Congress's Latest Issue: Officiating College Football

This time every year, sports bars across the country are filled with beer-guzzling patrons debating one issue: should the college-football Bowl Championship Series (BCS) be decided through a series of playoff games, or should the matchups continue to be chosen by BCS officials and polls? Bar debates are one thing, but the issue is now becoming one of national importance, making its way to an unusual place that doesn’t feature flat-screen TVs or draft beer on tap: Capitol Hill. Today, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee agreed to consider whether it’s fair for the BCS to tout a national championship game when not all college-football teams have an equal opportunity to compete.

But why is this an issue before Congress? Only because it involves the multibillion-dollar college-football industry, and the prize behind competing in a bowl game is a mountain of tax-free cash.

A Texas Republican is pushing the BCS inquiry, and he has a reason to be concerned. In a statement to the subcommittee, Rep. Joe Barton, an avid college-football fan, noted that Texas Christian University (TCU) has gone undefeated this season just like No. 1–ranked Alabama and No. 2–ranked Texas.  But because the university isn’t part of one of the BCS conferences, the program likely won’t pull in as much money. Currently, schools from six athletic conferences have the ability to vie for these coveted BCS bowl games: the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-10, and SEC. Colleges that don’t fall into one of these conferences could still have the opportunity to play in a BCS or NCAA-sanctioned bowl game, but they aren’t automatically considered a top contender for the championship game. Just look at teams like Cincinnati or TCU. Both were invited to compete in BCS bowl games, but neither of these undefeated teams was given the chance to vie for the “national championship.”

Barton has noted that TCU has gone to NCAA-sanctioned bowl games 10 out of the last 11 years that the BCS has been in existence, but has earned significantly less money than Baylor University, which belongs to the Big 12 and hasn’t won a bowl game in 11 years. Currently, the BCS bowl system holds one championship game, featuring the No. 1 and 2 teams, and four other high-stakes games including the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta and Rose bowls.

The revenue generated from the BCS games is tax-exempt under the nonprofit rule of the IRS for colleges, Barton said at the hearing earlier today. So teams that consistently play in the big games, like the University of Florida, Ohio State, or Miami, are getting millions. But other teams that have had a series of great seasons, like Boise State, aren’t reaping  the same dough. “We have a multibillion-dollar operation that is not taxed, not subject to the antitrust laws and doesn’t really come close to having . . . a fair and equitable system to determine the national championship,” Barton said. “Every school should have an equal shot at the money.”

The government is obligated to monitor large corporations like Verizon and AT&T, and these same responsibilities should roll over into other big businesses like the SEC, the Big Ten and the Big East, Barton implied. In response to critics who say that sports decisions should be left to the officials, Barton draws a parallel. The government has a responsibility to oversee other multibillion-dollar businesses, so why is the BCS able to escape congressional oversight?

“It is truly a cartel, and in the United States, if this cartel existed in the business world, it would be in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act and we wouldn’t be having a markup on a little benign bill like this, we’d be having an antitrust markup,” Barton said.

When it comes to the money, Barton has a powerful and potentially persuasive argument. Of course, he admits this isn’t the most pressing issue on the government’s plate, but when educational institutions that continually have good college-football programs are losing out on millions, maybe someone should intervene. Before the hearing today, BCS officials didn't seem worried about Barton’s bill. But after he broke down the dollars and cents, this could be a bigger issue—an issue that apparently can’t be solved by a few football fans at the neighborhood tavern.