One definition of conservatism states that a situation tends to remain static unless acted upon by a strong external force. In the world of major college football, tradition and fiscal conservatism have combined for years to preserve a system by which a tight circle of resource-rich powerhouse programs hold sway from year to year. The major bowl games, the nearly exclusive preserve of the nation’s football elite, serve as NCAA football’s branding identity but do little to determine a quantifiable national champion. A powerful cabal of athletic directors, commissioners, university presidents and other officials maintain the sanctity of the lucrative bowl system. In recent years, the debate over how best to settle the question of who should be crowned number one has reached a fever pitch as more teams have pushed their way onto the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) stage. Given the unprecedented popularity of the college game, the need for an objective playoff system has reached a kind of critical mass among fans, in the media and even in the halls of power in Washington, D.C. Change is needed.
Every year, the power brokers in college football trot out a laundry list of reasons for retaining the current system. These include everything from destruction of the century-old bowl game tradition to logistical reasons, such as the impact a playoff season would have on the academic demands of the student athlete. Representatives of the established order continue to
hold the line against change despite the clamor for at least a serious discussion of a playoff scenario. But a recent exposé noted that the public’s desire for a solution invariably drowns in a sea of equivocation: “The Superfan demands answers, the BCS offers excuses” (Wetzel, Peter & Passan, 98). The super-imposition of a confusing computer ranking formula and the persistent glorification of the NCAA’s top football teams perpetuate inequities in the BCS system and erode the credibility and prestige of the bowl game structure.
The allure of tradition: the bowl games
The bowl system exalts a core group of powerful programs, schools such as Alabama, USC and Texas, which make annual appearances in the BCS, often at the expense of less prestigious teams. A recent comment by E. Gordon Gee, president of The Ohio State University, revealed something of the mindset that prevails among these top programs, when he said that schools such as Boise State and TCU play comparatively weak schedules during the regular season and do not deserve a shot at the BCS championship game. Gee quickly backed off, apologizing for inappropriate comments, but he unwittingly addressed a pressing reason for a college playoff system. If a playoff scenario is set up as an objective reward that emphasizes performance rather than prestige, then schools like Boise State and TCU would have the opportunity to prove their worthiness (Boise State’s defeat of Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl helped to escalate the call for a playoff).
Boise State’s tortured odyssey has made the Broncos the playoff “poster child.” College football analysts and announcers harp on the same theme week in and week out during
the season: the Broncos just haven’t played sufficiently strong schedules to warrant a permanent seat at the BCS table. Boise State athletic director Gene Bleymaier has tried to ramp up the team’s regular-season schedule in an attempt to bridge the mythical gap. While he negotiates for high profile games against BCS opponents in the years to come, Bleymaier has made arrangements to begin raising the team’s profile right away, having scheduled a series of home-and-home games, beginning in 2011, against Mountain West powers Utah and Brigham Young (Barbour, 191).
Despite the school’s electrifying 2007 Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma, Boise State has found it difficult to overcome the label of “underrated and untested.” Typically skeptical commentary accompanied the Broncos’ 2009 victory over Oregon. During the game, “ESPN commentator Bob Davie stoked the effervescent debate when he suggested…that BSU teams would be hard-pressed to equal their recent win-loss records if they were faced with a dose of BCS teams on a weekly basis” (Barbour, 186).
Debunking playoff myths
Individual conference championships, followed by an extensive practice schedule leading up to the bowl game itself, which may not take place until mid-January, refutes the claim that a playoff series would take too much time. And though football and basketball are not comparable in terms of practice schedules and logistics, the NCAA basketball tournament, which follows (in most cases) conference tournaments, requires several weeks of practice and travel time in addition to the games. Therefore, the argument that playoffs would take too much time from college football players’ academic obligations weakens when held up to “March Madness,”
which ranks as one of the NCAA’s great successes.
Ultimately, most of the arguments against a playoff system hinge on a desire to maintain tradition. All of the major bowl games boast traditions that transcend the games themselves (for instance, the glamorous Tournament of Roses Parade, which precedes the Rose Bowl). BCS supporters argue that the meaning of the bowls, and major regular season games, would be diluted in relation to a playoff system. There is also concern that college football’s great rivalries, such as Ohio State-Michigan, Alabama-Auburn and Oklahoma-Nebraska would lose much of their significance. One of the worst tradition-based depredations of the BCS system is the de facto influence that Notre Dame still wields over the bowl selection process. Notre Dame hasn’t won a national championship in more than 20 years, yet receives an automatic BCS bid as long as the school finishes in the top eight in the major polls (Nemeth, 50). The illustrious program is still highly desirable to the bowls, which have in the past selected the Irish over more deserving teams with better won-loss records (of course, Notre Dame isn’t the only “prestige” program to have received preferential consideration in the current system).
