12.02.09

Bush's Man Shills for Football

The nation’s most burning issue—how to decide the national championship—has come to Washington. Ari Fleischer talks to Bryan Curtis about his strategy to stop the Obama gameplan.

The nation’s most burning issue—how to decide the national championship—has come to Washington. In an exclusive interview, Ari Fleischer, just hired by the Bowl Championship Series to spearhead their PR strategy—talks to Bryan Curtis about how he’ll stop the Obama "scheme": "It’s like saying we should get rid of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and hold smaller parades all across America."

On Monday, just after noon, I received a telephone call from Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary to George W. Bush. In ordinary times, Fleischer and I might be political opponents. But on that autumn afternoon, we were conspiring about how to handle a political hot potato more explosive than health care, more fraught than Afghan troop escalation, and more frighteningly complex than cap-and-trade.

We were talking about college football.

When the Bowl Championship Series felt threatened by Obama’s playoff proposal, they responded in a truly Washingtonian way. They hired a lobbyist.

“A playoff scheme would be contentious and would create a whole new level of frustration between fans and teams,” Fleischer explained.

“So that’s what we’re calling it, a scheme?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “a playoff scheme.”

A playoff scheme! If it sounds like a familiar Washington slur—see “risky scheme”—it’s because college football, as unlikely as this sounds, has become a Capitol Hill obsession. It all started with the president. Just days before he was elected, Obama announced that he was pro-playoff—that is, that he supported a playoff system to determine college football’s national championship. The Bowl Championship Series (BCS), the organization that controls the traditional bowl system (Rose, Sugar, Orange, etc.) with byzantine series of rankings that makes the Electoral College look simple, responded in a truly Washingtonian way. They hired a lobbyist: former Rep. J.C. Watts, who played quarterback at the University of Oklahoma. Thus was born the pro-BCS movement. That event, in turn, led Obama’s pro-playoff fellow travelers to form a political action committee— Playoff PAC—which is run by a collection of Democratic and Republican apparatchiks. (College football tends to cross party lines.) The BCS countered that move by hiring Fleischer, who is an expert at defending the home team.

The politics of college football does not divide the country like health-care reform. It is much more vicious than that. The pro-playoff forces claim a popular mandate (85 percent of college fans disapprove of the BCS, according to one Gallup poll). But the pro-BCS coalition, like Fleischer and me, has the pads on and is ready for battle.

Last year, I wrote a newspaper op-ed noting that college football was probably the only major issue candidate Obama and I disagreed about. The response was universally negative, with one liberal blogger, apparently unaware of my University of Texas credentials, labeling me a “Northeast college football fan.” That was humiliating. As Fleischer assured me, “You are in the minority.”

Saturday could be a turning point. It’s the final weekend of college football’s regular season, the time of year when the BCS-versus-playoff argument heats up. By Sunday, we’ll likely learn that the national championship game, which is being held in Pasadena, California, at the Rose Bowl, will be played by two of the top three teams in the country: Florida, Alabama, or Texas. Playoff partisans moan that fellow unbeatens Texas Christian, Cincinnati, and Boise State are being left out of the equation. Poor Boise State has gone undefeated and been snubbed two years in a row. “Even though they’ve done everything they can on the field for the past two seasons, they are not going to have any kind of a shot at the national title,” says Matthew Sanderson, a former McCain campaign-finance lawyer who helped found Playoff PAC.

In past years, politicians like Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia have held hearings and given impassioned speeches on the injustice of the BCS system. It is not an accident of geography that many of these politicians represent states that house the schools snubbed by the championship game. As Ara Parseghian might have said, all college football is local.

The BCS is fighting back with a major PR offensive, overseen by Fleischer, involving Twitter and Facebook pages and a public role for Bill Hancock, who last month was appointed BCS executive director. Hancock is a savvy political animal, a soft-spoken University of Oklahoma graduate who can fill his voice with sorrow and say, “There could be playoff, but at what price?”

So what will happen to college football? After conspiring with Fleischer and Hancock, I’m convinced our side will come out on top. Let’s run though the talking points: First off, our pro-BCS movement offers an appeal to tradition, a very conservative argument. For nearly 100 years, college football matters have been settled, in one way or another, by bowl games and polls. Why dump all that for the sake of a playoff? “It’s like saying we should get rid of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and hold smaller parades all across America,” Fleischer said.

Another inherently conservative appeal: A playoff would be hopelessly complicated to establish. Given the chance to design a new playoff, the pro-reform movement would make the Senate Democrats look like a lockstep caucus. As Fleischer put it, “It’s not a majority that would last beyond opening kickoff.” Our side is not above an old-fashioned threat: Destroy the BCS, and you might get something worse. “If anything major were to happen,” Fleischer explained, “it would be a reversion to the old way”—that is, the system in which the No. 1 team in the land was locked into playing No. 12 because both had pre-arranged deals with the Rose Bowl.

Foreign-policy wonks talk about mission creep; our side worries about playoff creep. As Fleischer noted, every single playoff system, from Major League Baseball’s to the NFL’s to the NCAA Tournament, has started small and then ballooned in size. In 1939, for instance, the college basketball tournament had eight teams. Today, March Madness has 65. Meanwhile, the college Football Championship Subdivision (essentially, the division of super-small colleges) grew from four-team playoff in 1978 to a 20-team tourney in 2010, a fivefold increase.

But my favorite argument against change—call it a liberal celebration of diversity—is that college football is simply different than other sports. As Bill Hancock put it, with perfect political pitch, “What’s right for basketball is right for basketball, and what’s right for football is right for football.” Yes, a football playoff would be white-knuckle cliffhanger, but the current lose-and-you’re-out format makes the whole season a cliffhanger. You take your playoff, and I’ll take a season filled with matchups like Alabama-Auburn or Texas-Texas A&M, both of which nearly turned the BCS on its head last week.

And here’s the clincher, the line I’m convinced is going to win it for the pro-BCS side. “As far we’re concerned, with everything going on in the country, the last thing Congress should do is get into how college football games are played,” said Fleischer. Personally, I always found it amusing that Republicans like Hatch, who are traditionally opposed to federal intervention in education, would think government has time to intervene in the business of national championships. If there’s one reason college football isn’t right for D.C. politics, it’s because Washington, unlike the rest of us, may actually have other priorities.

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather’s softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.