House committee quizzes Swofford

WASHINGTON -- Tackling an issue sure to rouse sports fans, lawmakers pressed college football officials Friday on switching the Bowl Championship Series to a playoff, with one Texas Republican likening the current system to communism and joking it should be labeled "BS," not "BCS."

John Swofford, the coordinator of the BCS, rejected the idea of switching to a playoff, arguing it would threaten the existence of celebrated bowl games.

Sponsorships and TV revenue that now go to bowl games would instead be spent on playoff games, "meaning that it will be very difficult for any bowl, including the current BCS bowls, which are among the oldest and most established in the game's history, to survive," Swofford said.

Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, who has introduced legislation that would prevent the NCAA from labeling a game a national championship unless it is the outcome of a playoff, bluntly warned Swofford: "If we don't see some action in the next two months, on a voluntary switch to a playoff system, then you will see this bill move."

After the hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee commerce, trade and consumer protection subcommittee, Swofford told reporters: "Any time Congress speaks, you take it seriously."

Yet it is unclear whether lawmakers will try to legislate how college football picks its national champion before the first kickoff of the fall. Congress is grappling with a crowded agenda of budgets, health-care overhaul and climate change, and though President Barack Obama favors a playoff, he hasn't made it a legislative priority.

College football's multimillion-dollar television contract also could be an obstacle.

The BCS's new four-year deal with ESPN, worth $125 million per year, begins with the 2011 bowl games. That deal was negotiated using the current BCS format.

Alhough ESPN has said it would not stand in the way if the BCS wanted to change, the new deal allows the BCS to put off making major changes until the 2014 season.

Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law expert at George Washington University, said the legislation could result in a court challenge.

"This is a rare effort by Congress to prevent people from using what is a common description of sporting events," he said in a telephone interview. The legislation, he said, "may run afoul of the contractual agreements between parties, wiping out benefits that have already been paid for by companies."

Barton, the top Republican on the committee, said at the hearing that efforts to tinker with the BCS were bound to fail.

"It's like communism," Barton said. "You can't fix it."

Barton quipped that the BCS should drop the "C" from its name because it doesn't represent a true championship.

"Call it the 'BS' system," he said to laughter.

The current system features a championship game between the two top teams in the BCS standings, based on two polls and six computer rankings.

Under the BCS, only select conferences get automatic bids to participate. Conferences that get an automatic bid -- the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC -- get about $18 million each, far more than the non-conference schools. Swofford also is commissioner of the ACC.

"How is this fair?" asked the subcommittee chairman, Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, who has co-sponsored Barton's bill. "How can we justify this system ... are the big guys getting together and shutting out the little guys?"

"I think it is fair, because it represents the marketplace," Swofford responded.

Craig Thompson, commissioner of the Mountain West Conference, which does not get an automatic bid, called the money distribution system "grossly inequitable."

The MWC has proposed a playoff and hired a Washington firm to lobby Congress for changes to the BCS.

The proposal calls for scrapping the BCS standings and creating a 12-member committee to pick which teams receive at-large bids, and to select and seed the eight teams chosen for the playoff. The BCS has previously discussed, and dismissed, the idea of using a selection committee.

The four current BCS games -- the Sugar, Orange, Rose and Fiesta bowls -- would host the four first-round playoff games under the proposal.

Valero Alamo Bowl chief executive Derrick Fox, representing the 34 members of the Football Bowl Association, said that a playoff "is rife with dangers for a system that has served collegiate athletics pretty well for 100 years."

But Gene Bleymaier, athletic director at Boise State, noted that his school's football team went undefeated several times, yet never got a chance to play for the national championship under the BCS.

Asked by Rush whether Congress should intervene, Bleymaier responded, "The only way this is going to change is with help from the outside."

In the Senate, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch has put the BCS on the agenda for the Judiciary's antitrust subcommittee this year, and Utah's attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, is investigating whether the BCS violates federal antitrust laws.

Fans were furious that Utah was bypassed for the national championship last year despite going undefeated in the regular season.

The title game pitted No. 1 Florida (12-1) against No. 2 Oklahoma (12-1); Florida won 24-14 and claimed the title.