House hearing takes aim at BCS

With lobbyists circling the issue and legislation on a playoff system in the pipeline, the Bowl Championship Series debate in the U.S. Congress is heating up.

Although some suggest that the nation's leaders have more important issues to consider, there is a growing movement in the nation's capital that could decide the fate of the BCS. A power struggle formally begins Friday morning with a hearing in front of a House subcommittee.

The hearing comes in the wake of President Barack Obama's repeated suggestions that a playoff system would be preferable to the current format for determining a national champion of Division I college football. Plus the attorney general of Utah, Mark Shurtleff, is preparing an antitrust lawsuit that could dismantle the BCS.

Although the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection will not vote on any changes in U.S. law after Friday's hearing, committee members are expected to pound BCS officials with charges that distribution of BCS profits is unfair to half of America's football programs and that it does not pick a true national champion.

Led by committee chairman Bobby Rush, D-Ill., both Democrats and Republicans will take their shots at the BCS and demand changes.

"We are trying to create enough public pressure to cause them to switch voluntarily to a playoff system," says Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who has introduced legislation that would prevent the BCS from claiming it is selecting a national champion. "I have not yet pushed the bill. I emphasize the word 'yet.' If our friends at the BCS sit on their hands and yawn, this legislation could end up on the president's desk for his signature."

It should come as no surprise that Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, is expected to join Barton in his attack on the BCS on Friday. The University of Utah's undefeated 2008 team played in a BCS bowl game but was deprived of a shot at the national championship under BCS rules, and Matheson wants change.

"I don't think anyone wants the federal government to be running a football tournament," Matheson says. "But we need to make the postseason into a fair and equitable system."

Recognizing the seriousness of the threats coming from Capitol Hill, the BCS has hired former congressman J.C. Watts, who has become a powerful lobbyist after his four terms in the House of Representatives. Watts starred as a quarterback at the University of Oklahoma and in the Canadian Football League before serving in the House from 1995 to 2003.

The Football Bowl Association, a trade group that represents 29 postseason bowls, is also concerned enough to hire another influential lobbyist, Philip Hochberg, who has earned high praise representing the NHL, the NFL, the NBA and NASCAR.

Both of these high-powered lobbyists have been working with committee members and members of Congress in attempts to slow the momentum that is pulling Congress toward the imposition of a playoff system.

The work of the lobbyists is not confined to the House. They're also working on senators from both parties in anticipation of more pressure from the Senate's Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights. Both the chairman, Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., and the ranking Republican, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have promised a hearing that will focus on BCS issues.

BCS coordinator John Swofford, the commissioner of the ACC, is expected to tell the committee that the BCS schools are receptive to change but that a switch to a playoff system would be difficult due to contractual obligations with some of the bowls. According to a football official with knowledge of the BCS preparations for the hearing, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues, Swofford is also expected to assert that a playoff system would devalue the regular season and could destroy many of the mid-tier and small bowl games.

In addition to these problems, Swofford is expected to testify that it would be difficult to find neutral sites for the playoff games, and many fans would find it impossible to follow their team through the playoff.

Responding to Swofford's testimony at the hearing will be Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson. As a result of the University of Utah's undefeated season, Thompson and the conference have refused to sign the final written version of the four-year, $500 million contract with ESPN to televise BCS bowls beginning in the 2010 season. Thompson has also presented a detailed set of proposals to the BCS, including an eight-team playoff and a ranking system that eliminates computers and relies on committees of coaches and experts.

Rush, Barton, Matheson and other committee members will likely support Thompson and argue with Swofford.

A third witness, Derrick Fox of the Alamo Bowl, is expected to tell the committee of the difficulties his bowl and other non-BCS bowls would face under a playoff system.

It's the second time the subcommittee has looked at the BCS. At a hearing in December of 2005, committee members were willing to wait for the BCS to reform itself. They now appear to be more willing to take action that would force change on the BCS.

"If we took a vote today in the House, more than two-thirds of the members would vote to put in a playoff system," Barton says. "The only people who do not support the playoff idea are members who think we should not be involved in the issue at all and that we have more important things to consider."

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.