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Leaving It All on the Field (Not in the Halls of Congress)


Congress certainly has had its plate full lately. Important things are going on in the nation and around the world. A New York Times report that President Bush signed a secret order authorizing the National Security Agency to spy on Americans without obtaining warrants has sparked controversy, Iraqis have had another national election, and a contentious World Trade Organization meeting has wrapped up in Hong Kong. Thus, it was only fitting that the House Committee on Energy and Commerce decided to conduct a hearing on … college football?

Yes, the hearing, titled “Determining a Champion on the Field: A Comprehensive Review of the BCS and Postseason College Football,” was held recently by the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection to examine how college football determines its national champion. As the committee chairman, Joe Barton (R-Tex.), explained, “College football is not just an exhilarating sport, but a billion-dollar business as well that Congress cannot ignore. This committee is vested with the responsibility for overseeing sports.” It seems there is not a business in existence that Congress can ignore the urge to regulate.

At issue in the hearing was the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), which consists of the four largest of the 28 current college bowls (the Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, and Sugar Bowl) and a system for selecting the two teams that will play for the national championship. (The championship game rotates among the four BCS bowls.) When there are exactly two undefeated teams in the nation, such as Southern California and Texas this year, there is no problem. But when there are three or more undefeated teams, as there were at the end of the 2003 and 2004 seasons, controversy erupts.

I happen to agree with Barton that the BCS is “deeply flawed,” and that a tournament would resolve the problem of disputed championships. After all, tournaments are used to decide the national champion in every other college sport, and even in football for the smaller schools in Divisions I-AA, II, and III. This does not mean we should make a federal case of the issue.

The problem is not that Barton is wrong in the tournament-bowl–system debate; it is that the government has the power to do anything about college sports in the first place! What next? An inquiry into the merits of the off-sides rule in hockey? A congressional investigation of the selection and seeding process of the NCAA basketball tournament? If a good “mid-major” basketball team like Nevada gets a lower seed in the tournament this year because it plays an easier schedule than some of the major conference teams, will the state’s congressional delegation cry foul and call for another hearing or, worse yet, “corrective” legislation?

Barton tried to assuage fears that Congress would act to “fix” the system if the NCAA and the conferences did not, saying, “We do not have a legislative proposal. We’re not going to introduce a playoff bill after this hearing.” In a committee press release, however, he left the door open for congressional interference: “I don’t have legislation in mind, and I hope none will be necessary” [emphasis added]. Given Congress’s “change or else” attitude toward baseball’s steroids rules and its role two years ago in pressuring the BCS to add a fifth bowl (going into effect next year) to allow smaller schools a better chance to earn a BCS bid — and BCS money — legislative action is not out of the question.

Barton continued, “But I hope that this hearing causes discussion and I would like to see the NCAA, the BCS, and the major conferences come together and on their own develop a bowl playoff system.” Cause discussion? Has Barton ever watched ESPN? The playoff-bowl system debate has been discussed ad nauseum by fans and columnists in the sports world.

The hearing contained all the gravity one would expect from such a pointless spectacle. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), a graduate of the University of Michigan, whined, “How did Iowa get a better bowl than Michigan when we beat them there?” Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.) complained that the BCS favors the six major conferences, to the detriment of the University of Wyoming. “If you’re from the Mountain West [Conference], you’re not going to have a chance to play in the national championship,” she argued. Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), a University of Nebraska alum, jokingly noted, “We need more” tickets for Nebraska fans at the Alamo Bowl. After an impassioned statement decrying the pointlessness of the hearing, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), whose district includes the city of Pasadena, nonetheless could not resist playing local favorites, too. He warned, “If the BCS was replaced with a playoff system, this would not only undermine the almost 120 years of tradition established by the Tournament of Roses, but it would also seriously undermine the economic vitality of the city of Pasadena and its surrounding areas.”

Unfortunately, the BCS hearing is not an isolated case of political thumb-twiddling or interference in athletics. In fact, it is merely the latest in a string of congressional forays into the sporting world. Earlier this year, Congress held hearings to scold Major League Baseball and other professional sports leagues for not having more stringent steroid policies. Grandstanding politicians asserted that they, not the leagues and players, had the right to decide the policies of privately run sports leagues, that the desires of politicians are superior to those of the team owners, coaches, players, and fans.

Then there was the embarrassing episode last month in which Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) threatened to sic the Department of Justice onto the NFL to investigate whether the league and the Philadelphia Eagles had violated antitrust laws in their handling of wide receiver Terrell Owens because he felt the team’s suspension of Owens for “conduct detrimental to the team” was unfair. Politicians have as much right to be sports fans as anyone else, but their opinions on athletes and sports competitions should not carry any more weight than the average couch potato’s.

Once upon a time, Republicans in Congress lobbied for the elimination of the Department of Commerce (and with good reason — congressional encroachment on the Tenth Amendment and astonishingly broad interpretations of the Commerce Clause by the Supreme Court have led to federal regulation of everything under the sun). Sad to say, those days are long gone. Record government growth and spending are now the norm under Republican leadership.

By holding the BCS hearing, Congress has found yet another way to demonstrate that its priorities are completely out of whack. Americans are struggling with a questionable war in Iraq, exploding Social Security and Medicare spending, crippling budget deficits, and a frustrating and broken immigration system, among other things, and Congress is worried about who wins the college football championship?

Lately, during my travels along crowded Southern California freeways, I have seen on a number of vehicles bumper stickers that read “What Would Jesus Do?” Similarly, it would behoove Congress to adopt the slogan “What Would the Founding Fathers Do?” Somehow, I don’t see Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin meddling with athletic contests.

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    Adam B. Summers is a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation and a contributor to “The Libertarian Perspective,” a weekly column of free-market, libertarian thought. He holds a master’s degree in economics from George Mason University.