Last week's congressional hearings on the Bowl Championship Series were a textbook example of how absurd the debate over college football's postseason has become.
The big-money conferences that constitute the BCS argued that a true playoff system would hurt the smaller schools. The minute such a system is imposed, the "midtier" bowls would go out of business because all the attention would gravitate toward the playoffs, said Derrick Fox, CEO of the Valero Alamo Bowl. While that line of reasoning seemed magnanimous, it was interesting that the smaller conferences, whose teams now regularly visit those "midtier" bowls, didn't buy it. They were the ones arguing for a playoff.
Despite the BCS's apparent concerns about everyone else's revenues, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, got it right. "It's about money," he said. And he meant the BCS's money — $18 million divided among the six conferences lucky enough to have a shot at the national title.
But none of this comes as news. You don't have to be a cynic to see that the BCS is a tight club guarding its own pot of gold. You don't have to be an ethicist to see that it's wrong for college football to automatically declare 51 Football Bowl Subdivision teams ineligible for the championship before they play their first game. That list includes the University of Utah, which completed a perfect season last year and destroyed fourth-ranked Alabama in a bowl.
The larger question, however, is whether Congress ought to have a role in making the system more fair. None of the witnesses at last week's hearing said they thought anything would change without congressional action. But is college football a matter of such national importance that the government should get involved? Even if millions of dollars are at stake, would government be meddling where it doesn't belong?
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff doesn't think so. He's talked about a lawsuit to prove the BCS is violating antitrust laws. Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett don't think so, either. Hatch has promised to hold hearings of his own in the Senate, and he and Bennett wrote to the BCS last week to complain about a pending four-year extension of a television contract that would lock the current system in place.
Rep. Barton is sponsoring a bill that would make it illegal to call any game a "football national championship" unless it is a true playoff system. But that solution has some free-speech problems, especially in a country where a bunch of American baseball teams (and one team in Canada) vie annually for the "World Series."
Maybe, in true congressional fashion, the best answer is to stick a 90 percent tax on BCS revenues.