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College Football Playoffs and the Mountain West's Rise: Why a Government Flunky's Watered-Down Letter to a Showboating Senator Poses No Threat to the BCS

It is said that a drowning man will reach even for the tip of a sword, which may explain why proponents of a Division I-A college football playoff, despite being stymied at every turn and facing monolithic opposition to their position by everyone in a position of authority regarding the sport’s postseason arrangements, have been reduced to hanging their hats on meaningless correspondence from cumbersome bureaucracies to grandstanding politicians.

Last week, following a state of the union message in which President Barack Obama addressed such issues as the economy and health care, an assistant U.S. attorney general sent a letter to a hypocritical U.S. senator containing these bold words:

The administration shares your belief that the current lack of a college football national championship playoff with respect to the highest division of college football … raises important questions affecting millions of fans, colleges and universities, players and other interested parties. . . .

This seemingly discriminatory action with regard to revenues and access have raised questions regarding whether the BCS potentially runs afoul of the nation’s antitrust laws.

Whoa! When a Justice Department functionary a few steps down the organization-chart food chain starts using such rough language about "shar[ing] your belief that" circumstances have "raise[d] important questions" about "seemingly discriminatory action[s]" which also "have raised questions" (although, apparently, not important ones this time around) about "whether" college football’s postseason "potentially" violates any laws, brace yourself for . . .

. . . um, yeah, not much. When you’re that focused on the questions that have been raised, you’re nowhere near saying those questions have been answered; when you’re interjecting that many adverbs, you’re qualifying your statements to keep them as noncommittal as possible. If this represents the fulfillment of the president’s promise "to throw my weight around a little," it is clear that the occupant of the Oval Office intends to throw his weight around a very little, indeed. (By the way, if, as he says, President Obama doesn’t "know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me on this," the Venn diagrams of the serious college football fans of our respective acquaintance do not overlap by much. The president would find spending New Year’s Day at my house an enlightening experience.)

The recipient of that letter, however, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, offered a response which attempted to apply the most positive spin possible:

I’m encouraged by the administration’s response. I continue to believe there are antitrust issues the administration should explore, but I’m heartened by its willingness to consider alternative approaches to confront the tremendous inequities in the BCS that favor one set of schools over others. The current system runs counter to basic fairness that every family tries to instill in their children from the day they are born.

If he recognizes that the Justice Department is focusing on "alternative approaches," surely Senator Hatch realizes that this means his assertion that "there are antitrust issues the administration should explore" has fallen upon deaf ears.

Furthermore, Senator Hatch’s faith in "basic fairness" is perfectly respectable, considering that he became the first member of his family to attend college before working as a janitor and a construction worker while in law school, but he is simply misguided if he believes the Bowl Championship Series flies in the face of the idea of an America in which effort and talent allow the cream to rise to the top.

The structure of college football is as fundamentally American as you can get, with the rising tide of the sport’s popularity lifting all boats. Boise State’s recent ascent parallels that of many previous "mid-majors" who now are part of the established power structure and the Broncos now find themselves knocking on the door of the full-fledged big time as the latest in a long line of upstarts who made good dating back at least as far as underdog Alabama in the 1926 Rose Bowl.

If you’re in favor of a Division I-A college football playoff, by all means, celebrate the fact that folks are talking about the BCS, for all the good it will do you. Even if the power brokers with a vested financial interest in preserving the existing system lacked the savvy, the political connections, and the war chest to beat back the tepid efforts suggested by the Justice Department’s letter to Senator Hatch---a dubious proposition at best---all the sturm und drang originating in the Beehive State will last approximately as long as it takes for the Mountain West to be made an automatically-qualifying BCS conference. Since that development appears to be right around the corner, Senator Hatch’s outrage figures to cool as soon as his home state’s major players are let inside the gates he presently is bound and determined to storm.

President Lyndon Johnson, explaining why he would not take the political risk of dismissing J. Edgar Hoover as FBI director, famously said, "It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in." Right now, Orrin Hatch is outside the tent. All the BCS has to do to shut him up is to open up the tent flap and allow the Mountain West inside. For playoff advocates, the rise of the MWC is a short-term gain but a long-term loss.

Go ‘Dawgs!