If President-elect Barack Obama were to free college football fans from the chains of the oft-criticized Bowl Championship Series, how would he go about doing it?
Obama said in an interview with “60 Minutes” on Sunday he will use his influence as president to push for an eight-team playoff to determine a national champion in college football - the second time in less than a month he has publicly addressed the issue.
In doing so, Obama echoed the concerns of many fans who see the current BCS system as confusing and occasionally unfair and who as much as possible want to see a national title determined on the field rather than by computer rankings.
“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,” Obama said. “We should be creating a playoff system.”
It’s unclear how serious Obama is about the issue, and he has offered no specific plan of action nor promised he would push for action. But he has addressed the issue on multiple occasions.
“I’m going to throw my weight around a little bit,” he said in the “60 Minutes” interview.
If, however, Obama did press the issue, he would have a number of options available to him, legal experts said - though they cautioned that few of them had strong legal backing.
For instance, they said Obama could potentially attempt to impose an executive order on the NCAA to create a playoff. But such a measure likely would be shot down because the NCAA has repeatedly defended its status as a private institution.
Obama also could ask the Justice Department to explore whether the BCS is a violation of antitrust law on grounds that the system often excludes teams from non-major conferences.
“I haven’t seen a compelling argument,” said Michael McCann, a professor at Boston University School of Law and a contributor to Sports Illustrated. “I’ve seen different arguments offered that all seem somewhat flawed.”
McCann said a more likely effort might focus on the NCAA’s tax-exempt status. Obama or members of Congress could threaten to remove the NCAA’s tax-exempt status if it did not create a playoff system for college football.
Threatening to take away the tax exemption would be controversial, however. Defenders of the exemption said its removal would hurt many of the non-revenue producing sports, such as cross country or field hockey.
Obama has one other, powerful tool at his disposal: the bully pulpit. The president simply could voice his concerns and hope that the symbolic strength of his office alone will enact change, and the mere threat of governmental involvement could be persuasive.
President Bush managed to do this in his State of the Union speech in 2004 - his plea for a crackdown on steroids in sports was met with a wave of congressional hearings followed by stiffer testing by Major League Baseball.
“While he has high approval ratings now, Obama will have more ability to [sway] public policy at the moment than at any other time,” McCann said.
Congress has explored whether the BCS represented a violation of interstate commerce and considered the NCAA’s tax-exempt status.
The BCS is not controlled by the NCAA, but rather is a system managed by the commissioners of major conferences and organizers of the Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl. Under the BCS, teams are ranked by a combination of computer and human polls, and the top two teams at the end of the season play to determine a champion.
Obama pushed specifically for an eight-team playoff staged over three weeks, suggesting that the regular season could be shortened to accommodate the extra games. BCS supporters have argued that a playoff would reduce the importance and drama of the regular season, while also taking away from the tradition and history of the bowl system.
BCS officials said they had no plans to abandon the system based on Obama’s criticisms.
“First of all I want to congratulate newly elected President Obama, and I am glad he has a passion for college football like so many other Americans,” BCS coordinator John Swofford said in a statement. “For now, our constituencies - and I know he understands constituencies - have settled on the current BCS system, which the majority believe is the best system yet to determine a national champion while also maintaining the college football regular season as the best and most meaningful in sports.”
The NCAA also said it had no immediate plans to implement a playoff system.
“We stand ready to assist if our members decide they want to change the format for the postseason, but as of now there is no movement to change the current structure,” NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson said.