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Congress should bench the BCS

Legislators ought to do the people's work and make the Bowl Championship Series a memory.

January 01, 2010|By Dave Zirin

'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." So said Bill Hancock, executive director of the Bowl Championship Series, and for years this is a sentiment I have wholeheartedly supported.

No longer. When it comes to college football's utterly criminal Bowl Championship Series, Congress should do the people's work and make the BCS a memory. The House is debating the College Football Playoff Act of 2009, which would "prohibit, as an unfair and deceptive act or practice, the promotion, marketing and advertising of any postseason NCAA Division I football game as a national championship game unless such game is the culmination of a fair and equitable playoff system."

Currently, the teams chosen for the "championship" game are divined by convoluted statistical methods that often make little sense without an advanced computer science degree and leave fans, coaches and players enraged.

The legislation has bipartisan sponsorship, which includes Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton and former Black Panther turned Chicago Democrat Bobby Rush. Nothing brings the nation together like hatred of the BCS. I hope the bill passes with a rider that allows for some sort of public funeral so we can dance on its grave and achieve closure.

I don't say this because I feel a pressing national need for a college football playoff system. I don't say it because I am in torment that the unbeaten university teams at Cincinnati, Texas Christian and Boise State won't have a shot at the BCS' so-called national championship. I don't say this because the "championship" matchup on Jan. 7 at the Rose Bowl between Texas and Alabama feels like a dud.

I say this because the Bowl Championship Series fronts for a mammoth fraud that threatens the very foundation of public higher education. College football is a billion-dollar business, but one in which the benefits go to the few while most of the schools are awash in debt. These were the sobering conclusions of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Its report in October stated that the 25 top football schools had surpluses, on average, of $3.9 million in 2008. The other 94 schools in the top division ran deficits averaging $9.9 million each. "We've reached an indefensible, unsustainable situation," said commission co-chairman William Kirwan. "We've got 75% of the [college] presidents saying we cannot continue on this path."

The commission also noted that head football coaches at state colleges are often the highest-paid public employees. This year's BCS national championship coaches are Nick Saban of Alabama, who has a $32-million, eight-year contract, and Mack Brown of Texas, who just received a $2-million-a-year raise, for an annual salary of $5 million, until the end of his contract in 2016. That works as long as the teams are doing well, but if Texas tanks and attendance and alumni giving droop, then it joins the grand majority of schools for whom football is a budgetary black hole.

The BCS facilitates this process by making sure that the top conferences -- the Southeastern, the Pac 10, the Big 10, the Big 12, the Atlantic Coast and the Big East (otherwise known as the BCS conferences) -- get the biggest pieces of college football's bowl season pie. Winners of these conferences get automatic bids to the biggest bowls. A small-conference team such as unbeaten Boise State will see less money this bowl season than the 1-11 Pac-10 doormat Washington State.

In addition, such a system creates incentives for small schools to bet the farm on their football programs. Athletic departments become unregulated hedge funds to which schools plow tons of money into pigskin futures with the hope of playing against the big boys from the power conferences. And in the power conferences, it costs so much to "play ball" that exploding budgets are now threatening to swallow the entire academic institution.

At UC Berkeley, $430 million is going toward football stadium renovations while student fees have tripled in the last decade and academic programs are cut.

By changing how the BCS system works with this law, Congress would begin to address this reality, in which football gets stadiums and students get the shaft.

To fend off Congress, the BCS hired Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush's former press secretary, as its spokesperson. He says that the BCS is hunky dory: "While the BCS has its share of critics, once people see both sides of the issue, they will see why the system has its great support."

This is a lie. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, only 15% of fans approve of the current system.

There are those who oppose Congress taking any action because they oppose government intervention in sports on general principle. One critic posted this on an ESPN comment section: "Too much power being given to the government. Are they going to start regulating when we can use the bathroom or what football game we are allowed to attend?"

Orwellian potty nightmares aside, government is already involved in college sports. The problem is that it plows millions into state schools with no oversight.

Congress' legislation may not fix the crisis in higher education, but at least it holds the potential to expose the way that the Bowl Championship Series facilitates a system willing to sacrifice education at the altar of athletics.

Dave Zirin is the author of "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports."

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