Published June 11, 2012 - 7:29am
NEW: Discuss this topic in the Google+ community for SEC fans.
The political process moving college football from the bowl system to a playoff now appears focused on the method of selecting participants. The media and some conference officials, notably SEC boss Mike Slive, advocate a “four best teams” approach that would inevitably involve some sort of selection committee. This idea is borrowed from the NCAA basketball tournament, which uses a ten-member committee, composed of athletics directors and conference commissioners, to select at-large teams and seed the overall field.
If the goal is simply to mimic basketball, this is a fine approach for a football playoff. But in the media-fueled rush to homogenize college football, college football’s leaders may ignore a unique opportunity to bring meaningful reform to the sport’s postseason. If all the leaders do is graft an additional round onto the bowl system, then nothing has really changed except to give media critics a more traditional “bracket” to salivate over.
Real change can be summed up in a single word: transparency. Lack of transparency is an issue that plagues all sports, not just college football. It’s even a problem with the hallowed NCAA basketball tournament. Although the selection committee for that event has taken superficial steps towards transparency in recent years, the process remains very much closed to public scrutiny. Football shouldn’t mimic basketball, but rather learn from its shortcomings with respect to transparency.
For one thing, a committee dominated by athletics directors is not the way to go. There’s little public confidence in mostly anonymous university administrators. Athletics directors are fundraisers and politicians. If you want to inspire public trust in the selection process, the selectors need to be people the public knows and respects with regard to football judgment. And that means the coaches.
Here, the typical media member will complain the coaches are ignorant about everything outside their own practice field. The coaches poll is traditionally maligned as a meaningless exercise that coaches delegate to their information directors. The only people with a broad understanding of what goes on, of course, are the members of the media, according to the media. Some have advocated a selection committee composed primarily of such folks.
This would be the absolute worst outcome from a transparency standpoint. There’s no group less committed to transparency than the press. The media thrives on withholding information from the public—a product of the post-Watergate culture of anonymous sourcing. Just look at the voting for Pro Football’s Hall of Fame, a process controlled by a media-only selection committee. There are no requirements for any media selector to disclose their votes, and the committee’s deliberations are condemned to a level of secrecy that would impress a Papal conclave.
A media-only committee also raises the specter of reality TV-style manipulation. What drives the media is not rewarding great football, but creating more dramatic storylines. This is a major reason so many media pundits demand a playoff in the first place. They love the idea of a scrappy underdog—that is, a team that underperformed in the regular season—rising up in the postseason. There’s also the prospect of media members punishing programs for non-football-related scandals, which of course are usually generated by the media.
No, the best selectors for a college football playoff are the coaches. Obviously coaches have their own individual biases that would come into play. Yet compared to the media or the athletic directors, the coaches have the strongest interest in producing the best football match-ups, free of outside political considerations. That doesn’t mean simply sticking with the current coaches poll. That poll is admittedly flawed.
A more transparent process would be to have the coaches in each conference elect a representative to the selection committee. (Obviously, it would be a coach whose team is not in contention for the playoff that year.) It would probably be a good idea to say no coach can serve more than once on said committee. These representatives could assemble a few days after the conference championship games, thereby giving them time to review the candidates and their seasons. The representatives would then deliberate and vote in full public view.
This wouldn’t just be transparent. It would be a marketing bonanza. Imagine a Thursday night primetime special in early December where the coaches’ committee gathers to decide who gets into the playoff.
Transparency shouldn’t end with the selection process either. It must also extend to the finances of any playoff. We’ve already seen how the bowl system defies even rudimentary notions of transparency with the recent Fiesta Bowl scandal. Even the most diehard college football traditionalist must concede the bowl committees are petri dishes for financial mismanagement. Given that college football is dominated by a government-run universities, a more transparent financial system is called for.
The new playoff should commit to real-time public disclosure of all financial transactions. Every salary, every expense, every line item. The technology exists to accomplish this right now.
Finally, transparency should extend to the administration of a playoff. That means public access to any bids from host sites, correspondence to and from playoff officials, public debates over any rules changes, and so forth. In short, the playoff should adhere to the same standards as government agencies typically do under Freedom of Information laws.
Obviously, college football’s leaders won’t rush to embrace transparency out of an abundance of bureaucratic caution. But transparency isn’t about public disclosure for its own sake. For one thing, it’s about fostering a greater environment of trust among the disparate conferences. The reason a playoff has yet to emerge is lingering territoriality and mistrust between the major players. Transparency is the best way to deal with these problems.
Second, transparency would preserve and enhance college football’s unique sporting identity. So much of the playoff push has been about destroying that identity. Full transparency would give college football a selling point that no other sport—certainly not the secretive and dictatorial NFL—could lay claim to. Transparency would also neutralize a key attack point used by college football critics in the media.
Finally, transparency would simply demystify the entire playoff process. In the end, most college football fans just want to see the great teams play one another. They don’t want to endlessly obsess over polls, computers, committees and process. If you have a simple, easy-to-follow system where all the details are available if you want them, then there’s no mystery. Determining a college football champion should not be rocket science.