Wednesday, January 7, 2009 Updated: January 8, 8:44 AM ET
The Wrong BCS Fix
Congress has an approval rating half that of the President. You want 'em to fix the BCS?
This week, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff announced that he'll be investigating the Bowl Championship Series for possible antitrust violations. Presumably, Shurtleff is suing because the University of Utah finished the season undefeated, yet still won't have a crack at the national title. But to prove the BCS has violated antitrust laws, Shurtleff has to prove a conspiracy. Problem is, Utah is a member of the Mountain West, a conference that joined the BCS voluntarily, knowing full well that its conference winner wouldn't be guaranteed even a BCS bid, much less a spot in the title game.
It's hard to prove a conspiracy when the alleged victim of that conspiracy—in this case Utah—was a knowing participant. But even if they could, the last people you want to help fix the problem are politicians.However broken some aspects of the sporting world may be, it's time we stopped looking to politicians for any kind of fix. They only make it worse.
The voting public seems to hate the BCS. There are even those of us who find secret joy in rooting for bowl outcomes that will produce the messiest BCS train wreck possible, just to punish the NCAA and the BCS conferences for their arrogance.
But however broken some aspects of the sporting world may be, it's time we stopped looking to politicians for any kind of fix. They only make it worse. The playing field is one of our few remaining sanctuaries that hasn't yet been corrupted by politics. On the field, outcomes are determined by merit, talent, skill and athletic prowess (and, occasionally, by Ed Hochuli). Think about all the partisan sniping we've heard over the last year. Think about all the waste that goes into pork-barrel spending. Think about how much better states and congressional districts represented by powerful politicians fare than others. Does anyone really think that a college football playoff designed by Congress will be fairer or more competitive than the system we have now?
Shurtleff isn't alone. Last month, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) introduced a bill that would use the power of the Federal Trade Commission to prevent the BCS from marketing its title game as a "championship," unless the game is the result of a playoff (and presumably it would need a playoff format that Barton finds acceptable). Another bill would declare the BCS an "illegal restriction on trade."
Even President-Elect Barack Obama told 60 Minutes that he'd like to see a switch to a playoff. Obama hasn't yet suggested the government force such a system on college football, but even a casual mention by the next president of the United States can feel a bit coercive. It certainly got sportswriters like the Washington Post's Michael Wilbon buzzing.
And that's part of the problem. Whether it's the steroid hearings, the Patriots' Spygate, or any number of other issues, sportswriters and commentators always seem to play the cheerleader when grandstanding politicians gallantly ride in to "clean up" the latest ailment afflicting big-time sports.
That was particularly true of the steroids hearings. Whatever your feelings about performance-enhancing drugs, the idea that Congress is the body to purge professional sports of cheaters and frauds is laughable. Have you picked up a newspaper lately? Your typical Cincinnati Bengal is a better role model than your average congressman.
Be careful what you wish for.
Look at retiring Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.). Davis chaired and was then the ranking member on the House Government Oversight Committee, the committee that held the steroid hearings. If there was a television camera covering the steroid hearings, odds are, Davis was near it. Davis demagogued the hell out of the issue, solemnly spewing out "it's for the children" canards with platitudes about "the integrity of the game" (never mind that baseball players have been popping amphetamines and other PEDs since Davis was in short pants). The Atlantic'sJoshua Green noted that as Davis scolded steroid-popping ball players for their unbridled ambition and ego, he did so as "Tom Davis, seven-term congressman, sat beneath a gilded, gold-framed oil painting of … Tom Davis."
And though Davis eagerly waved his finger at Mark McGwire, Raphael Palmiero and Sammy Sosa, when the focus last year turned to Roger Clemens, a staunch Republican and friend of the Bush family, Davis suddenly saw the hearings for the grandstanding farce they were. Funny how that works.
If Davis and others are going to hold themselves up as enforcers of competitiveness and the level playing field, it's only fair to look at how they address issues of fairness and pure competition in their own field—politics. In 2001, Davis played a key role in Republican efforts to gerrymander congressional districts to ensure as many Republicans get re-elected as possible (including his own district—Davis twice ran for reelection unopposed). He once snuck a provision into federal legislation preventing an apartment complex from going up near a Metro hub because, according to the Washington Post, he feared it would bring too many Democratic voters into his district. In 2005, Davis threatened Major League Baseball with punitive sanctions if it sold the Washington Nationals to George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who funds political causes Davis opposes. These people cheat at democracy. They're hardly the ones to enforce fairness and abiding by the rules on the playing field.
The Democrats are just as guilty. Despite the fact that Congress' approval rating rarely rises above 40 percent—and while Democrat-controlled, were well below those of the sitting President—95 percent of incumbents somehow manage to win re-election every two years.
These people cheat at democracy. They're hardly the ones to enforce fairness and abiding by the rules on the playing field.
So go ahead and loathe the BCS. Excoriate cheaters and frauds. Agitate for better rules, stricter enforcement of existing rules and fairer playoff systems. You have good points. But let's resist the urge to bring the government in to correct every problem we perceive to be afflicting big-time sports. One, their attempts so far have been completely self-serving, but mostly, because the government is run by politicians.
And it's the rare problem that's made better by letting the politicians sort it out.
Radley Balko is a senior editor for Reason magazine.