WASHINGTON – A House subcommittee approved legislation Wednesday aimed at forcing college football to switch to a playoff system to determine a national champion, over the objections of some lawmakers who said Congress had more pressing matters on its plate.
The bill, which faces long odds of becoming law, would ban the promotion of a postseason NCAA Division I football game as a national championship unless that title contest is the result of a playoff. The measure passed by voice vote in a House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee, with one audible "no," from Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga.
"With all due respect, I really think we have more important things to spend our time on," Barrow said before the vote, although he stressed he didn't like the current Bowl Championship Series, either.
The bill's sponsor, GOP Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, said the BCS system is unfair and won't change unless prompted by Congress.
The vote came three days after the BCS selections were announced, including the Jan. 7 national title game between No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Texas.
In a statement before the vote, BCS executive director Bill Hancock said, "With all the serious matters facing our country, surely Congress has more important issues than spending taxpayer money to dictate how college football is played."
The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, said, "We can walk and chew gum at the same time."
Yet Barrow wasn't alone in criticizing his colleagues' priorities; Reps. Zach Space, D-Ohio, and Bart Stupak, D-Mich., made similar arguments. Space said that with people facing tough times, the decision to focus on college football sends the "wrong message."
The bill has a tough road ahead, given the wide geographic representation of schools in the six conferences — the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC — that get automatic BCS bowl bids.
"The schools in those six conferences, which have such a huge financial benefit from the system, have enormous clout," said Gary Roberts, dean of the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis and a sports law expert. "I don't see anything coming from this."
The current college bowl system features a championship game between the two top teams in the BCS standings, based on two polls and six computer rankings. Eight other schools get the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta and Rose bowls.
Under the BCS, the champions of those six big conference get automatic bids, while other conferences don't.
Although Alabama and Texas finished with undefeated seasons, so did several other teams that will not get a chance to play for the title game, including TCU, Cincinnati and Boise State.
Each will get to play in a BCS bowl: Cincinnati is the Big East champ; TCU, champion of the Mountain West, gets a bid awarded to a nonautomatic qualifying conference that meets certain criteria; and Boise State, winner of the Western Athletic Conference, gets an at-large bid.
At a May hearing, Barton warned college football officials that unless they took action toward a playoff system within two months, Congress probably would act. It took a little longer, but the timing of this week's vote isn't exactly a coincidence.
"Part of it is because BCS is in the news," Barton said before the meeting.
There is no Senate version, although Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has pressed for a Justice Department antitrust investigation into the BCS.
Shortly after his election last year, Obama said there should be a playoff system.
"I'm going to throw my weight around a little bit," Obama said at the time. "I think it's the right thing to do."
On the Net:
Information on the bill, H.R. 390, can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov/
Bowl Championship Series: http://www.bcsfootball.org