrying about is aiding and assisting college students.

The Justice Department is not alone in taking this very narrow, specific look at one segment of one college sport. It became public Wednesday that Justice had sent a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert saying it had “serious questions’’ about whether the BCS system violated federal antitrust law.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch has openly criticized the fairness of the BCS – no surprise, since two programs in his state, Utah and BYU, were posited on the outside looking in for years until both left their smaller conferences to join the cash grab. Meanwhile, state attorney general Mark Shurtleff has talked about filing an antitrust suit against the BCS.

U.S. attorney general Eric Holder acknowledged much of this at a Senate hearing, unveiling that Justice official Christine Varney had sent the NCAA the letter, and added that the government “will be following up.’’

Yes, feel free to soak luxuriously in the political wrangling by the state and national level on an issue everybody except the top bowl officials and the NCAA agrees on: the BCS stinks, and is likely pretty crooked. It’s the very definition of low-hanging fruit.

A far more courageous move by the politicians and investigators at all levels would be to put the very structure of intercollegiate sports under a microscope.

For instance: very revealing, isn’t it, that these institutions of higher education, individually and collectively, are being probed for violations of laws enacted to monitor businesses? Businesses usually pay the people who bring in the money for them with, you know, money.

Unless they decide, on their own, without the players having many, if any, options, to give them only scholarships. That so-coveted “free education,’’ which has strings attached to every appendage (including the ones that say, in essence, that their possessions, such as jerseys, don’t actually belong to them).

And, by the way, which doesn’t result in actual degrees often enough. That’s partly because the best athletes realize that the moment they have a chance to make money above the table (and thus take care of themselves, their families and their future educations), they jump to the pros without a glance back.

It’s also partly because for all their talk about the education value of their compensation package, the schools care way more about keeping those students eligible than actually educating them.

Untangle that web for us, devoted spenders of our tax dollars.

It’s a shame, actually, that attempts to reform big-time college sports keep aiming at the wrong target. First, Ralph Nader recommends earlier this year that athletic scholarships be eliminated. Now, the Senate, the state of Utah and the Justice Department question who deserves more slices of the college football pie.

In doing so, they all tell the athletes to take the crumbs, and like it.

And you thought the term “student-athlete’’ was an oxymoron. It’s not nearly as big of one as “Department of Justice.’’


Posted 12:29 PM

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