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Head Strong: A law to mandate college football playoffs?

"We can walk and chew gum at the same time," U.S. Rep. Gene Green (D., Texas) assured me during a phone conversation last week. Others might disagree - especially when they hear what question prompted his remark:

"We can walk and chew gum at the same time," U.S. Rep. Gene Green (D., Texas) assured me during a phone conversation last week. Others might disagree - especially when they hear what question prompted his remark:

Should Congress be involved in revising college football's postseason?

Yes is the short answer.

There appears little disagreement among the public as to whether there should be playoffs. A 2007 Gallup survey found that 85 percent of college football fans favor changing the current system. Everyone from President Obama to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) has said he'd prefer a playoff. A more active debate surrounds whether a House subcommittee should recently have approved legislation encouraging the NCAA to move in that direction.

Right now, a combination of two so-called human polls and a series of computer rankings (which take into account everything from who wins to where the game was played to a team's strength of schedule) determine which teams play in college football's national championship game. And every year at this time, the legions of reporters, observers, and fans wishing to move to a single-elimination playoff - like the NFL, for example - take their shots at the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) system.

The BCS thinks Congress has better things to do.

Citing his own consensus - the 120 major universities that believe the current system is the best postseason scenario for college football - BCS executive director Bill Hancock said to me: "I feel that with all the serious matters facing our country, surely Congress has more important issues than spending taxpayers' money to dictate how college football is played."

He's right, obviously. But nobody is saying that passing cap-and-trade and prodding college football are mutually exclusive. Congress would be wrong to litigate the BCS like they do cap-and-trade.

Green said as much during our conversation last week. He's a member of the subcommittee on commerce, trade, and consumer protection, the body that recently approved the College Football Playoff Act of 2009. The bill would bar college football from promoting an event known as a "national championship" game unless it is the end result of a single-elimination playoff system.

"Congress' job is not only to pass legislation, but shine light on issues that people are concerned about," Green told me. "And the reason our committee in Congress has any oversight at all over professional baseball, football, or the BCS is they enjoy an antitrust exemption."

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Joe Barton (R., Texas), made a similar point in an e-mail exchange last week. While college football's postseason isn't "the most important issue," he acknowledged, it is "a multibillion-dollar-a-year operation, and it is interstate commerce."

"If Exxon Mobil and ChevronTexaco did in the oil industry what the BCS has done in college football," Barton told me, "they would be prosecuted for violating antitrust laws."

Hence the hearings and subcommittee action on the legislation - the kind of fleeting congressional intervention that has worked in the past. Indeed, Congress' treatment of baseball's steroids scandal over the last five years produced some of Major League Baseball's most damaging episodes.

Mark McGwire refusing to "talk about the past." Rafael Palmeiro wagging his finger as he denied taking steroids. Sammy Sosa sitting sheepishly as his attorney read a prepared statement. Those images forced baseball into adopting a strict ban on performance-enhancing drugs where they had previously been reluctant to look under the tarp that apparently had long-hidden baseball's steroids culture.

The examples go beyond sports. In 1994, executives from seven of the country's largest tobacco companies testified before a House subcommittee in what George Washington University political scientist Sarah Binder called the "coup de grace" in a slow-burning political and cultural movement against smoking. After the executives said under oath that they didn't believe cigarettes to be addictive, public sentiment turned sharply against them.

"The hearings basically forced executives from the big tobacco companies to talk under oath before Congress and to release loads of internal documents from the tobacco industry," Binder told me in an e-mail. "[Congressman Henry] Waxman was able to use Congress' investigatory powers to blow the lid on tobacco-company behavior - all without actually legislating at the time."

Congress is right to similarly spend a little time nudging college football toward a playoff. No need to call the Congressional Budget Office for a cost estimate. Hold a hearing or two, draft legislation, and hope that motivates the BCS to alter its postseason format.

Critics will no doubt view such efforts as another example of the federal government's growing influence where it ought not to be. Some may chastise a Congress that hasn't passed health reform for throwing a Hail Mary.

But college football and the BCS is a rarity in an otherwise starkly red/blue, liberal/conservative political time: a billion-dollar-a-year operation whose overhaul is supported by a bipartisan cadre of legislators and Americans from all walks of life (and athletic conferences).

Like an offense starting on its own goal line, there's much to be gained from moving the ball forward.