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In Search of Grist for Obama's Mill

Will his fight against the BCS play well with the American people?

10:31 AM, Feb 3, 2010 • By BILL WHALEN
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As if he doesn’t have enough problems – double-digit unemployment, health care reform on life support, and his party’s pesky habit of losing blue-state elections – President Obama may be taking his biggest headache yet.

In Search of Grist for Obama's Mill

We’re talking, of course, about . . . the federal government meddling in college football.

According to a weekend report in the Wall Street Journal, the Justice Department has forwarded a letter to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch outlining perceived inequities in the Bowl Championship Series. That’s music to Hatch’s ears, who’s no doubt still smarting from the University of Utah going undefeated two seasons ago, whipping Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, yet finding itself left out of the BCS title chase. (Hatch, by the way, attended Brigham Young University).

At first glance, this would seem like a smart move for a president in search of a more populist identity. With the lone exception of the Southeastern Conference, which each year seems to have an automatic spot in the title game, no one is particularly fond of the BCS and its computer-driven formula that denies college fans a true playoff system.

So, populist it may sound. But there at least two reasons why the Obama White House might want to call an audible, and punt on this topic.

For one, the idea of the president worrying about college football when there are bigger concerns smacks of Jimmy Carter obsessing over who’s scheduled to play on the White House tennis court. Plus, it’s not as if the Obama Justice Department is in great standing with the American people right now.

The second concern: Tinkering with the BCS makes for bad election-year math.

In the 12 years that the BCS has been in existence, 10 universities from Florida or Ohio have landed a spot in the title game. In the three years prior to the BCS, when college football was governed by the Bowl Alliance, three schools from those same two states played for all the marbles. And before that, during the three-year run of the Bowl Coalition, three Florida or Ohio schools made a championship appearance.

Change the current formula and adopt a playoff system, as Hatch and other BCS critics would like, and the Utah Utes benefit. So do such other recent Cinderella teams as Boise State and TCU.  Now, check the Electoral College map. Those three schools come from reliably red states, whereas BCS-friendly Florida and Ohio are the linchpins to winning presidential campaigns. Would Obama really like to risk voters in those all-important swing states just to a bunch of red-state football fans who probably won’t vote for him anyway?

In going after the BCS, the Obama Administration once again shows a serious problem with this presidency: the need to cultivate a serious antagonist. For politics is no different than literature in that every protagonist needs a villain. That’s especially true of two-term presidents. Othello had Iago; Sherlock Holmes had Professor Moriarty. Ronald Reagan had the Soviet Union and air-traffic controllers. Bill Clinton had Newt Gingrich and Kenneth Starr. George W. Bush had Osama bin Laden.

And Barack Obama? Less than a week into office, he told congressional Republicans to stop listening to Rush Limbaugh. Since then, he’s trotted out health insurers, big banks, tv talking heads and even Washington itself (a curious leap in logic given where the president works and resides) all as enemies of the state.  Yet none has stuck. Meanwhile, the president flounders.

If it’s a foil the Obama White House seeks, here are a few suggestions for fights the president can pick – and maybe even win:

1) Skip college and go pro. The BCS is an easy target. So too is the National Football League. The NFL throws pro sports’ worst all-star game (holding the Pro Bowl a week before the Super Bowl guarantees that the best players on that year’s two best teams are no-shows). Ask any Minnesota Vikings fan how they feel about sudden-death overtime. And a president concerned about healthcare could question how the NFL gets away with cutting injured players without pay. Bonus added: If he thought GM needed a government takeover, one wonders how Obama feels about the sad state of his Chicago Bears.

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