The conservative case for college football reform
Some conservative commentators are up in arms about Rep. Joe Barton’s
(R-Texas) bill to knock down college football’s Bowl Championship Series (BCS).
George Will, Doug Bandow and others penned columns this month decrying a
“government takeover” of college football and even intimating that Barton
forsook his conservative ideals by undertaking this effort.
I share these commentators’ preference for limited regulation. And I agree
that government’s reach extends too far in many areas of American life. The
feds’ red tape-filled excursions into labor relations, corporate governance and
now healthcare are problematic. But those misadventures have nothing to do with
what’s happening in college football reform. We shouldn’t reflexively mislabel
Mr. Barton’s worthwhile endeavor simply because it offers a convenient occasion
to throw stones at President Barack Obama’s ambitions in unrelated areas.
Rep. Barton’s push for college football reform is in line with conservative
principles because conservatism is more than rote rejection of any government
involvement. Conservatism means limiting
government to constitutionally authorized action that serves an important
purpose, requires minimal public-sector involvement and bolsters private competition
and self-reliance. College football reform fits squarely within conservatism’s
COLLEGE FOOTBALL REFORM IS CONSTITUTIONAL AND IMPORTANT
Congress doesn’t need to even approach the boundaries of the expansive
Commerce Clause to look for constitutional authorization to address college
football’s problems. Like it or not, the main point of college football these
days is “Commerce among the several States.”
Of course, just because Congress has clear authority to act does not mean
that it should. Limited taxpayer resources must be reserved for tackling
Critics often assert that “Congress has more important matters to tend to
than college football.” I agree. Fighting our nation’s wars and digging America
out of debt are undoubtedly weightier issues. But addressing these problems and
hastening the BCS’ demise are not mutually exclusive activities. Frankly, in
the time it takes to watch a college football game, these issues could be
resolved. Congressman Barton wasn’t any less an opponent of card check or
“ObamaCare” because he spent a few moments on college football reform this
Those who trivialize college football as “just a game” ignore its
significant off-the-field consequences.
The BCS is not merely denying fans bragging rights when it imposes a “glass
ceiling” on non-BCS conference teams or arbitrarily excludes undefeated BCS
conference teams from championship opportunities, as it has this year. It is
robbing schools of institutional benefits those playing opportunities would
bring. Considerable scholarship connects football success with schools’ ability
to earn national publicity, strengthen alumni networks, and boost admission
applications. That’s why it matters that, in 12 years of existence, the BCS has
only permitted 12 teams the chance to play for its championship.
From 2005 to 2009, the BCS doled out $430.6 million more to the six BCS conferences than to the five non-BCS
conferences. This revenue distribution scheme is fixed. It doesn’t matter what
actually happens on the field or in the marketplace. Some call that an
anti-trust violation. Others call it a moral travesty. Regardless, it impacts
colleges and universities because football’s revenues can fund athletic
budgets, scholarship programs, and capital projects. This funding isn’t trivial
just because it’s derived from a game.
It is wholly consistent with conservatism to believe that schools should
compete for these substantial institutional benefits.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL REFORM REQUIRES MINIMAL GOVERNMENT INVOLVEMENT
Conservatives believe that even where government can and should act, its
footprint should be light. Unlike the morass of healthcare, college football
reform is straightforward and would require minimal government involvement. Detractors
frequently try to muddy these waters, so let me be clear: no pending
legislation would result in federal bureaucrats running college football’s
post-season. This is not Congress legislating narrower uprights or calling for
a “fifth” down. Congressman Barton’s two-page bill contains no affirmative
mandates and would allow college football’s leaders full autonomy in
establishing a post-season playoff.
Conservatives must realize that legislation was proposed only after years of
the BCS ignoring fans’ demands. This is a last-resort method to knock down an
anti-competitive status quo and restore merit-based rewards to college
COLLEGE FOOTBALL REFORM BOLSTERS SELF-RELIANCE AND COMPETITION
Finally, conservatives believe government action should improve
self-reliance and competition. College football reform fits that bill.
The BCS’s playoff obstructionism keeps schools from tapping a large pool of
private funding. Even BCS spokesman Ari Fleischer conceded: “There is more
money to be made if we had a playoff.” Schools are leaving vast amounts of
private money on the table — private money that could replace government
subsidies. In a time of large public deficits at every level, conservatives
should support a viable opportunity to shift universities’ reliance from public
to private funding.
College football’s status quo is also anti-competitive. As George Will
admitted, “The BCS virtually guarantees that the rich get richer — and get the
television exposure that attracts blue-chip recruits.” College football’s
considerable institutional benefits discussed above — improved funding,
publicity, alumni networks, and admissions applications — are not awarded
through merit- or market-based methods. They’re largely distributed on the basis
of legacy entitlements and backroom deals. By reforming college football,
government would not play Robin Hood and give disadvantaged parties a “fair
share” of the trophy or the revenues. Reform’s only aim is for schools to have
a “fair shake” at earning these benefits through competition. Conservatives
should favor this modest effort to eliminate stacked decks and instill
In the end, this debate over college football reform offers no evidence of
“government takeover” and casts no doubt on Congressman Barton’s adherence to
conservative principles. Instead, it exposes the need for fewer knee-jerk
reactions and more thoughtful analysis to prevent conservatism from becoming
simply a “philosophy of no” in a time of truly heinous government intrusions.
Matthew Sanderson is the co-founder of Playoff PAC.
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