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What Does Obamacare, John Roberts and College Football Have In Common?

by Kory Buzin

Last week Americans were informed that college football's current post-season model, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), had been given a fatal diagnosis. In contrast, the US Supreme Court informed the nation that Obamacare (for the most part) was alive and well. At first glance, it may seem that the two major decisions have little in common, but a closer examination reveals some interesting parallels. Both decisions have been the subject of public debate for years now. Both will cause major changes in the landscapes of prominent American institutions. And most interestingly of all, both decisions featured key players betraying expectations in order to provide renewed legitimacy to their respective institutions.

First came the decision by college football's dignitaries to replace the current BCS system with a 4-team playoff. Football fans nationwide rejoiced, "Hallelujah!" Then came the high court's decision on Obamacare. Specifically, it was Chief Justice John Roberts' vote that ultimately resulted in the Supreme Court upholding the Affordable Care Act. Both decisions turned on key figures casting votes which surprised many.

The biggest shock was Roberts’ decision to join the court’s four moderate/liberal justices in upholding the act. Court-watchers knew Roberts would be in the majority, whichever way the case came out, but we expected Justice Anthony Kennedy to be there, too. He wasn’t: Kennedy joined fellow conservative Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito in a vehement dissent. Indeed, the chief justice was the only justice who cast a vote on the individual mandate that was contrary to the political position of the party of the president who appointed him.

So why did Roberts do it? Quite simply, to save the court.

The ACA case was John Roberts’ moment of truth -- and the opinion proves that Roberts knew it. In the aftermath of Bush v. Gore and Citizens United, the percentage of Americans who say they have “quite a lot” or a “great deal of confidence in the Supreme Court has dipped to the mid-30s. A 5-4 decision to strike down Obamacare along party lines, whatever its reasoning, would have been received by the general public as the Supreme Court acting merely as an extension of the nation’s polarized politics. A one-vote takedown of the Obamacare could have been a major blow to the courts legitimacy. However, Roberts wanted the institution over which he presides to maintain some remnant of the above-the-fray brand it has created for itself over two centuries. Like John Marhsall in Marbury v. Madison, the chief justice used the Obamacare case to shore up the court’s legitimacy.

Similarly, 11 conference commissioners and 12 university presidents accomplished a that goal with regards to college football. Just days before the Supreme Court’s decision came down, the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee ratified a new, 4-team playoff system for college football. The new model will replace a BCS system that has received a volume of debate and scrutiny that rivals Supreme Court decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education or Roe v. Wade.

In the Supreme Court’s case, the threat was that the Court would appear once again to be functioning solely along partisan lines. Similarly, university presidents were threatened by once again appearing to be slaves to the revenue structure currently in place. The BCS is a system comprised of ridiculous polls, computer standings and favored conferences. The model has been despised since its inception by fans, yet lauded by university presidents, as the model has kept revenues in the stratosphere.

While the decision might have seemed like a no-brainer to the general sporting public, the decision to toss the old system out was not an easy one for the university presidents. The resistance to a playoff system has always been grounded in the sheer economics of the matter. It's very much been a, "if it's not broke (because we are making MILLIONS), then don't fix it" mentality. Athletic officials have long feared that a playoff structure could devalue the regular season and cut into those massive revenues. Laughably, college presidents have couched their position within the supposed injustice their student athletes would endure from more time off campus in order to participate in a playoff system. An utterly illusory argument given the reality of college football today.

However, we must give credit where credit is due. Much like Justice Roberts did for the Supreme Court, these university presidents compromised in order to provide legitimacy to the college football world. Make no mistake about it, these presidents have an enormous amount of political pressure put on them from various stakeholders. The decision to change that system required an impressive amount of moxie and political capital. Likewise, Justice Roberts is subject to a variety of pressures. At the end of the day, both decisions had the effect of averting further delegitimization of both institutions. To all involved, well played.

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