WASHINGTON (CNN) - A Senate subcommittee Tuesday tackled one of the most contentious issues in U.S. sports - the fairness of the Bowl Championship Series that decides the top college football team each season.
Convened by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the hearing by the Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights subcommittee provided a sounding board for his state's disappointment over the inability of the undefeated University of Utah to qualify for the BCS national championship game last January.
The BCS operates under an agreement among the major college football conferences that decides which teams qualify for the biggest bowl games each season, including the national championship game.
It also distributes the revenue generated by the bowl games, with the participating members taking part in more of the post-season matches and taking home more money.
Every season brings heated debate over the bowl lineup and calls for a playoff system similar to the ones used for every other NCAA sport, including small-college football. President Barack Obama has joined most Americans in expressing his preference for a playoff system to decide the nation's top college football team.
Hatch complained that the BCS system denies outsiders - such as Utah of the Mountain West Conference - a fair chance to compete with major conferences such as the Big 12, Big 10, Pacific 10 and Southeast Conference for a spot in the lucrative bowl games.
Last season, he noted, Utah went undefeated and gained a BCS berth in the Sugar Bowl against perennial power Alabama, which it defeated 31-17. However, the BCS ranking system prevented Utah from any realistic chance of selection for the national championship game, which pitted two teams that each had one loss on their records, Hatch said.
For schools outside what he called the "privileged conferences," the BCS system has "significant and largely insurmountable obstacles to playing for a national championship," Hatch said.
University of Utah President Michael Young complained that the BCS system both stifles competition and guarantees the majority of revenue from bowl games to the traditional powers.
"If you can't beat them, eliminate them," he said of BCS policy.
In response, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman said the BCS system - while imperfect - is the only workable formula that ensures participation by major football powers such as his institution.
The BCS recognizes the strength and depth of traditional programs, Perlman said, rejecting Young's argument that Utah has no chance to improve its status.
"There realistically is something Utah could do," Perlman said. "They could play the schedule Nebraska played."
At the same time, Perlman argued that uneven odds are part of every university's experience at one time or another.
"It's the same as when Nebraska walks into the NIH (National Institute of Health) and seeks a federal grant and competes with Harvard," he said.
"Theoretically we have the same the chance, but do we really?"
Two anti-trust experts provided conflicting testimony on whether the BCS system violates the Sherman Antitrust Act.
Barry Brett of Troutman Sanders insisted the BCS holds what amounts to an illegal monopoly and "uses this control to exclude all but its founding members (from) fair access to the competition and control of hundreds of millions of dollars."
In response, William Monts III of Hogan and Hartson noted the BCS members created the national championship game and therefore have the right to determine who participates.
He also warned against seeking anti-trust relief in court, saying a ruling against the BCS would end its existence without creating an alternative.
"The peculiar irony of an anti-trust claim is that it is likely to sound the death knell for the playoff system proponents want," Monts said.