The Magazine

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.” 

The president needs to get out and meet some serious college football fans. Matt Hayes of the Sporting News wrote, “I don’t want to sniff a playoff. The bowl system is the best thing that college football has going for it.” Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated called college football “the only sport where every single game truly matters.” Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times said the BCS has “transformed the sport from a Saturday afternoon cookout to a national obsession.” Jason Whitlock of the Kansas City Star wrote that “college football has the greatest regular season in all of team sports, and a playoff would ruin that distinction.” Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago -Tribune said, 

Amid all the fun, we have people yelling that the sport has to change. It needs a playoff system. Why? So the casual fans who are confused by the BCS and the angry columnists who write about college football three times a year can get finality. So the next time someone complains about a “BCS mess” .  .  . roll your eyes, shake your head and smile. You know better.

If only Hatch and Obama knew better. Instead, Obama said, “I’m going to throw my weight around a little bit. I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Yet his proposed eight-team playoff would have left another undefeated team, Boise State, on the outside looking in for two years running. The Broncos have gone 12-0 and 13-0 the last two regular seasons and won a BCS bowl game—the Fiesta Bowl—this year. But with an eight-team playoff, the invitees would have been the six major conference champions and two higher-ranked at-large teams: Texas and Utah two seasons ago; TCU and Florida this past season. So, Obama’s playoff would have diminished the regular season, compromised the bowls, and would not have solved anything. 

In any event, it seems like a strange time to be talking about unfairness. There has been remarkably little controversy over the national title game selections since the BCS standings were streamlined after the 2003-04 season. Prior to the advent of the BCS, a small-conference team had not played in a major bowl since Air Force played Tennessee in the 1971 Sugar Bowl—a 27-year drought. Under the BCS, small-conference teams have played in six major bowls in the past six years. Last year, two small conference teams played in BCS bowls. 

Furthermore, TCU, a small-conference team from the same conference as Utah (the Mountain West) was one second and about one foot away from playing in the title game this past season—as Texas’s field-goal attempt in the Big 12 championship game slipped just inside the upright as time expired, sending the Longhorns to Pasadena. (TCU would almost surely have jumped from fourth to second because of shuffling in the computer rankings as Texas fell.) A small-conference team came within a sliver of making it onto the sport’s biggest stage. Sports Illustrated’s preseason rankings for next season, moreover, have Boise State at number two, which already has fans talking about the possibility of the Broncos making the title game. 

But Obama and Hatch want to move us to a playoff, which the Broncos, with their comparatively easy schedule, would probably have to go undefeated to make. Then they would have to win two more games versus the nation’s most elite competition just to make it to the big game. This would improve their chances? 

Maybe it’s the sameness of a playoff, and its one-size-fits-all quality, that attracts Obama and Hatch. Alexis de Tocqueville lamented Americans’ tendency to embrace uniformity. He loved our vibrancy and civic engagement, and he implored us not to give in to the temptation (which he thought would be fatal) to centralize power in Washington. In contrast, college football’s bowl games are community-based organizations—in Tocqueville’s parlance, civil associations. Go to the Rose Parade on Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard, then walk down into Arroyo Seco Canyon for the game, and it’s hard not to be struck by how well the Tournament of Roses exemplifies Tocqueville’s civil associations at their best. 

Under the BCS, as teams jostle for higher rankings in the standings, fans in every region hang on the results from around the country as they never did before. And the BCS is more—not less—likely than a playoff to crown the most deserving team in the sport. (Nobody gets into the title game merely by getting hot for two or three weeks.) College football is close to perfect right now. And it didn’t get there through central planning, but through a slow, largely organic process of development and refinement. Now the president and a few members of Congress want to get involved and change it. 

Lou Holtz, a former coach and a colorful commentator on College Football Final, summed things up quite well:

As a taxpayer, I have very low expectations. I don’t expect our Congress to read a 1,500-page stimulus bill before they spend $787 billion we don’t have. I don’t expect them to read the 2,500 pages in the health bill before we spend a trillion dollars. I don’t expect them to recognize how we went $1.4 trillion in debt in the last four months, but I expect them to read the 32 pages of the Constitution, and I defy you to find somewhere in there where you should be worried about the BCS system.

Jeffrey H. Anderson is the co-creator of the Anderson & Hester Rankings.


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