Power Football

After lots of noisy debate, the college football playoff shook out exactly as the game's most powerful interests could've wanted. Don't act too surprised.
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If you need an example of why most televised sports talk is a complete waste—a specific one, not the ambient one provided by any TV left running in the background—it would be hard to do better than the conversation surrounding the college football playoff. Conversation is maybe not the right word for it, admittedly—here were weeks of dueling monologues/debate about whether Baylor or TCU deserved to be the one-loss team included in the final four, all of which noise turned out to be for nothing. There is an argument to be made about whether Ohio State deserved that final spot, from which it bumped both of those one-loss Big 12 competitors. But once that argument began, there was only one way it was going to end.

Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Oregon are all huge programs with the attendant large national following. TCU and Baylor are small private schools in North Texas. They aren't even the most popular schools in the area—the DFW Metroplex is dominated by graduates of Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma. They don't have nearly the money, the fan-base, or the tradition of the other schools, which puts them at a serious disadvantage. Not on the field, necessarily, but certainly in the circular, cynical debate over which teams will get to compete for college football's national championship.

That's not something you will see anyone on the committee admit, but the way things turned out makes it difficult to see things any other way. The committee wasn't going to tab a 2-loss Ohio State team over an undefeated TCU team, but if they both had one loss, why not put the bigger school in the field? This is certainly the perspective of an ESPN executive, whose job is not to create the most representative field, but to get the best possible TV rating. And ESPN is where college football gets talked about. You can see the problem, probably.

***

In theory, the point of the selection committee was to remove any such crass commercial considerations from the decision-making process. The marketing people would have us believe they are a bunch of selfless public servants who tirelessly broke down the film and weighed resumes in order to find the best four teams in the nation. Maybe that's what happened, and maybe this is the decision the committee reached after doing so. Maybe they looked at blind resumes, as they were supposed to. Or maybe they didn't. Only those on the committee really know which happened.

In practice, this sounds an awful like the Chinese Wall that is supposed to exist between the buy-side and sell-side of an investment bank like Goldman Sachs. There's no reason to expect this wall to be any more impregnable than that one; the people on the committee all represent groups who want to ensure they get a cut of the proceedings. There are five athletic directors on the committee, one from each of the five Power Conferences—the Big 12, Pac 12, SEC, ACC and Big Ten.

You don't need any advanced statistics to pick the teams. You can hire a PR firm for that. And you can use basic Game of Thrones logic to divine the field:

1) Alabama - SEC champion. The SEC has dominated the national landscape over the last decade. They almost have to be in the field, as they give the entire thing a sense of legitimacy.

2) Oregon - Pac 12 champion. They are the only game in town west of the Big 12. If they aren't in, that's almost half the country without any representation in the field.

3) Florida State - ACC champion. The defending national champions, the only undefeated team and the most compelling season-long drama on TV. There's no scenario in which an undefeated FSU team is getting left out of the field. If they got snubbed and won their bowl game, it would be hard to argue they weren't the champs.

4) Ohio State - Big Ten champion. If you look at a map of the US, #1 is #3 are in the bottom right and #2 is in the top left. The middle and the top right are completely open. There are a lot of people in those states, and they care about football, have money, and own televisions. It would be nice if they had someone to root for.

The resulting field covers almost every part of the country that cares about college football; we can assume that the northeast is okay sitting this one out. If these were the best four teams in the country, it was an awfully happy coincidence for everyone involved. Which one of these programs is bringing less to the table than Baylor and TCU in terms of TV ratings and attendance? Baylor and TCU play in stadiums that are literally half the size of those in which these four teams hold their home games. This is a fact, and it's a metaphor, too.

***

TCU's Gary Patterson and Baylor's Art Briles knew the jig was up. Baylor was under fire all season because of a very light non-conference schedule, but Briles knew the only way his team would get into the field was if they were undefeated. That's what he stressed after the announcement:

Briles' logic is simple. The committee just can't keep out an undefeated team from one of the five power conferences—it would look ridiculous. Once Baylor picked up a loss, the committee could always come up with a reason to keep them out of the field.

