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BCS is a political football in 2009

  • Story Highlights
  • NCAA's Bowl Championship Series has been accused of unfairness
  • BCS relies on polls and rankings instead of actual competition
  • Barack Obama: "We should be creating a playoff system"
  • College Football Playoff Act of 2008 asks for "fair and equitable playoff system"
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By William Armsby
CNN
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(CNN) -- Since its inception in 1998, the NCAA's Bowl Championship Series has weathered criticism from nearly all directions.

Florida beat Ohio State to win the championship two years ago.

Oklahoma faces off in the National Championship game Thursday against Florida.

But entering 2009, the BCS may encounter a perfect storm: a unique, bipartisan legislative current and the imminent thunderhead of an Obama administration.

The BCS is the system that chooses the contenders for college football's most prominent postseason games: the Fiesta, Orange, Rose and Sugar bowls, as well the National Championship game, which this year pits Oklahoma against Florida on Thursday.

The BCS relies on a compilation of polls and rankings instead of, to the consternation of many, actual competition.

In a post-election "60 Minutes" interview, President-elect Barack Obama made clear his stance on the issue: "This is important. I'm going to throw my weight around a little bit. [If] you've got a bunch of teams who play throughout the season [and] there's no clear decisive winner ... we should be creating a playoff system."

Republicans and Democrats alike each year are angered by what they see as inherent unfairness in the arrangement. In 2008, legislators -- for one reason or another -- drafted legislation to invalidate the BCS on grounds that it misdirects commerce. Video Watch how a playoff system could change college football »

In an April resolution, the House of Representatives formally, if not forcibly, condemned the BCS as "an illegal restraint of trade that violates the Sherman Anti-Trust Act" and also urged the Justice Department's Antitrust Division to investigate. Since this resolution, though, no serious action has been pursued.

And so, on December 10, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, took the next step, introducing the College Football Playoff Act of 2008.

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If passed, this bill would "prohibit, as an unfair and deceptive act or practice, the promotion, marketing, and advertising of any post-season NCAA Division I football game as a national championship game unless such game is the culmination of a fair and equitable playoff system."

If passed, this bill would apply to any game that occurs after January 31, 2011. It would be enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission.

The BCS, of course, would have things go differently. Made up of the commissioners from all NCAA Division I-A conferences; the athletics director from Notre Dame, which isn't affiliated with a conference; and representatives from each bowl organization, the BCS governing body announced in spring 2008 that the system would be used through at least the 2014 season.

Later, ESPN outbid Fox for a four-year television rights deal with the BCS. To begin in 2011, this contract rests on the understanding that the current system will remain in place.

On Thursday, second-ranked Oklahoma will battle top-ranked Florida in the National Championship. Third-ranked Texas was responsible for Oklahoma's only defeat. Texas didn't play Florida.

Barton, the ranking Republican in the Energy and Commerce Committee, represents the 6th District of Texas. Two of his co-sponsors, Republican Reps. Michael McCaul and Lamar Smith, represent districts 10 and 21, respectively -- two of the four districts that collectively represent Austin, home of the University of Texas.

Regardless of lawmakers' personal affiliation with home teams, the official motivation for college football reform is the same as for any similar economic reform: to help the little guy compete.

The BCS is composed of eleven conferences. The six traditionally dominant conferences -- the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pacific 10 and Southeastern -- are guaranteed at least one berth in one of the BCS bowls. Each year, they are awarded $18 million, plus $4.5 million for each additional team that appears in a bowl game. Meanwhile, only one team from the smaller conferences -- Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, Sun Belt and Western Athletic -- is given this opportunity.

For the 2006-07 postseason, an average of $25.5 million in revenue was awarded per large conference, while the small conferences averaged $5 million each.

As the argument goes, the larger postseason earnings provide an advantage -- in athletic recruiting, as well as for each university as a whole -- to the "power" conferences.

This is not the first time lawmakers have voiced their discontent.

In 2005, Barton summoned a BCS official before an Energy and Commerce subcommittee, but legislation did not result.

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And in 2003, both the House and Senate Judiciary committees held oversight hearings to examine the BCS system, though the combined result yielded not much more than a sound bite from current Vice President-elect Joe Biden:

"It looks un-American. ... It looks like a rigged deal."

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