Monday, July 16, 2012

College Football Playoffs and the Illusion of Change

The biggest news in college sports- which has to be Top Five for biggest sports story overall, right?- is the advent of a four team playoff in college football. Starting in 2014, a selection committee will pick four teams. The two semi-final games will occur on New Year's and be played at one of six bowl sites. Those six sites aren't quite defined yet, except that we know the Rose Bowl and the Champions Bowl will be involved. The championship game will be played on a neutral site, selected by bidding, on the first Monday in January- which the NCAA desperately hopes you'll start calling "Championship Monday".

This is a big step, and a lot of football fans are right to be happy. Once we get to the four teams, we'll have a rational, objective, transparent way to pick the best of them. What's more, this is the kind of thing that almost always leads to further changes (such as an expanded playoff or a rethinking of conference structures). But for now, I'm actually kind of stunned at how little changes. It's like the NCAA- and the conferences, who had to approve of this change- went out of their way to preserve as many of college football's bad ideas as possible.

The problem with the BCS system was that it was subjective; the number of wins was not the final word on a team's season, and even other objective measures (think the NFL's tiebreakers) didn't always matter. Instead, the BCS turned to things like "strength of schedule" that had no real definition. This made the BCS system opaque, unpredictable, and ultimately illegitimate. And here- well, wins and tie breakers still aren't going to be the final word. If they were, then that would be all, and we wouldn't need a selection committee. But we will have a selection committee, and its choice, rather than any objective measure, is going to be the final word. And thus, the national champion will still have a legitimacy problem (though certainly not one as big as it has under the BCS system).

My guess is that this is all to preserve the conferences- or at least, the major conferences (the SEC, Big Ten, etc.). After all, this national playoff is going to be the final word on each college football season, and if it were based entirely on objective performance, than all of the conferences' little gimmicks- individual tournaments, individual champions, traditional rivalries- would become irrelevant pretty quickly. The conferences would also find themselves under intense pressure to adopt uniform rules and standards on the (persuasive) theory that the objective measures would only really mean something if every team played under the same rules. If you take all that away from the conferences, you pretty much break them. Thus, a selection committee, that can at least stall.

The problem is, well, the major conferences are horrible. They're corrupt and collusive and actively trying to push out smaller conferences, and thus, drive down competition. If anything, this system gives them more power to do that; what are the odds that the selection committee's four team slate won't be dominated by the SEC, Big Ten, and Pac-12? Who wants odds on that? And so, the conferences stay put, regardless of whether they're any good for the sport, the schools, or the athletes.

Of course, the biggest problem in college football is that it's entirely unclear how much the college football heirarchy cares about being good to the athletes in the first place. They're not allowed to share in the tremendous wealth they create for the schools and conferences. Hell, they're not even allowed to profit off of their own names. Sure, the NCAA will point to scholarships, but even setting aside the fact that it's an open question as to how many athletes complete a useful degree, that compensation is not at all commensurate with what coaches, athletic directors, and administrators get. This new system is poised to make the problem worse; a national playoff is certainly going to be tremendously popular; participating teams are going to be flush with new revenue. But the players will still get the same meager piece of the pie they're getting now. If a particular player does something particular amazing, he'll still be in no position to capitalize off of his newfound fame.

And all of that new revenue- along with the fame and prestige- is going to be very tempting for schools, so they're going to throw more and more resources into the football program- and the football programs already suck up way too many of a campus' resources. Schools are also going to feel more pressure to leave famous, winning programs alone- which is to say, pressure to turn a blind eye to bad decisions.

Now, we all know you just can't devise a playoff system that will cure all of the social ills in college sports. Hell, the very presence of any playoff system is going to create the increased pressure for wins, revenue, and prestige. But you can devise a system that addresses some of them and doesn't make the others appreciably worse. Specifically, an objective-berth playoff system would create some legitimacy and cut the conferences down to size- and since the conferences actually reinforce the other major problems (exploitation of players and misallocation of resources), it would make progress on those issues, too.

Like I said, this is a step in the right direction- but it seems to be meticulously calculated to be as small of a step as possible.

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