TCU scheduled a good Big Ten team in non-conference. Did it make a difference? No. Patterson was more zen about the whole thing than Briles, who apparently chose not to go gentle into that good night. Here's Patterson after TCU's win on the regular season’s final Saturday, when asked about their chances to make the field:

"I'd be sad for my kids and this university, because I think they've done everything they can possibly do, and I don't think we did anything today to hurt ourselves... Upset or mad is UAB dropping football. To me, that's upset or mad—coaches lost their jobs and kids don't have a place to play; they don't have a bowl game. We'd be disappointed.

"One of the reasons I've had patience in the playoff thing is TCU's been sitting outside the circle for years. I don't know what happens [Sunday]. We've done everything we can do. I think we did it at the end of this ballgame the same way we started it, with class."

If they wanted to put up some numbers that impress the committee, TCU and Baylor should have been trying to boost their TV ratings. That's a language that people who make decisions for businesses worth hundreds of millions of dollars understand. But there are limitations on what's possible, there, and those limitations matter to the people who make this decision. How much they matter is a thing fans will have to guess at, although the committee's decision does make the guessing a good deal easier.

***

Picture a scenario in which Texas and OU were in Baylor and TCU's position, and it's hard to imagine the Big 12 not getting a playoff spot. If Texas was left out, a number of phone calls would be made from people who have given millions of dollars to Texas senator John Cornyn, who is the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and knows people who know people. That is how the game is played at this level, and how it is won.

This is not about fairness, and arguably even less about fairness than it was during the late and unlamented BCS days. It’s about who can put the most money on the table and who can exert the most political pressure on the decision-makers, as it has always been.

There are two types of people on the committee: athletic directors and public figures with a reputation, earned or unearned, for integrity. The athletic directors all represent powerful constituencies and are there to make sure their people get a piece of the pie. People like Condoleeza Rice and the retired USAF general may or may not know football; that isn't the point. They are human shields for the AD's, and they are well-compensated for that service. Their integrity, such as it existed in the first place, will survive this.

In the world of big-time college sports, an AD essentially has two functions. The first is to deal with the boosters whose checks pay their salaries and to maximize the profit margins of their programs; this is what they are selected for and how well they do it determines how they move up the food chain. Steve Patterson, the new AD at Texas, was previously the AD at Arizona State, where he raised a bunch of money and raised the profile of the university. That's how an AD gets a bigger job.

When you get a bunch of those guys in the room, they are going to do what they know best, which is to play power politics and make as much money for their schools as possible. What other conclusion is there to reach after the powers retire to a camera-free room and, in secret and without explanation, hammer out a decision? What’s left of the debate is speculative: what are they talking about, or more darkly how will they justify the decision that seems inevitable. If you wanted to set up a non-transparent system that would allow you to come to any conclusion you wanted and justify a rationale later, this is exactly how you would do it.

Both unfair snubs and unaccountable committees of uninspiring experts are a part of college sports, but it's hard to compare this to the annual exercise in subjectivity that is the NCAA Tournament, if only because the stakes are so much higher. Many more deserving teams are left out of a field of four than a field of 68. More importantly, a Final Four means that at least one of the Power Conferences will be on the outside looking in.

That's why it's hard to imagine the playoff sticking to four teams, as there are too many stakeholders who are getting cut out of the action under the current system; the amount of money on the table, if nothing else, suggests that an expansion to eight games is inevitable. It doesn't matter how that will affect the regular season or whether the players need to put three more brutal (and, of course, uncompensated) games on their bodies. If the money is there for the games to happen, the powers that be—the same powers that picked these four flawed teams—will figure out a way to play the games.

This year's final four does not quite smell right; the process that produced it has never quite looked right. But when analyzing an entrenched power structure like that in college football, the key is to see the world for how it is and not how we might want it to be. For all the NCAA's rhetoric and all the other noise, college football is reliably and always about the money. It will always be about the money. There was never any other way it was going to be. In amateur sports, as everywhere else, we can only trust that the market will provide, and only take what it gives.


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