Congress sounds a lot like fans
WASHINGTON -- A shiny red Houston Cougars helmet sat on the table in front of Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, as U.S. lawmakers prepared to kick off the government's involvement in determining a national champion in college football.
"Mr. Chairman, that violates house rules, but I'm not going to object," Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said with a smirk.
It was a not-so-subtle reminder that the leaders of the country are college football fans, too, and make no mistake -- the three seated at the front of a hearing room in the House of Representatives on Friday morning made it clear they're in favor of a playoff.
"It's probably better than a 50 percent chance that if we don't see some action in the next two months of a voluntary switch to a playoff," warned Barton, "you'll see this bill."
Barton was speaking directly to BCS coordinator John Swofford, also the commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and he was referring to proposed legislation that would prevent the BCS from marketing its final game as the national championship.
Swofford and Alamo Bowl CEO Derrick Fox found themselves on an entirely different playing field on Friday, with congressmen making all the calls. There was no vote, and nothing even remotely resembling an answer, but the fact that college football representatives had taken the time to fly to the nation's capital, raise their hands and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, elevated the importance of the postseason alongside growing concerns over swine flu and an economic crisis.
"Anytime Congress speaks," Swofford said, "you take it seriously."
On the other hand, only three members were doing the speaking, and two of them -- Barton and Green -- were representing the great football state of Texas with gusto. Committee chairman Bobby Rush, D-Ill., was the only other representative there to ask questions.
Part of that can be explained by the fact that Congress wasn't in session and there were no votes taking place. Plus, the hearing was scheduled for a Friday. The fact that only three of the 32 members on the commerce, trade and consumer protection subcommittee actually attended the event, though, suggests that some lawmakers might not feel as strongly about the issue as previously indicated.
It's in my mind a little bit like communism. You can't fix it. It will not be fixable. Sooner or later, you're going to have to try a new model.” -- Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, on the BCS
Barton, though, a fan of Texas A&M, couldn't be held back.
"It's in my mind a little bit like communism," he said. "You can't fix it. It will not be fixable. Sooner or later, you're going to have to try a new model."
Among the four witnesses who testified along with Swofford and Fox were Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson and Gene Bleymaier, athletic director of Boise State. Each was given five minutes to make a statement, and was then asked questions by the committee members.
Fox, also the former chairman of the Football Bowl Association, was there to represent the 34 bowls. He said the current system "is more than just alive and kicking," and argued that if a playoff system is created, the smaller bowls will "go out of business."
Bleymaier rattled off Boise State's numerous accomplishments, which include three undefeated seasons in the past five years.
"How many more years do we need to go undefeated before we get a chance to play for the national championship?" he asked.
Thompson came armed with a 12-page statement complete with enough charts, graphs and statistics to fill a media guide. He brought everything but the team roster, and the congressmen seemed to nod their heads in agreement as he and Bleymaier spoke.
Swofford, on the other hand, was often put on the spot. He was asked whether the revenue distribution was fair, whether undefeated teams like Boise State not having a chance to play for a title was fair, why Notre Dame got a vote, why the ACC's attendance in the championship game was down -- questions many fans have been asking for years. Swofford wasn't just defending the BCS, he was also defending the ACC.
"That wasn't surprising," he said.
After all, he knows he's speaking from the minority view. But, as he pointed out, it was a view the decision-makers once agreed on -- university presidents included.
"What I'm confident in is the fact of where we are, which is an evolution," Swofford said when asked if he's confident he's got enough support. "It's based on member institutions of the 11 football bowl subdivision conferences. This is what they had voted on. This is what they determined they want. Is there a minority view in that? Yes. But the collective majority have decided the BCS is what they want."
The proposed legislation Barton was threatening doesn't call for a dismantling of the current system; rather it's designed to prevent the BCS from advertising its final game as the national championship, arguing that it's a violation of the free trade act. Before Barton left to catch a plane, he asked Swofford one final pressing question: If the bill was passed and signed by President Barack Obama, "would you change and go to a playoff?"
"Congressman I don't know the answer to that," Swofford said. "It hasn't been discussed at any level in direct reference to the deal. I'm not a lawyer. I can only speak in that sense. That's something that would have to be discussed."
"Well I would encourage you to start discussing it," Barton said.
The conferences will do that at each of their upcoming spring meetings when they review the Mountain West's proposal for an eight-team playoff. BCS officials will meet in June to discuss it again.
As the debate continues, Swofford and the university presidents won't just be stating their case to the government -- they'll be making it to some of the biggest college football fans in the country who just happen to be in a position of power.
Barton suggested that after Friday's hearing, Swofford and his counterparts in the BCS should rename it the Bowl Exhibition System, "or just drop the C, and call it the BS system."
Sounds just like a college football fan representing his people.
Heather Dinich is ESPN.com's ACC football blogger. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the ACC blog.