The college football season began just last week, but a matter that could be the most important contest of the year for the sport kicks off today on Capitol Hill.
In a hearing that could forever change college football, representatives of the elite and lesser-known football squads in the NCAA’s top athletic division will square off at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on how to share more than $100 million generated from the league’s championship system.
Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) and an underdog team of non-major football programs will argue that the NCAA’s Bowl Championship Series creates an unlevel playing field that makes it easier for teams in the six top conferences to qualify for the most lucrative, season-ending bowl games.
“There are tens of thousands of students being unfairly penalized by the current BCS system, which virtually prohibits any NCAA Division I football team not part of a BCS Conference from making a legitimate run at a national title,” said Cannon, who represents three Utah teams that he says are hurt by the current system.
But Cannon and his band of upstarts face a daunting competitor. With millions of dollars to lose, the nation’s six major conferences have drafted former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) to lobby for the BCS system on Capitol Hill.
As a quarterback on the University of Oklahoma’s squad in the 1980s, Watts twice led the Sooners to the national championship before rising to the fourth-highest position in the House Republican leadership.
Watts and the chiefs of the major conferences defend the current system and charge that Cannon and the smaller conferences are using the oldest ploy in the political playbook by using a Congressional hearing to grab some headlines and pressure an outside group — in this case, the BCS — to make internal changes.
Today’s hearing could not have been timed better for Cannon’s effort. Next Monday, college football officials plan to meet in Chicago to discuss changes to the BCS.
“The timing of the hearing is interesting,” Kevin Weiberg, commissioner of the Big 12 Conference and a BCS defender, mused.
At issue is BCS, a convoluted sequence of four post-season games adopted in 1998 by the National Collegiate Athletic Association to help sift through 115 Division 1-A football programs in a dozen conferences to find a single national champion.
The BCS has come under tremendous pressure recently from dozens of universities who complain that it makes it easier for teams in certain conferences to qualify for the title. As it was designed five years ago, the top teams in the six major conferences — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, Pacific-10 and the Southeastern — automatically qualify for six of the eight slots in the championship series.
That leaves just two positions available for more than 100 teams. Because the BCS ranking system relies on a computerized scale that factors in the strength of a team’s opponent, teams in smaller conferences stand little chance to make it to one of the post-season BCS games — even when they have an outstanding season.
In fact, since the BCS began, no college from a non-major conference — Conference USA, the Western Athletic Conference, Mountain West Conference, Mid-American Conference and Sun Belt Conference — has been invited to a BCS game.
As a result, the system “largely eliminates the opportunity for other universities to participate in major post-season bowl games and the lucrative payout packages associated with these games,” Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, wrote in a letter requesting today’s hearing.
Like nearly all fights on Capitol Hill, this one comes down to money. Since the BCS awards most post-season revenues to the conferences of teams that qualify for the championship games, non-major conferences receive few dollars from post-season play.
Last year, the major conferences split $104 million from the championship series, while the teams in the remaining five conferences shared just $5 million.
The BCS “perpetuates a classic case of the rich getting richer and other colleges being denied important revenues,” Cannon said.
The financial discrepancy directly impacts a team’s ability to recruit the best players, hire top coaches and fund other sports.
“There is a growing financial disparity in Division I-A athletics that I believe is to the ultimate detriment of all our universities,” said Scott Cowen, the president of Tulane University.
Cowen, one of a handful of witnesses who will testify today, has to look no further than his own campus to find an example of what he sees as the unfairness of the current system.
In 1998, Tulane’s Green Wave football team was undefeated but did not rank high enough in the BCS’ computerized system to claim a bid to a major post-season game.
“There have been several teams in the last few years that were undefeated or nearly undefeated that had no chance of playing the bowl game,” added Duff Tittle, a spokesman for Brigham Young University.
He should know. Two years ago, as undefeated and No. 10-ranked BYU prepared for its final regular-season game, BCS officials informed the team that it would not receive a bid for the championship series.
The problem with the current system, Duff complains, is that “over half the current athletes who compete will never even have the opportunity to play in a BCS game.”
Under the direction of Tulane’s Cowen, 44 teams from the non-major conferences have formed an alliance to try to change the BCS. Together, they have reached out to Congress and the media to make their case.
But just like on the gridiron, the schools may be overmatched in Washington.
While the non-major conferences have no lobbyists, the BCS has brought on Watts to quarterback its effort on Capitol Hill along with lobbyists from Hogan & Hartsen as well as a Nebraska-based public relations firm.
Lobbyists for the BCS argue that the system has benefited college football and its fans. For one thing, BCS created — for the first time — a championship game for college football.
“This arrangement does not reduce output, it enhances output,” said one BCS lobbyist. “It gives us a game that we would never have had before.”
BCS lobbyists also dismiss the argument that the series unfairly excludes teams that are not in the six major conferences. Teams in major conferences, they note, have historically dominated college football.
Indeed, in the two decades before the BCS, 159 of the 160 teams that played in the major bowl games were members of the six leading conferences — or Notre Dame, which is independent. That group also has produced all but one national champion since the 1920s.
Finally, the BCS lobbyists note, the major conferences did not share any bowl revenue with other conferences until the BCS system began.
Still, Tulane, BYU and the other non- major conferences have managed to score some points on their oversized opponents by getting today’s hearing scheduled. They also have persuaded future NFL Hall of Famer Steve Young, a former BYU quarterback, to testify at the hearing about the inequalities created by the BCS.
Supporters of the smaller conferences hope to use the hearing to pressure the BCS to make some changes on its own, such as moving to a playoff system or adding a fifth post-season game.
The non-major conferences do not want Congress to get involved legislatively, according to Tulane’s Cowen. However, he would not mind if lawmakers warn both sides that “if you guys can’t do it, maybe Congress will step in.”
That is not likely to happen.
On the other side of the Capitol, Senate leaders have shown little interest in getting involved.
Even on the House side, most Members are holding a strong line against taking action.
“It’s wise for the government go very slow in intervening in intercollegiate sports,” said Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.), who won three national titles as head coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. “The BCS is not perfect, but it beats what we had before it.”