Antitrust Meets College Football — William Anderson

Free Enterprise Zone, The Freeman, William L. Anderson

I guess now I’ve seen it all. President Obama plans to bring the heavy hand of the Entity Formerly Known as the U.S. Department of Justice into the college football mix. Egged on by Sen. Orrin Hatch, Obama promises to see whether the Bowl Championship Series that determines the Division-I football national champions each year is, well, legal:

In the letter to Sen. Orrin Hatch, obtained by The Associated Press, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote that the Justice Department is reviewing Hatch’s request and other materials to determine whether to open an investigation into whether the BCS violates antitrust laws.

“Importantly, and in addition, the administration also is exploring other options that might be available to address concerns with the college football postseason,” Weich wrote, including asking the Federal Trade Commission to review the legality of the BCS under consumer protection laws.

Several lawmakers and many critics want the BCS to switch to a playoff system, rather than the ratings system it uses to determine the teams that play in the championship game.

“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,” Weich wrote.

Hatch is miffed because in 2008 the University of Utah went unbeaten but was unable to play for the national championship because Florida and Oklahoma were chosen for the game by the BCS point system. Now, I have serious doubts that Utah could have beaten Florida that year in any venue, but nonetheless I myself would prefer a playoff.

But even though I think a college playoff would be good, using federal law like a hammer to pound in this nail is not only overkill, but it also demonstrates the arrogance of Washington and the Obama administration, which apparently believes that all the world is the domain of the President and his minions.

I am not going to fall into the argument that there are more pressing matters for the government to consider, given the state of the economy. In fact, I might be willing to say that if the President were to concentrate on such trivial matters and do nothing about the economy, perhaps we might see a recovery.

Nonetheless, the larger point is that college football playoffs are not the government’s business. Economist Charlotte Twight writes in her article “Sovereign Impunity”: “Today all branches of America’s national government—legislative, executive, and judicial—act with near impunity. Constitutional limits on the government’s power have been eroded, institutional checks and balances rendered largely nugatory.”

If anything demonstrates the truth of Twight’s statement, the government’s foray into college football certainly does. Not surprisingly, the media are largely supportive of this move, as evidenced by this and other articles. Since modern American journalism is a product of the Progressive Era, and “Progressives” believe that all of life should be federalized, I doubt any prominent journalist will raise any questions about the constitutionality of this investigation.

At best, some journalists will raise the “Shouldn’t they concentrate on the economy?” argument, but that assumes that Washington actually is capable of doing the right thing there. Football fans who want a playoff no doubt will support this latest government escapade, but the issue as it pertains to liberty and limits on the power of the State is this: Government has no business telling a private organization how to determine athletic championships.

Period.

William Anderson is an associate professor of economics at Frostburg State University.

Copyright © 2010, Foundation For Economic Education. Used with permission.