A tradition of subjectivity: the polls
In years past, criticism of the “mythical national championship” centered on the undue influence of purely subjective rankings, including the coaches’ (U.P.I.) and media (A.P.) polls. The polls, which listed the result of weekly voting by football coaches and football reporters, were the final arbiters of who would be declared national champion. Not surprisingly, this frequently led to the kind of controversy that took center stage in 1997, when Michigan and Nebraska shared a “split” national championship. The BCS was created in large part to address
such ambiguity, but it required a “logical” formulaic underpinning to gain legitimacy. Consequently, a bewildering computer rating system, which assesses teams based on a convoluted formula of algorithms, was concocted. But since the computer rankings are determined by individuals who write the programs, there remains a considerable degree of subjectivity. And the formula has not succeeded in removing the kind of controversy that plagued the old poll system. In 2009, for example, Boise State defeated Oregon convincingly early in the season, yet remained lower in the rankings in subsequent weeks.
Sharing the spoils
Ultimately, the primacy of the BCS comes down to money. ESPN commentators may from time to time stress the need for a playoff system, but the sports mega-network is in a high stakes relationship with the BCS. As of 2008, ESPN pays $125 million a year for the right to show all of the BCS match-ups. Perhaps the most important factor at play is that the power conferences, such as the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-10, reap tremendous annual financial benefit from the current arrangement, which places them in a naturally adversarial position to those who call for a playoff. Jim Delaney, commissioner of the Big Ten, has recently gone so far as to declare the notion of a playoff system “dead.” Delaney’s attitude is understandable when one considers how handsomely his and other conferences profit. According to the Sports Business Journal, the 12 conferences and major independents received more than $140 million from the BCS after the 2010 season. More than $110 million of this money went to conferences that sent teams to BCS bowls (Sports Business Journal, 2010).
The “have-nots” are not sitting idly by while the “haves” continue to rack up immense profits. In January 2011, the Mountain West Conference has proposed a seven-game postseason playoff leading to a national championship game. In addition to spelling out how such a playoff would work, Mountain West representatives researched the potential financial benefits of such a system. The conference’s final report indicated that a playoff would not only significantly boost television ratings, it would almost certainly lead to an increase of the $495 million contract ESPN now has with the BCS. Mountain West Conference spokesman Alan Fishel told the Wall Street Journal that the bowls would not be left out in the cold. “Instead of a Tostitos bowl being a consolation game…it would be a quarterfinal every year. The ratings would go way up for that kind of event. People care about a national championship” (Peterson, July 6, 2009).
Still, there are obstacles that remain to be addressed. An over-extension of the college football season into January - a possibility depending on the number of teams that would be involved - could threaten some of the NCAA’s potential television ratings if it competes with the NFL playoffs for viewership. Fan attendance could be an issue if people are required to travel to multiple locations to follow their team. Airline travel, hotel costs and ticket prices would prove prohibitive for all but the wealthiest fans. Though the NCAA basketball tournament attracts large numbers of fans, these games tend to play out at one location. A college football tournament would more closely resemble the NFL model, with fans having to follow their team from city to city.
A playoff system that does not incorporate the bowl games would be disenfranchised.
The resulting loss of tradition and community-based revenue would be an unfortunate by-product of the new scenario. SEC commissioner Roy Kramer has called the bowl games the “backbone” of college football. “No question that the bowl structure is significantly important for the entire structure of college football to work,” Kramer said, adding that this is particularly so for the less prosperous programs (Donovan, 2000). There will always be an uproar when a deserving team is left out of the postseason, though a playoff system based on won-loss record and other performance-based criteria would, presumably, do much to reduce this perennial problem. Adding playoff spots would help, but such a decision would have to be balanced against a schedule that runs too far into January.
