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Sportsman in Chief

Alas, Commssioner Obama isn't the only pol BCS-ing about college and professional sports.

By 1.12.09

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Florida won the BCS title game, staking its claim to the national championship. But Texas, USC, and Utah all disagree. With not the slightest interest in sports -- other than the view, as a Seminole, that in a just world Florida would lose every game -- I have no opinion as to which is the best team. Nor do I have any interest in how the national champion is anointed.

However, the president-elect has an opinion. While appearing on ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike in the Morning," candidate Barack Obama promised to "have my attorney general investigate the possibility of instituting a college football playoff system through executive order. I'm tired of this nonsense at the end of every college football season." And on "60 Minutes" he opined that "I don't know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me on this. So I'm going to throw my weight around a little bit."

He has not yet added the proposal to his stimulus package, and his tongue might have been firmly planted in his cheek, but others take the idea much more seriously.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), representing the disappointed Longhorns, proposed legislation, introduced just hours before the Florida-Oklahoma contest, to bar "the marketing, promotion, and advertising of a post-season game as a 'national championship' football game, unless it is the result of a playoff system." Explained Rep. Barton: "The BCS championship game is not a championship game under any sensible interpretation of the manner in which sports champions are determined." Alas, he complained that hearings had been ineffective: "Simply exposing the flaws and subjecting them to discussion, however, hasn't led to improvement." Barton is joined by fellow Texas Republican Michael McCaul and Illinois Democrat Bobby Rush -- who so effectively played the race card in the Rod Blagojevich-Roland Burris affair.

Last session Representatives Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), Jim Matheson (D-Utah), Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), and Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) introduced their own legislation, declaring the current system to be an illegal restraint of trade. Rep. Abercrombie fulminated: "It's a racket. They've got a little cartel. It's La Cosa Nostra … and slavery." (Interestingly, on his website Rep. Westmoreland denounces excessive government regulation.)

Rep. Barton talked with President-elect Obama after the election and suggested that the two work together on the issue: "Sure, let's do it," the latter supposedly responded, though his transition office refused to comment. But last week the president-elect observed: "I've got to pick and choose my battles. I probably am going to be spending more time focusing on creating three million more jobs." (He really will be busy if he is personally creating those jobs.)

Football fan and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff headlined a recent blog entry "UTAH WINS! UTAH WINS! UTAH WINS!", exulting that "the non-BCS Utah Utes destroyed the storied Alabama Crimson Tide." But, he added: "Unfortunately, the BCS monopoly, with its money and its exclusive club and its computers, will crown another team as National Champion next week."

To remedy this injustice -- and incidentally fulfill his "duty to enforce federal and state antitrust laws," he said -- he is investigating the BCS for violating the antitrust laws. "We've established from the very first day, from the very first kickoff in the college season, more than half of the schools are put on an unlevel playing field," said Attorney General Shurtleff: "They will never be allowed to play for a national championship." At stake is not "just about bragging rights to say we're number one truly. It's about money."

This is not the first time that politicians have thought they should take over the sports business. Four years ago major league baseball was preparing to sell the Washington Nationals franchise. One of the contending syndicates included liberal billionaire George Soros. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) declared: "Now they're going to hand [the team] over to a convicted felon of an insider trading charge [in France, not the U.S.] who wants to legalize drugs and who lives in New York and spent $5 million trying to defeat the president?"

Ironically, Davis was then chairman of the Government "Reform" Committee. He said that Congress would not interfere with the sale, but "I think Major League Baseball understands the stakes. I don't think they want to get involved in a political fight." After all, "They enjoy all sorts of exemptions," and "If Soros buys the team and seeks public funding for the new stadium or anything else, the GOP attitude would be, 'Let him pay for it'."

Rep. Davis' implicit threats were not academic. Based on a 1922 Supreme Court decision that baseball was purely a "local" matter, MLB alone among sports is exempt from the antitrust laws. Whether that makes any sense is another matter. But congressmen routinely chatter about killing the exemption.

In the aftermath of the players' strike in 1994-1995, legislators made several attempts to lift the exemption. A decade ago Congress wrote the exemption into law, while limiting its application by giving players the same unionization rights as in other sports. The issue provides legislators with a convenient chain to pull whenever they want to meddle.

Congress turned its attention to steroids a few years back. Among the best-publicized crusaders were Rep. Davis, yet again, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Ca.), a prolific regulator who cannot imagine a human activity outside of government control, and Senators Jim Bunning (R-Kent.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), the former a onetime MLB pitcher and the latter an incipient presidential candidate. The results were public hearings and proposals to mandate a testing regime on all players in all sports, with penalties including a lifetime ban. (To his credit, when asked about Sen. McCain's strange priorities, candidate Barack Obama opined: "I gotta admit that seeing a lot of congressional hearings around steroid use is not probably the best use of congressional time.")

Their excuse for hearings and legislation were the claim that players were "role models" for teenagers. Set aside the question whether congressmen act as good role models. To protect children Congress would protect adult athletes as children too. Should the federal government next target players who chew tobacco, cheat on their wives, and drive cars too fast? They are bad role models too.

Another congressional concern is sports gambling. After revelations that NBA referee Tim Donaghy bet on games that he was officiating, Rep. Rush, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, warned NBA David Stern that "this could be one of the most damaging scandals in the history of American sports." (At least other than the BCS system, presumably.) Rep. Rush threatened to "to intervene if necessary." Earlier in the year his subcommittee held hearings on drug-testing and the safety of thoroughbred horses.

Although time ran out last year, Vermont Law School professor Michael McCann predicted that the new Congress is likely to hold "a hearing on ties between professional sports, illegal gambling and game-fixing. Should the NBA, and possibly also the NFL, MLB and NHL, fail to impress members on that topic, those members could threaten to change or repeal the Sports Broadcasting Act, which provides an antitrust exemption for lucrative, leaguewide television contracts."

Even as the conservative Rep. Barton suggested further expanding government authority, he essentially admitted that his effort was bound to fail: "We're never going to abolish all controversy, and who'd want to be rid of it, anyway? People will argue about who should be in and out of playoffs, too." The benefit of acting? "I am confident when more of the most deserving teams can compete, a true national champion is much likelier to emerge."

However, on what issue does Congress exhibit anything other than the reverse Midas touch? Whatever it touches turns to, well, you get the point. Notes Radley Balko of Reason: "however broken some aspects of the sporting world may be, it's time we stopped looking to politicians for any kind of fix. They only make it worse. The playing field is one of our few remaining sanctuaries that hasn't yet been corrupted by politics." Even the biggest economic spenders and regulators, such as Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush, didn't try to (mis)manage college sports.

The question is not whether the BCS system is the best way to organize college football. The question is not whether Congress could do a better job of doing so. The question is whether government has any role to play in determining which college football team is called the national champion. The answer to that question is no.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).