Michael Jackson is still dead, but the hoopla surrounding his cannonization leading toward ultimate sainthood is still wearing on. Meanwhile, in Washington, the collateral circus continues, as the Senate antitrust subcommittee considers the fairness of NCAA’s present method of determining its top division football champion.
The most noise, it seems, has come from Utah. By the sad luck of the draw, the University of Utah Utes are shut out from the national champion picture because they are members of a non-BCS conference. Having performed rather well in recent years, they wish to claim a piece of the pie. Who can blame them for that?
This Turkey cannot, but is it really a matter for the U.S. Congress to decide when there are so many other more pressing and relevant issues up for their consideration. Howevever, the U.S. Senate is one thing and this column is quite another. Unlike Congress, if I waste my time on the BCS fairness issue, no one suffers.
Michael Young, the president of the University of Utah, spouted the the following bullets, scattered among his statement:
“The BCS is perpetuating an unfair system;” “Without a doubt, the BCS embraces favoritism, rather than fairness;” “These other universities have no realistic chance even before their seasons begin to win a national championship;” “In this country, we should decide championships by competition and not by conspiracy;” “Instead, the BCS system, with its stranglehold on college football, sends the message that economic power, rather than athletic ability, is key to success.”
Most of us privileged folks who root for BCS schools pooh-pooh Utah because of a presumably softer schedule. When they go undefeated (as they did last year — hence, their protest), we say this is due to a softer schedule. If they go to a BCS bowl game and do well (as they did last year, beating Alabama 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl), we say that their opponent was overrated. They are the Rodney Dangerfields of the FBS subdivision — they don’t get no respect.
The real issue, if you want to boil it down to specifics, is the issuance of automatic BCS bowl bids to champions of the various BCS conferences. Obviously, not being in a BCS conference, the Utes have to play their way in.
Of course, there’s another side of the coin, which is the big bucks the bowls generate. Leave it to a lawyer, representing the position of the non-BCS outsiders, to clarify the money issue via the following obfuscatory excerpt from Barry Brett (of Troutman Sanders):
“The BCS is a naked restraint imposed by a self-appointed cartel which has exercised its power to limit games and prevent a playoff in order to preserve for its members access to participation in the five BCS Bowl games and the related revenues;” “Public and private colleges and universities which desperately need equal access to the enormous revenues of post-season college football are suffering.”
Yeah, so would the Senate even consider hearing this stuff if it didn’t mean money for the lawyers representing these colleges?
Orrin Hatch (R, Utah) is, of course, the major driving force behind this hearing, although Herb Kohn (D, Wisc.) and Chuck Schumer (D., NY) made token appearances. Hatch had previously chaired a meeting on the same subject in 2003.
President Obama has voiced his support for a playoff system, as has the venerable Joe Paterno of the Nittany Lions. But wait! That’s not all! This Turkey agrees with those two dieties (JoePa is a real one), but doesn’t want to see tradition thrown out the window, either. The existing system, even with all its components, including supposedly unbiased computer rankings and opinionated media pollsters, is still choosing a somewhat mythical champion each year. A playoff system pitting the top 16 teams would be just the ticket.
I suppose the selection of those 16 teams would be controversial. There are 11 conferences in the NCAA’s FBS, plus there are four independent schools: Army, Navy, Notre Dame, and Western Kentucky. If all conference champs plus the best of the independents were given an automatic berth to the first round, that will leave four wild-card slots. How do they get filled? Rankings might once again come into play, and hence, controversy. There would be great bar room arguments over whether for example Troy, by virtue of its Sunbelt Conference championship was fairly included if it meant that the third best in the SEC, arguably a better team, was not. Yeah, those place and show finishers in the “major” conferences would certainly have a legitimate gripe about losing revenue, and their fans would have a similar gripe about not having the chance to compete for all the marbles.
For the schools, it’s about the money and the prestige; for the players and fans, it’s about being Number One. This is not your father’s NCAA. Merely being selected for a bowl game at the end of an 8-game season doesn’t cut it anymore. Teams play 12 or 13 games through a grueling schedule to reach paydirt at season’s end, and if it ain’t Number One, it’s disdained as underachievement. This was graphically displayed last year by USC, who won their conference and got an automatic Rose Bowl bid, but loudly bitched and moaned that they deserved better. (Were it not for a loss to Oregon State, they might have been in the still somewhat mythical national championship game.) Better? The Rose Bowl is “the grandaddy of them all” and it used to be the rarified air of college football. Winning the Rose Bowl (or any of the other “major” bowls) was the primary objective.
So, I guess we need a playoff system. People won’t be satisfied unless a clear winner emerges each year, and the NCAA won’t be satisfied unless its revenues are protected. Congressional meddling will not accomplish anything worthwhile. If action is taken, it will be arbitrary and oppressive, as is the tendency of heavy-handed government.
The elephant in the room, of course, is that these esteemed institutions of higher learning are universities first and football factories second. Yeah, right. No one wants to admit the relative importance of the football programs over the academy. Otherwise, the playoff system would be easy enough to devise. Just mimic the NBA, the NFL, or the NHL. The NCAA would invite the top 32 football programs for admission to a successor to the FBS division (another “self-appointed cartel”), without regard to existing conference alignments and academic alliances, which don’t matter anymore. We’re not about tradition; we’re about national prestige and big bucks. Reflecting the major ROI potential, invited “schools” would have to pay big bucks to enter. Relegate everyone else to lesser divisions — we’re not going to pay to watch Indiana play Louisiana Tech, anyway. The top 32 would be divided up into regional conferences, and they’d be scheduled for inter- and intra-conference play similar to the NFL. Playoffs would work just as they do in the pros. Throw tradition out the window and let’s just get down to money, power, and dick-measuring.
Hey, maybe Obama will appoint a Sports Czar that could run the whole thing to make sure government kept its hand in the pie. Wouldn’t that be lovely!
OK, so I’m off on a tangent musing about how the hell we could ever agree on a playoff system for college football. It might never happen. If it did, what would we spend the whole month of November arguing about in sports bars? Who would we bash annually, if not the BCS? Would we be happy to see the death of the conferences?
Aw, hell, it might very well take an act of Congress to impose order on the messy business of deciding a national collegiate football champion!