Tackling the Tough Issues

Why is Barack Obama obsessed with reforming college football?

Barack Obama has revealed his first major policy initiative: college football reform. In Obama’s first televised interview since winning the presidency, he explained what’s wrong with the current system, in which computers help determine the two teams that play for the national championship. “I think any sensible person would say that if you’ve got a bunch of teams who play throughout the season, and many of them have one loss or two losses—there’s no clear decisive winner—that we should be creating a playoff system,” Obama said. “I don’t know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me on this. So, I’m gonna throw my weight around a little bit. I think it’s the right thing to do.”

In simplest terms, this was a Nixonian strategy—an attempt by Obama to bathe himself in college football’s populist glow. But railing against the Bowl Championship Series is particularly astute. It’s the equivalent of calling for rock bands in the cafeteria in a student council election: Your constituents will love you for it, even if they understand it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to deliver. But even so, Obama’s play-calling carries some risks.

The BCS is entrenched and buttressed by big-money interests—the nation’s football powerhouses—and they have the pull to keep things the way they are. On Sunday, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany seemed to equate Obama with a sports-radio crank, saying it was “that time of year” for malcontents to start complaining. And given that ESPN just signed a new deal to televise BCS games through 2014, Obama may have to wait till his second term to change the system. Perhaps he’d be better served by focusing on a less thorny issue, like passing universal health care.

Delany was right about one thing: The call to abolish college football’s bowl system is an annual rite of autumn, akin to Washington’s perennial denunciations of lobbying. If Social Security is the third rail of American politics, then lobbying reform is the chenille throw—the squeezably soft issue that every politician wants to get his hands on. Ever since Standard Oil was accused of buying U.S. senators in the 19th century, and probably before, Washington pols have orated about the evils of corporate largesse. Whenever a bill imprinted with the words transparency and accountability and honest leadership comes up for a vote in Congress, it passes by an overwhelming margin. And yet, despite all of this transparency and accountability and honest leadership, corporate interests remain embedded in Washington. (It’s no accident that I just channeled Ralph Nader. The enemy of corporate America also—surprise, surprise—hates the BCS, arguing that “bowl games are private businesses that should have no right … to prevent college football from a fair method of determining a national champion.”)

In lobbying and college football, the forces of the status quo have been adept at pushing through tough-sounding new rules that don’t fundamentally change the system. After the Jack Abramoff fiasco, Congress banned sit-down dinners between lobbyists and legislators. The easy workaround: fancy receptions where only hors d’oeuvres are served. Similarly, each year’s BCS controversy generates a set of new provisions that supposedly fix everything. In 1998-99, Kansas State got left out of the BCS bowls despite ranking third in the standings; college football poobahs added a rule that the third-ranking team gets an automatic berth. In 2000-01, one-loss Miami missed the title game even though it beat one-loss Florida State, one of the teams selected; the next season, the BCS added a “quality win bonus” to give more weight to big victories. *

It’s worth remembering that the BCS itself wasn’t created as an equitable way to determine college football’s national champion. Rather, it was designed as a candy coating to make the same old scheme—with its massive payouts to the major football conferences—go down easier. In the old system, certain conferences were affiliated with certain bowl games (the Big Ten and Pac-10 with the Rose Bowl, the SEC with the Sugar Bowl), making a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup difficult to broker. The new system pulls the nation’s top two teams out of this bowl-conference coupling, ensuring that a national championship game can take place, but leaves the sport’s basic structure intact—the bowl games all still exist, and the Rose Bowl, for one, still gets the Big Ten and Pac-10 champs unless they’re pulled away for the BCS title game.

College football’s new paint job didn’t fool everyone. In 2003, Tulane President Scott Cowen got scores of smaller football schools, as well as Sen. Orrin Hatch, to back his plan to abolish the BCS, arguing that it was stacked unfairly against the sport’s lower-tier teams. Far too smart to allow the cash cow to get butchered, the lords of college football bought the little guys off, guaranteeing that non-major-conference schools with high-enough rankings would get automatic passage to a BCS game. In 2006-07, the BCS added a fifth game, further placating the small schools while guaranteeing yet more revenues.

If Obama is serious about his playoff proposal, he needs to start working over America’s leading football institutions: the athletic conferences and the presidents of universities with powerhouse football programs. This will prove about as easy as getting the U.N. Security Council to authorize an invasion. For the university presidents, the best argument in favor of the BCS is that everybody’s already getting rich—why mess with a good thing? The presidents of the Big Ten and Pac-10 are particularly obstinate, unwilling to do anything that would threaten the conferences’ traditional tie-in with the Rose Bowl. (A proposal for a “plus one” game after the bowl season was scuttled on this account.)

But Obama will not be without powerful allies. Surrogates like USC coach Pete Carroll (“I think it stinks”), the University of Florida’s Urban Meyer (“You’ve got to blow it up”), and University of Georgia President Michael Adams (“The current system has lost public confidence and simply does not work”) would be happy to stump for the president-elect, giving needed political cover to a guy who attended Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard.

While success on the football field might burnish Obama’s reputation as a problem-solver, he should be careful what he wishes for. A presidentially brokered playoff scheme is sure to have unintended consequences. No matter the particulars of Obama’s plan (his 60 Minutes proposal: “Eight teams. That would be three rounds, to determine a national champion”), it is guaranteed to generate aggrieved parties. There will always be a ninth team, and a 10th.

So maybe it makes better political sense for Obama to leave college football alone and find some other way to launch his New Deal for sports. How about moving up the starting times of playoff baseball games so that kids can stay up and watch? That’s another proposal that everybody in the country can get behind—well, except for those 50 million or so people in the Pacific Time Zone. Does Obama really want to be responsible for losing California for the Democrats for a generation?

Correction, Nov. 18, 2008: This article originally and incorrectly stated that Florida State missed the BCS title game in 2000-01 despite beating Miami. It was Miami that missed the title game despite beating Florida State. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)