Who actually believed the College Football Playoff is fair?
The BCS was crummy, everyone seemed to agree. A glitch kept occurring, about every other year, where college football’s regular season would conclude with some one-loss juggernaut or a no-loss team from the Lilliputian Athletic Conference missing out on the title game by the slightest of margins, having to settle for a Rose Bowl berth while two dubiously qualified squads played for a national championship. Fans grumbled about this. A single postseason game, the logic went, was not enough to determine the best team in the country. The system must be changed! everyone seemed to agree.
The people in charge, benevolent servants of the masses they are, heard everyone’s concerns (after a decade of not hearing them, for whatever reason) and made a suggestion. How about a four-team tournament, consisting of three games? That way, the one-loss juggernaut and the undefeated LAC team would be given a chance to compete for a title. This was a terrific idea, everyone seemed to agree, and the people in charge opened a bottle of celebration scotch, happy that they had satisfied the grumbling fans and confident that no team would ever again complain about not being given a chance to play for a championship.
So imagine the surprise on various NCAA executives’ faces as they learned on Sunday that Baylor and TCU are displeased to be on the outside of the tournament looking in, and that both teams feel they have cogent arguments as to why they should have been included. We would thrash Ohio State, the coaches, players, and fans are protesting, if only you would give us the opportunity to do so.
It’s unfair, they wail. The problem is, the folks who run the College Football Playoff and the NCAA only appear to be interested in fairness. The competition’s official site the playoff includes four teams (as opposed to, say, eight) in order to “[preserve] the importance and the excitement and compelling nature of the [college football] regular season, which is the best in sports.” This is a way of saying the tournament’s structure is inspired by brand consciousness, not egalitarianism.
College football’s appeal – and by extension, its plentiful revenue stream – is derived not just from meaningful games being played in January, but in October and November as well. Many years, the Iron Bowl is a sort of championship. To turn it into a match-up that determines the difference between a two-seed and a six-seed in a postseason tournament would be to devalue it, both in an abstract and a monetary sense. The actions NCAA execs have exhibited over the past handful of years as they have struggled to keep college athletes unpaid and unorganized should not lead us to believe they don’t know what they’re doing. Profit maximization is the game, and they play it skilfully, if not tactfully.
On Sunday afternoon, Arkansas AD and playoff committee chairman Jeff Long hemmed and hawed like a guileless politician when questioned by ESPN’s Rece Davis about his group’s selection process, but he didn’t particularly need to. (What was he protecting himself against? The excluded schools were going to be angry regardless.) Because of the way the system had been set up, there were no bad choices available to Long and his colleagues, only more or less incorrect ones. A bracket of Alabama v Ohio State and Oregon v Florida State might be imperfect, depending on who you ask, but there is broad consensus that it’s a fine slate of games. This is something fans want. It is what the NCAA wants, too.
Where fans and the NCAA diverge is on the issue of fairness. Long’s mush-mouthed justifications are instructive, just not in the way they’re supposed to be. By trotting out a be-suited explainer-bot week after week to kinda-sorta-but-not-really clarify his committee’s decisions, the NCAA can plausibly claim to regard the playoff as an epistemic exercise, not a spectacular cash-grab. You see, the fact that the playoff is than the BCS is simply a welcome byproduct of an effort to make college football more equitable. It is definitely not the other way around.
Last month, Charlie Pierce that Long’s committee would select teams based on name recognition rather than merit: “The playoff decision will be made not on the relative strength of the two teams but the relative strength of the two brands.” Because – if you squint hard enough – every team in the top six has a legitimate claim to the playoff spot, it’s hard to prove that Ohio State got the four-seed because they are bigger (in the sense that ExxonMobil is bigger than Verizon) than either of the Texas schools. Whether that’s the case or not, Pierce’s cynicism isn’t ill-founded. A body that claims to be invested in ideals while being demonstrably interested in profit shouldn’t be given the benefit of the doubt. In the end, Baylor and TCU got short-changed by a system that was bound to short-change somebody. The playoff is designed to fatten bottom lines not to make fans and teams happy. Fairness has always been a secondary concern.