April 21, 2008

I haven’t followed college football in quite a while, but I remember that when I was a fan, the sport’s post-season system — known as the “Bowl Championship Series” — was thoroughly annoying. Playoff systems are utilized in college baseball, basketball, hockey, and Divisions II and III football, but Division IA college football relies on a bizarre, byzantine system, intended to allow the first- and second-ranked teams to play for the national title.

A team can go undefeated, but not be eligible for the big game (this has happened). A team can finish second in the polls, but be left out if computer rankings override the judgment of humans (this has happened, too).

But it’s one thing for fans to find this frustrating. It’s another for Congress to intervene.

Forget government corruption or corporate fraud. Three members of Congress want the Justice Department to investigate whether college football’s Bowl Championship Series is an illegal enterprise.

Reps. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., and Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, are introducing a resolution rejecting the oft-criticized bowl system as an illegal restriction on trade because only the largest universities compete in most of the major bowl games. The resolution would require Justice’s antitrust division to investigate whether the system violates federal law.

The measure also would put Congress on record as supporting a college football playoff.

“Who elected these NCAA people? Who are they to decide who competes for the championship?” Abercrombie said at a press conference Thursday on Capitol Hill, gripping a souvenir University of Hawaii football.

I’m afraid these guys have let their enjoyment of the game get a little out of hand.

It’s hardly a mystery why these three lawmakers, in specific, would be upset. The University of Hawaii and Boise State University have both enjoyed undefeated seasons of late, and both were denied the chance to play for the championship. Last year, the University of Georgia was screwed, too.

But what on earth does this have to do with Congress? The BCS is stupid, but by what reasoning is it illegal?

James Joyner’s take is spot-on.

Now, granted, these are just three comparatively minor Members and this will likely go nowhere. Still, this is asinine. As Sean Hackbarth points out, Congress has more important matters on its plate.

Moreover, the answer to “Who elected these NCAA people?” is the presidents of its constituent universities. Who better to decide how college sports should be governed than the leaders of the colleges? Surely, not a group of people with demonstrably no business sense.

Personally, I’d prefer a playoff to the current system. But that’s a matter for the colleges to decide, with some pressure from the market. It’s certainly not within the legitimate purview of the legislature.

I’d just add that Congress’ interest in the subject is not without precedent. In December 2005, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection — which refused to hold substantive hearings on much of anything — scrutinized the BCS. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), then-chairman of the full committee, said at the time, “Man doesn’t live by policy alone. Sports is an important part of American society.”

Maybe so. But that doesn’t explain Congress calling for a Justice Department investigation of college football’s post-season system.

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