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Hearing embarrasses BCS, offers hope to playoff proponents

The bloodbath Friday at the Rayburn House Office Building offered a faint glimmer of hope for everyone who wants to see a college football playoff. Maybe nothing will come out of the public evisceration of BCS coordinator John Swofford and Alamo Bowl president Derrick Fox by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) in a House subcommittee meeting. Maybe the BCS will continue to frustrate college football fans for decades. Or maybe, just maybe, the wheels have begun to turn toward a more satisfying postseason.

Either way, it sure was fun to watch the BCS supporters squirm Friday.

Friday's hearing put the fat back in pork barrel politics. Barton represents a ton of Texas fans in his district, and most of them are royally peeved the Longhorns got left out of the BCS title mix last year. Orrin Hatch, who leads the anti-BCS crusade in the Senate, represents Utah, where the flagship state university enjoyed a 12-0 regular season but had a zero-percent chance of playing for the national title in 2008. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama can spout off about a playoff because he knows it's the lone issue most Republicans will join him to support.

Still, the political grandstanders do have a point. All the schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision are wholly or partially supported by public dollars (even the private schools receive federal grants). Only a handful boast self-sufficient athletic departments. So no matter how insignificant this issue might seem compared to an economic collapse, a two-front war or the swine flu, the sides are arguing over taxpayer dollars.

In case you couldn't sit through all the yielding of time and recognition of ranking members, just remember this line from Barton, a Big 12 fan (Texas A&M, specifically) who has sponsored a bill that would make it illegal to call the BCS a championship.

"This is really the Bowl Exhibition System," Barton said. "Or it should just drop the 'C.' Call it the BS System."

Kudos to the director in the C-SPAN control room, who switched immediately to the camera trained on Swofford. The ACC commissioner looked as if he'd swallowed a bug.

Or maybe you should remember this line, which, while fundamentally incorrect, will play huge with Barton's base: "It's like communism," Barton said. "You can't fix it. It's not fixable. Sooner or later, you're going to have to try a new model."

The BCS isn't communism. It's a classic cartel, with seven major college football manufacturers (the power conferences and Notre Dame) making all the decisions for the entire, 120-team NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision membership. That's part of the reason Swofford and Fox appeared Friday at a voluntary hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection. To make life more miserable for the BCS stalwarts, the subcommittee also invited Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson and Boise State athletic director Gene Bleymaier, putting a face on the parties trampled underfoot by the lords of the BCS.

Unfortunately for Swofford and Fox, the three smartest people in the Rayburn House Office Building on Friday were, in order, Bleymaier, Thompson and Barton. Bleymaier, who benefits from the added credibility of having co-founded the Humanitarian Bowl, spoke passionately and factually. He never wavered, and neither did Thompson, who last month proposed an eight-team playoff at the BCS meetings in Pasadena, Calif.

Meanwhile, Swofford couldn't decide whether the BCS exists for financial or competitive reasons. Asked why the six power conferences and Notre Dame each get a vote at the presidential level while the five little-brother conferences get one vote combined, Swofford replied that when the BCS was formed in 1998, the power conferences and Notre Dame provided more market value.

That's absolutely correct. Nothing wrong with that statement.

But it rang hollow when Swofford toggled to the other plank of the BCS platform, saying a playoff system would devalue the regular season and ruin the competitiveness of the game. It's either about money, or it's about competitiveness. It can't be about both.

Hopefully, Fox's bowl buddies each sent him a bottle of something strong for volunteering to go to the gallows. The bowl system's only real argument against a playoff is that it would kill the bowl system. It wouldn't, and bowl officials conveniently ignore the fact that they've already approved a system of haves (BCS bowls) and have-nots (everybody else). But if the bowl system did go extinct, would anyone care other than a guy like Fox, who, according to IRS documents obtained by The Orange County Register, made $438,045 in 2007?

Fox couldn't answer Barton's question about why the bowl system is beneficial when most schools that play in lower-tier bowls lose money on the deal. Nor could Swofford explain to Barton why Notre Dame wielded as much voting power as 51 other schools. Tradition, Swofford stammered. "Using that logic," Barton said, "Delaware -- which was the first state in the nation -- ought to have 50 votes in the House. ... That doesn't make a lot of sense."

Really, it wasn't fair that Swofford had to represent the BCS. He got stuck with the duty because, contractually, it's the ACC's turn to run the thing. Remember, Swofford's ACC combined last year with Mike Slive's SEC to present a plus-one model at the BCS meetings. Chances are Swofford didn't believe all that came out of his mouth Friday.

That led to instant humiliation at Barton's hand. He, unlike the elected officials who embarrassed themselves during the baseball steroid hearings, actually understands how college football operates. A better matchup would pit Barton against Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, a whip-smart, old-school, bowl-loving true believer who doesn't suffer fools gladly. Should that meeting ever come to pass, I'd happily plunk down my own money for a plane ticket to Washington.

And it might. Despite a cynicism produced from years of watching college football's fat cats stonewall a playoff that truly would crown a champion on the field, this challenge might have legs. The forces aligning against the BCS this time seem better organized and more powerful than ever before. Remember, the last time Congress hauled the BCS before it, officials added a fifth game. The first of those extra bowls pitted Boise State against Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl and might be the greatest college football game ever played.

If legitimate issues don't intervene, both houses of Congress could send a bacon-wrapped bill to Obama that could severely hinder the BCS, and Obama has already pledged to sign any such bill into law. If BCS supporters don't think the government can force a change, they need only look to the auto industry.

"[The bowl system] has served college athletics pretty well for 100 years," Fox said. Pontiac served car buyers pretty well for 83 years, too. Just not well enough.

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