College Football Goes Down the Hatch
Today (July 7) the Senate antitrust subcommittee will hold hearings on perhaps the only American institution less popular than Congress itself: the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). Like an earlier hearing in the House, this one will ask whether the system by which college football chooses its national champion is "fair."
Now when members of Congress get together to discuss antitrust law and "fairness," it's typically a Blue State kind of thing. But today's grandstanding — as well as the earlier hearing in the House — comes courtesy of the GOP. You know, the party in favor of "smaller" and "less intrusive" government.
Specifically, the congressional look-see into college football has been led by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) and Rep. Joe Barton (R., Texas). They have not been shy about the menace they see. Mr. Hatch calls the BCS "un-American." Mr. Barton likens it to "communism." The Texas Republican has even introduced legislation that would forbid the BCS from holding a "national championship game" unless that game was the result of playoffs.
In terms of popularity, it's a contest more evenly matched than any Rose Bowl. In one corner there's Congress with its 18 percent approval rating, according to the latest Rasmussen poll. In the other sits the BCS, whose system makes tons of money from television for its members but is preferred by just 15 percent of fans, according to a 2007 Gallup poll. No real winner here.
For decades, college football had its champions named by competing polls, the two most prominent being the Associated Press poll of sportswriters and the United Press International poll of coaches (now the USA Today coaches poll). At times that has meant more than one team with a claim to the national title. The BCS was an attempt to reform that system by enlisting computers to iron out the kinks — and ensure that the No. 1 ranked team would always play the No. 2 ranked team for an undisputed national championship.
Alas, no formula is perfect, and the cure has in some ways been as bad as the disease. As Mr. Hatch puts it in a Sports Illustrated article (which bears the disquieting title of "Leveling the playing field"), the result is that "every year an obviously deserving team is left off the BCS." When that team is the University of Utah Utes in Mr. Hatch's home state — denied a chance at the BCS title game, even though it went undefeated — Congress enters the fairness game.
Mr. Hatch brings with him the strong support of a Democratic president. In a "60 Minutes" interview Barack Obama gave shortly after winning the election, he made clear he wanted playoffs. Characteristically, he added that he couldn't imagine "any serious fan of college football" disagreeing with him.
Well, here's one. As defenders of the BCS rightly point out, a bowl system helps make college football the most compelling regular season in sports. When Ohio State meets USC this coming September in a nonconference game, each needs to take that game seriously if it wants the national title. It's the exact opposite in college basketball.
So the BCS was right to keep the bowls. Where it went wrong was in instituting what its advocates still believe is its main fix: establishing a single championship bowl. That "reform" eliminated what had been a key advantage of the old system: the enticing possibility that a number of different teams might emerge as national champion, depending on who lost to whom in the various bowls.
We saw that in January 1978, when fifth-ranked Notre Dame defeated first-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Third-ranked Alabama, which had defeated Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, believed it should have been named No. 1. So upset was one Crimson Tide fan that he wrote a song about how the deciding votes had been cast by two priests, a bishop, four cardinals and a "little blue nun."
The point is that rankings were never about fairness or producing a clear-cut winner. They were about creating what fans need most: something to argue about. Before he died, the AP sports editor who created its famous poll, Alan Gould, explained it this way: "It was a case of thinking up ideas to develop interest and controversy between football Saturdays. . . . That's all I had in mind, something to keep the pot boiling. Sports then was living off controversy, opinion, whatever. This was just another exercise in hoopla."
Was that so bad? College football would be better off if those who run the BCS could recognize that the calls for playoffs are being fed by the precision their system implicitly promises but can never deliver. And Americans would be better off if Republican legislators devoted their energies to reforming our antiquated antitrust laws instead of looking for silly new ways to apply them.