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The Politicians Are Wrong

This is the golden age of college football.

Feb 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 21 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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You know how at Super Bowl parties you often have to endure the painful commentary of non-football fans who feel the need to pontificate about various aspects of the game? Well, at least those fans aren’t usually U.S. senators, and they aren’t usually intent on making their peculiar views the basis of a Justice Department investigation. 

The Politicians Are Wrong

Senator Orrin Hatch.

But sometimes they are. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah recently wrote to President Obama, asking him to have the Justice Department investigate the allegedly sinister workings of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). Hatch wrote, “I have long believed that our antitrust laws play an essential role in ensuring our nation’s long-term prosperity.” Highlighting a key part of maintaining that prosperity, he continued, “I believe there is a strong case that the BCS violates the Sherman Act.” 

A few days ago, the Justice Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs told Hatch it was considering whether to “open an investigation into the legality of the current system under the antitrust laws.” BCS executive director Bill Hancock replied that this is “nothing new,” adding that “if the Justice Department thought there was a case to be made, they likely would have made it already.” Nevertheless, the playoff advocates were whipped into a frenzy, with Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples writing that we should “get ready for some form of a college football playoff.”

That’s certainly what Hatch is hoping for. Last fall, he joined with Representatives Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) in forming a political action committee called Playoff PAC. Not everyone was impressed. Rece Davis, the host of ESPN’s College Football Final, said, “This new political action committee championed by Orrin Hatch, among other politicos, is the biggest hot air hoax since we thought little Falcon was floating in that balloon.”

The BCS was formed in 1998 to establish an official national championship game. Each year, the game’s participants are the top two teams in the BCS standings, which in turn are based on two subjective polls (the USA Today coaches’ poll and the Harris Interactive poll), with each composing a third of the standings, and six computer rankings, which compose the other third. (Chris Hester and I created one of those six computer rankings, the Anderson & Hester Rankings, which have been a part of the BCS since its inception.)

Hatch claims that “the current system ensures that only teams from the BCS’s preferred conferences can qualify to play in the national championship game.” This is patently false. In fact, not only do small-conference teams have a shot to play in the game, they have exactly the same shot as any other team. They simply have to finish in the top two in the BCS standings. If they don’t get there, it’s because the poll voters, in combination with computer rankings that don’t discriminate against them in the least, don’t think they’re good enough. 

Hatch’s particular beef is that, two seasons ago, the Utah Utes made the BCS but were invited to the Sugar Bowl rather than the title game. Of the 61 coaches who voted that season, not one ranked Utah first, second, third, or fourth. The Utes’ own coach, Kyle Whittingham, ranked them fifth, behind four one-loss teams. Even if there had been a four-team playoff, the Utes, who finished sixth in the BCS Standings (though second in my rankings), would not have been invited. But when your own coach doesn’t think you belong, it’s hard to argue too vehemently that you’ve been robbed by not having been invited to play for the national championship. 

Hatch also complains that the champions of major conferences get automatic spots in the BCS bowls. But he neglects to note that, without the BCS, small-conference teams would essentially never play in those bowls. The bowls, which are private entities, would just return to their earlier practice of contracting with the elite conferences to fill their berths, as is true for every non-BCS bowl game on New Year’s Day. Does Hatch really think it’s illegal for the Rose Bowl to contract with the Pac-10 and Big Ten, an alliance that dates back to 1947? 

President Obama has also weighed in. “I’m fed up with these computer rankings,” he said. “Get eight teams—the top eight teams right at the end. You got a playoff. Decide on a national champion.” He added, “I don’t know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me on this.” 

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