WASHINGTON — A political action committee that wants to change how the national college football champion is crowned had little success with its first strategy, raising money to elect lawmakers friendly to its cause of establishing a playoff system. It's made itself relevant, though, with another tactic — investigating the current bowl-game system and filing complaints about corruption and waste.
By obtaining public records, analyzing tax filings and mounting an aggressive public relations campaign, Playoff PAC has repeatedly put the Bowl Championship Series on the defensive, despite raising less than $20,000 in nearly two years and failing to make a single campaign contribution.
Just last week, the PAC filed complaints against the Fiesta Bowl in nine states, claiming that payments the bowl received from an Arizona visitors bureau for placing teams in hotels, and for other services, amounted to "kickbacks." Bowl officials strongly denounced the accusations as off base, countering that the arrangement was not only legal but advantageous to the schools — and a spokesman at least one school, Connecticut, said that the university was satisfied with the deal it got.
Nonetheless, Playoff PAC had succeeded in putting an anti-BCS item on the agenda of attorneys general across the country.
When it launched in 2009, the PAC said its goal was to help elect members of Congress who would pressure college football to replace the BCS with a playoff. But the money didn't flow in, and the group shifted its tactics: focusing on investigations instead of donations. Several of the PAC's founders and board members are young lawyers, who donate their time and legal expertise to their goal of dethroning the BCS.
The public face of Playoff PAC is Matthew Sanderson, a boyish-looking 30-year-old campaign finance lawyer in Washington who worked for John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. He and fellow attorney Trevor Potter teamed up to represent Stephen Colbert before the Federal Election Commission, prompting the comedian to crack that the two lawyers "will go down with the greats of American duos: Lewis and Clark, Sacco and Vanzetti, Harold and Kumar."
Sanderson is a graduate of Utah, which was denied a chance to play for the national championship in 2009 despite going undefeated. That helped motivate him and his friends to start Playoff PAC.
Under the BCS, the champions of the six powerhouse conferences have automatic bids to play in top-tier bowl games, while the other five conferences don't. The teams ranked No. 1and No. 2 under a formula devised by the BCS play in a national title game. Notably, the system is not governed by the NCAA, which stages playoffs for the lower divisions of football. Non-BCS college football rankings, including The Associated Press' Top 25, can select a different champion.
Playoff PAC and other critics call the BCS unfair, and even though Utah is moving into one of the six powerhouse conferences this year, Sanderson hasn't lost his zeal. "By the time Utah committed to the Pac-12, we'd already seen too much," he said. "Misconduct plagues the status quo, and we couldn't in good conscience let that continue."
The BCS doesn't have a political action committee, but it has hardly ceded the political arena to Playoff PAC. Congressional lobbying reports show that the BCS spent about $100,000 in the last three-month reporting period, the second quarter of 2011, on "issues related to college football playoff."
Playoff PAC has filed several complaints and reports that have attacked three of the four BCS bowls. The group's actions include:
— Reviewing tax records to highlight what it calls excessive salaries and perks to the CEOs of the Fiesta, Sugar and Orange Bowls;
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