Congress Sets Out to Fix College Football

BCS is flawed, but none of Congress' business

Congress’ plate has been full lately. Important things are going on across the nation and around the world. 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 Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) 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, such as at the end of the 2003 and 2004 seasons, controversy erupts.

I happen to agree with Rep. 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’s 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, shall the state’s congressional delegation cry foul and call for another hearing or, worse yet, “corrective” legislation?

Rep. 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, Barton 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.

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). Sadly, those days are long gone. Record government growth and spending is 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. We 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? On the other hand, as long as Congress is busy dealing with silly issues like this, it isn’t doing us the harm we have come to expect from our politicians. I take back what I said. Keep up the good work, Rep. Barton.

Adam B. Summers is a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation.