Barton, Mandela and the BCS

It would have been an interesting engagement to poll for Nelson Mandela when he first exercised power as president of South Africa. Actually, it might have been a bore, akin to being the Maytag repairman. But the ringside seat would have made the wait for work worth it. Something tells me that

Mandela would not have felt the need to measure public opinion on every matter of state. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t pay attention to the attitudes of his public. As we see in the current movie “Invictus,” while he was in prison, Mandela had decades to study the Afrikaner people, learning their deepest values and long-term attitudes, providing him insight on where their transient opinions might land at any moment. It was a valuable skill for a new leader.

The movie informs us that Mandela’s years of observation of the Afrikaners gave him insight on the role that sport, specifically Springbok Rugby, played in their lives. He brilliantly seized on this insight to fashion a strategy — one that none of his political allies or enemies enthusiastically supported — for uniting his nation through the quest for the Springboks team to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The whole episode forced me to reflect anew on the similarly lonesome quest that Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton has in trying to nudge college football toward a genuine championship that Americans can be proud of.

Tomorrow night, there will be a self-proclaimed “national championship” football game between the Universities of Alabama and Texas that is an affront to both the nation and the word championship. This Bowl Championship System (BCS) blunder will not even be a shadow of the “great achievements” that Mandela knew, and that a nation needs to succor its vision. This so-called pinnacle of college football is no more than an arranged marriage, a shotgun shack-up forced on the nation by greedy parents looking to get their hands on a rich dowry. The title of “national champion,” as Barton’s proposed legislation stipulates, should be reserved for genuine victors that earn their laurels on the field of play in head-to-head competition. Anything less than that is unworthy. That’s what Barton thinks. And I believe that Mandela would agree.

A mid-December nationwide poll of 948 college football fans by Quinnipiac University’s Polling Institute agrees, too. A strong majority, 63 percent of those surveyed, favors dumping the current BCS system. Only 26 percent would stick with the status quo.

Some in Congress will use another of the same poll’s findings as justification for ignoring this issue. Fans are equally divided on whether it’s appropriate for Congress to force a playoff. Here’s where “Invictus” should inform us. Mandela didn’t take a poll to decide whether he should use his office to meddle in a matter of sport. He simply envisioned the benefits of his taking action and then sought to lead public opinion toward the desired outcome.

What is especially impressive, if the movie is accurate, is the attention Mandela gave to detail and authenticity in his use of sport. For the Rugby Cup final, he dressed in the Springbok colors and donned a team cap. Like most fans, he looked a little silly in his “team costume.” But all these details contributed to the effect he sought. At one point, Mandela’s aide starts to discuss the notion of rugby as “a political calculation.” Mandela explodes in response, saying, “It is a human calculation.”

Too many members of Congress understand only political calculations. They know not the human yearnings that well up in places like Boise, Idaho, for national championships. But Joe Barton does. He should agree to buy the popcorn to convince more of his colleagues to see “Invictus” so that they, too, might discover how sport builds nations.

David Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.