Congress joins the debate
Consideration of these benefits and shortcomings has amounted to little more than speculation. In 2009, the debate over a playoff gained some momentum when the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection voted in favor of H.R. 390, a bill designed to ban a postseason NCAA Division I national championship game unless it came about as the result of a playoff.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Tex., said the BCS system is unfair and is unlikely to be altered unless Congress forces the issue. In the Senate, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch called for an investigation aimed at finding out whether the BCS violates the Sherman Antitrust Act (Grow, May 2010).
In spite of President Obama’s support for a playoff initiative, the matter has gone no further down the legislative path. Most members of Congress seem to have adopted a “we-have- better-things-to-do” attitude toward the 2009 House resolution. In January 2010, the U.S Justice Department responded to the Hatch investigation with a letter that questioned the current BCS system. “This seemingly discriminatory action with regard to revenues and access have raised questions regarding whether the BCS potentially runs afoul of the nation’s antitrust laws,” wrote U.S. Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich. Weich suggested that the current administration is “exploring other options” for resolving the situation (Weich, 2010). In Sept. 2010, “Playoff PAC,” a federal committee founded to lobby for a playoff, filed a legal complaint with the Internal Revenue Service intended to sever the relationship between the bowl games and the BCS (Camia, 2011). Little else has been proposed at the federal level and there is no indication that any of this activity will ever acquire the force of law.
One way or another, the major bowl games would certainly play a major role in any postseason playoff. Most plans include the bowls in the picture, building a tourney scenario around the Rose, Sugar, Orange and Fiesta Bowls that features anywhere from four to 16 teams, which would be invited to participate based on regular season performance. A 16-team structure, for example, could be spread out over a schedule composed of four major brackets, with the top four teams receiving a first-round bye (Donovan, 2000). The winners would advance toward a national championship game that could be rotated among the bowls or take place in a college “Super Bowl.” If the regular season ended by early- to mid-December, a three-week championship playoff set in January could settle the issue before the NFL season reaches its climax.
On the other hand, Dan Wetzel, co-author of Death to the BCS, schools would reap far greater profits by hosting playoff games than they would by splitting the purse with the BCS bowl games. And a surprising number of power brokers agree that the bowls themselves would live on. “According to interviews with numerous bowl executives, television deal makers, athletic directors and conference commissioners, all the bowls… would survive albeit in the shadow of the playoff” (Murphy & Wetzel, 2010). Nevertheless, a full-fledged playoff is highly unlikely without direct and committed government intervention (Murphy & Wetzel, 2010).
There’s no denying the fact that a playoff or tournament system is an essential part of the ongoing success of nearly every major sport, college and pro. The persistent argument that imposition of a playoff can, and has been, countered by playoff proponents. The desire to crown an undisputed national champion is the common thread in the debate. Whether determining a unanimous champion means incorporating the bowl games or implementing some new set-up, substantial financial reward awaits schools that have the foresight to push for a playoff.
So much for the financial side of the equation. Fairness too should play an important part in the debate, but for too long has been a back-burner issue. Some say the fair thing to do is maintain the current BCS system because it rewards teams that play rugged schedules and relegates lesser schools to secondary status. Others insist that fairness means all college programs should have an equal opportunity to play for the national championship. Despite the fact that college football has become a high-stakes, big-money industry, a high degree of integrity must be maintained if the college game’s unique traditions, rivalries and widespread appeal is to be maintained. Integrity equates to fairness, and the only way to ensure fairness is to establish a playoff system in which all Division I-A schools have an opportunity to play for the national championship. The BCS system has accustomed fans to a fairly high degree of uniformity in terms of what teams are likely to appear in the bowls. Part of the NCAA basketball tournament’s massive popularity is the element of surprise, which keeps even casual sports fans enthralled for weeks, captivated by comparative underdogs that seem to play their way into contention every year. This is what the BCS so conspicuously lacks.
A 2010 Sports Illustrated article gave a harsh but accurate assessment of the current situation, one which is unlikely to change without federal intervention: “Big-time college football is a world-class beauty with a wart on her forehead. That blemish is the sport’s method for determining a national champion. The NCAA crowns 88 champions in 23 sports. The only champion it does not crown is in Division I-A football...” (Murphy & Wetzel, 2010). Opponents of change continue to cite money and tradition. Until they realize they don’t have to sacrifice either, college football’s legion of rabid fans will continue debating who should have been named national champion…and wonder what it would be like to boast of an undisputed champion.
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