By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
What appeared to be an throwaway line in a conversation with ESPN now has become something of a sporting obsession.
The night before Election Day, Barack Obama said with that increasingly familiar smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye that college football ought to stop messing around with this BCS nonsense and go to a playoff. People noticed.
Then, in an interview broadcast on Sunday night to an exponentially larger network television audience, Obama told "60 Minutes" the same thing, just in a little greater detail, and added with that same twinkle that he might throw his weight around to tilt the college football world in the direction of a playoff.
And people really took notice.
In fact, it's become the No. 1 topic this week in college football and forced another national discussion that those of us with good sense not only welcome, but find a relief. Suddenly, the conference commissioners and college presidents are having to defend their indefensible positions and explain why the championships of every team sport in every division, except big-time football, are settled through playoffs. Of course, it's great to see them squirm. This isn't a sportswriter making the suggestion; it's the newly elected president of the United States, for crying out loud.
And now is the perfect time to do it. We're nearing the end of a college football season that is tailor-made for an eight-team playoff.
Obama isn't actually president until Jan. 20, and even though he is facing many more serious issues than college football, he has a few moments between now and then to dabble. Should the president be involved in policymaking as it pertains to college athletics? Probably not . . . not at this level anyway. Nobody is seriously suggesting he convene a panel to rid the nation of the BCS or spend taxpayer money by appointing some silly commission. But if Steve Kroft asks Obama at the end of a "60 Minutes" interview what he thinks of a college football playoff system, then Obama should tell him exactly what he really thinks.
And he did.
Kroft: "I have one last question: As president of the United States, what can you do, or what do you plan to do about getting a college football playoff for the national championship?"
Obama: "I think any sensible person would say that, if you've got a bunch of teams who play throughout the season and many of them have one loss or two losses, there's no clear, decisive winner, that we should be creating a playoff system. Eight teams, that would be three rounds to determine a national champion. It would -- it would add three extra weeks to the season. You could trim back on the regular season. I don't know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me on this. So I'm going to throw my weight around a little bit. I think it's the right thing to do."
First of all, Obama is right on the money with his emphasis on "any sensible person." Second, this isn't unfamiliar territory for a U.S. president.
Going back to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who played college football at Army and was a golf fanatic, every U.S. president has been anywhere from somewhat involved to immersed in sports at some point in his life. John F. Kennedy loved golf and his touch football. Lyndon B. Johnson had a thing for college football. Richard M. Nixon not only sent a play or two to Redskins Coach George Allen, he said later in his life that if it wasn't for politics, he would have been a sportswriter. Gerald R. Ford played college football at Michigan. Ronald Reagan broadcast baseball games. George H.W. Bush played baseball at Yale. Bill Clinton went to his share of NBA games. That brings us all the way up to George W. Bush, who for a while owned the Texas Rangers.
Anyone who paid a lick of attention to the campaign can see how competitive U.S. presidents have to be. (Carter didn't have enough appreciation for the Olympics, and you see how that worked out for him.)
Obama loves sports, but his appreciation is greater than that. He understands sports. He studies sports and the people who play them. Like many of us of a certain age, he considered Arthur Ashe a hero. Because of his intellect and demeanor, Ashe might have been more than that to Obama, perhaps something of a role model. When I first met Obama while working on a book I edited for Charles Barkley, the three of us got to talk more than a little bit about sports. Obama, soon to vacate his home in Chicago for the White House, doesn't have to just throw his weight around; he can throw his knowledge around. He respects competition too much to pander to Cubs fans when he cares about the White Sox.
Well, he cares about college football, and it's a good thing he didn't phony it up with ESPN or "60 Minutes" by trotting out some politically neutral answer. Of course, it's interesting now to see how people are reacting.
Texas Coach Mack Brown supported Obama's position. Texas Tech Coach Mike Leach went overboard and said he favored a 64-team tournament. Craig Thompson, the commissioner of the Mountain West Conference, said he wanted to know how the president-elect would pick the eight teams for the tournament. (Okay, for the 100th time: You take the top eight teams by some formula using the various polls and computer ratings, put them in four bowl games, play down to four teams that would play in two more bowl games, then have the championship game Jan. 8 at one of the same four locations that host the title game now. A conference championship means nothing if you're sorry, like the ACC and Big East are this year. It could be two teams from the Big 12, two teams from the Southeastern Conference.)
BCS Coordinator John Swofford, who also is the ACC commissioner, felt the need to issue a statement saying: "I am glad [Obama] has a passion for college football like so many other Americans. For now, our constituencies -- and I know he understands constituencies -- have settled on the current BCS system. . . . We certainly respect the opinions of president-elect Obama and welcome dialogue on what's best for college football."
Okay, it's a lame statement, but the point is people such as Swofford -- and the out-of-touch, hypocritical university presidents he represents -- feel forced by Obama's participation in the dialogue to be accountable and to do something besides sit entrenched in their same old lazy positions. The only thing better than dialogue would be a new conclusion to the season, the same one our newly elected president has so passionately articulated.