In an interview with The Daily, Stanford Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby explained his role on the task force appointed by the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), which was charged with investigating the Fiesta Bowl’s improprieties and misuse of bowl funds. Some groups, however, are voicing criticism in response to the task force and its recommendations.
The bowl fired its CEO, John Junker, and other employees in March upon release of a “scathing” internal review, which detailed a bevy of financial improprieties and misuse of bowl funds. Most prominently, the investigation uncovered an “apparent scheme” to reimburse employees for at least $46,539 for contributions to political campaigns, as well as an attempt to conceal the reimbursements from the bowl’s board of directors (as a nonprofit, the Fiesta Bowl is barred by state campaign finance laws from making political donations). Other significant violations included a $33,000 birthday party for Junker and a $1,200 trip to a Phoenix strip club.
In its report published in late May, the task force recommended a $1 million fine as well as other sanctions, but said that the Fiesta Bowl should remain a member of the BCS. Bowlsby was one of seven members on the task force, which was chaired by Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University. He joined the panel at the request of Larry Scott, commissioner of the Pac-10 Conference.
Bowlsby noted that the task force carried out four conference calls and one in-person meeting with the Fiesta Bowl’s directors in order to determine a punishment for missteps. He said the task force did not meet with Junker.
He also described the task force’s decision-making process on the bowl’s final penalties.
“It was a collaborative process with a lot of people on the board,” Bowlsby said. “We had a couple of BCS lawyers that were involved with advising us as well. The BCS executive director was involved in the deliberations.”
“It was a process by which we identified the strengths and weaknesses of the organization and tried to enhance the strengths and minimize the weaknesses,” he added.
Bowlsby also responded to allegations of a conflict of interest in his role on the task force. According to Playoff PAC, an anti-BCS political action committee, the Fiesta Bowl annually hosts and pays for the “Fiesta Frolic,” a three-day golf and spa outing in Arizona for coaches, athletic department administrators and their spouses. Documents provided to The Daily by Playoff PAC show that Bowlsby attended at least two Fiesta Frolics, one in 2008 and one in 2001, when he was the director of athletics at the University of Iowa.
“I would say that anyone who suggested that, one, doesn’t know me very well and, two, puts a very low price on my integrity,” Bowlsby said of the possibility of a conflict of interest.
Chad Pehrson, a co-founder of Playoff PAC, explained his concern about the conflict-of-interest allegations.
“If someone’s on a task force that’s charged with investigating or regulating behavior, we would like those people to be independent,” he said. “When someone has repeatedly accepted benefits from the objects of their investigation, that calls into question their independence.
“I think it’s a bigger issue for universities,” he added. “If I were president of a university, I would not allow my employees [and] my administrators to accept benefits from bowl games, because I think it might cloud their judgment as to what’s the best course for the university’s athletic programs.”
Pehrson suggested that college football could follow the lead of other professions in establishing a published set of guidelines that state which benefits are acceptable and which ones are sufficient to pose a conflict of interest.
“I think that would be a road they should go down, but they don’t currently,” he said. “They don’t publish that information. They don’t say, ‘You can accept a golf game, but you can’t accept a first-class airplane ticket.’”
Bowlsby and Pehrson also had differing views on the penalties levied on the Fiesta Bowl, specifically the $1 million fine, which the task force recommended come in the form of contributions to Arizona charities. Bowlsby said this fine would come out of the Fiesta Bowl’s reserves.
Playoff PAC, on the other hand, has argued that the payments do not really constitute a penalty, since the bowl is obligated to pay those funds to charity anyway. In a statement provided by Pehrson, Playoff PAC cites the bowl’s articles of incorporation, which state that the bowl must use all of its excess funds for “charitable purposes.”
Other reforms listed in the task force report include the removal of Fiesta Bowl board members implicated in “inappropriate conduct,” the recruitment of at least two bowl board members from the collegiate community, the introduction of an independent audit and the hiring of an executive director with “the highest ethical standards.” The report also urged annual meetings between representatives of the Fiesta Bowl and the BCS.