- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Boosters of a college football playoff are vocal, but now they want to be too dangerous for politicians to ignore.

A group of political operatives have formed the Playoff Political Action Committee to raise money and generally provide the backbone they say the small group of playoff supporters in Congress will need to take on the big football conferences and powerhouse schools that make up the Bowl Championship Series.

“None of us are delusional. We don’t think this is a top-order issue for Congress. But even with everything else on Congress’ plate, this is an issue that merits attention because it’s financially and culturally significant to their constituents,” said Matthew Sanderson, a lawyer who is one of the PAC’s organizers.

They want to be a one-stop shop for studies and information countering the BCS, and to do the legwork so that more members of Congress feel ready to take on the system — and hope a louder chorus will force the BCS to change, much the same way congressional hearings on steroids forced Major League Baseball to toughen its policies.

While lower divisions have a playoff, the big football schools instead have a series of post-season bowl games that match the best schools from various conferences. However, that oftentimes produced several schools with claims to be the nation’s best at the end of the year.

Bill Hancock, the BCS’ administrator, said no post-season arrangement is perfect, but he said the BCS has made college football more popular, more profitable and more fun for all the schools.

He said the current arrangement is supported by a large majority of college presidents, coaches and athletics directors at the 120 schools that make up the system. And he said the arrangement “guarantees that No. 1 and No. 2 — or at least two of the top three or four — will meet in a bowl game, while preserving the traditional bowl structure.”

“College people are the ones who are making decisions about college football. We think that’s the way it should be,” he said. “The folks in Washington have many other more important responsibilities.”

Geoffrey C. Rapp, an associate law professor at the University of Toledo who follows sports law, said he doesn’t see the PAC making much difference.

“The legislative branch is good at holding hearings, is good at getting angry about things,” he said. “But it doesn’t seem like it’s been as good at actually implementing any meaningful solutions.”

Mr. Rapp said under the interstate-commerce clause, Congress could force the schools into a playoff. However, he said it’s unlikely Congress would get agreement on a single solution, much less want to tangle with the powerful schools and conferences that have designed the current system.

“The change comes from the entities themselves, and until they’re ready to do it, until they see a profit for them making the change, I don’t think they’d be responsive,” he said.

The Playoff PAC has the backing of a small group of lawmakers who have been pushing the issue. Among them are Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, who has regularly blasted the BCS for excluding Utah, which was 12-0 at the time, from the title game last year; and Rep. Neil Abercrombie, Hawaii Democrat, who has written a bill demanding the BCS be rewritten.

Mr. Abercrombie says reserving most of the bowl-game spots for major conference schools is “arbitrary and anti-competitive.”

“The BCS process continues to operate like an exclusive country club rather than a true play-off system,” Mr. Abercrombie said. “I fully support Playoff PAC’s efforts to bring change to college football.”

It turns out the First Fan is also a playoff-backer. President Obama has said on several occasions he wants to see a tournament to decide the nation’s top team.

Mr. Obama even has a vision for the change he wants to see: an eight-team, three-round playoff, and a shortened regular season.

The PAC doesn’t have a sense yet for how much money it can raise or spend to boost its case. However, they do have a list of target schools where they want to raise money and support — and they’re heavy on schools that have been aggrieved by the lack of a playoff, such as University of Southern California, University of Texas at Austin, Pennsylvania State University, University of Utah and Boise State University.

The BCS is an agreement among 11 athletics conferences, the top bowl games and Notre Dame University to try to match the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country in a national championship game. It uses a witches’ brew of polls and computer rankings to try to calculate which two teams should face off.

The system’s organizers say it’s been successful. Before the BCS, the top two teams met in eight of the previous 57 seasons between 1936 and 1992. After an interim “bowl coalition,” the modern BCS began in 1999, and in those 11 years, the top two teams in the Associated Press poll have met eight times.

“I think people need to be careful what they ask for,” said Jerry P. Palm, who runs CollegeBCS.com and said he doubts Congress could mandate a playoff, but could pass legislation to eliminate the BCS system. But that, he said, would only return football to the days when only the big schools met. The so-called Cinderella schools don’t bring big enough followings to get selected.

“This is not Congress’ problem. I certainly hope as a taxpayer Congress is not paying attention to this,” he said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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