Congress and the BCS, Part 2

April 23, 2008

Part 1 here.

Three members of the House of Representatives – Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, Lynn Westmoreland, R-Georgia, and Mike Simpson, R-Idaho – have proposed a resolution that would require the Justice Department to investigate whether the BCS is an illegal restriction on trade. I’ve already looked at the financial side of that argument in part 1, and the gist of it is that it’s possible, but not probable, that they could win that part of their case.

Mike Simpson

If the question of money was the only issue that they’re bringing up, then there would be no need for this part 2. However, they’ve also included in the resolution a clause about the BCS unfairly restricting access to the title of “champion.” This resolution would make Congress officially in favor of a playoff for Division I-A college football.

Let me first say that you will not find a larger playoff proponent than me. Despite that, there are some problems with them including language about unfair restriction of the championship in their document.

Problem 1: There is no championship

The NCAA does not award a Division I-A football championship. The BCS system of determining one is set up and run by the conferences, not the NCAA. Plus, what really is a champion? I explored the topic back in December, and you’re welcome to read what I wrote. I will not rehash any of it, other than to say that defining what it means to be champion is more complex than you think it is.

Problem 2: Representative Abercrombie

Neil Abercrombie

I don’t know Mr. Abercrombie, but he clearly has no idea how college football works. Just witness this quote from the article:

“Who elected these NCAA people? Who are they to decide who competes for the championship?” Abercrombie said at a press conference Thursday on Capitol Hill, gripping a souvenir University of Hawaii football.

The NCAA is an association set up and run by its member schools, including the University of Hawaii, for the purpose of administering and regulating college sports. As I pointed out above, it does not have any hand in determining who plays for a championship in I-A football. The BCS determines that, and it’s a system agreed to by all of the conferences including the WAC, Hawaii’s conference.

He’s clearly just grandstanding here, and I hope for the resolution’s sake that he had no hand in writing it. There’s no quicker or more effective way to torpedo your case against something than lacking a fundamental understanding of how it works.

Problem 3: Determining the value of being “champion”

A study will need to be done to determine just how much schools benefit monetarily, beyond the bowl payout, and intangibly (in terms of prestige, exposure, goodwill, etc) by being named champion. That’s a Sisyphean task since the teams that generally win championships are the ones that already have prestige and move ungodly amounts of merchandise.

How do they plan on determining precisely what a title would mean for a team that’s not a traditional power? And will they account for the fact that being in a Big Six conference doesn’t guarantee wealth and prestige? Just ask Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, or UConn about that point.

Problem 4: The AP Poll

In the public view, being #1 in the AP Poll is just as legitimate as being the BCS champion. Not winning the BCS title in 2003 didn’t prevent USC from claiming the title of national champion and all the benefits that go with it. The BCS may control entry into the top bowl games, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on the ability to name a nationally recognized champion.

* * *

It’s a nice thought, but regulating championships is not the government’s business. That’s beyond its scope as defined by the Constitution. If the government wants to look into the BCS over financial concerns or the fact that state-run institutions are involved, then it makes sense. Regulating commerce is one of the roles the Constitution gives the government, as is the power to resolve disputes between states.

I want a playoff in Division I-A football as much as anyone, but it’s simply not the role of Congress, the Justice Department, or any other faction of the federal government to mandate that one happen.


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