The moment has arrived. For years, sports fans have been pining for a college football playoff. President Obama has made a stink about it. Red states, blue states, city folk, country folk, across all colors and creeds, people moaned about the BCS and college football’s nonsensical method for choosing a national champion.
And now that a playoff is here, it’s time for America to stand up, raise a glass, and … offer polite applause?
That feels about right. On Tuesday night, a committee of university presidents approved a four-team playoff that will start in the 2014 season and run for 12 years. A selection committee will pick the four teams, who will play in two national semifinal games. The sites for these games will rotate among the four current BCS bowls — Rose, Orange, Fiesta, and Sugar — and two more to be determined. The winners of the semifinal games will meet in a national title game (which cities will bid to host) at least six days later.
Well, it’s a start. In most cases, at least a worthy team that loses, say, one regular-season game — like Oklahoma State did this year — will still have a shot to win a title. (Alabama and LSU were picked for this year’s BCS title game, while Oklahoma State was relegated to a relatively meaningless bowl game.) There is sure to be griping about who the fourth team should be; the fifth team will feel wronged, just like the ninth team would in an eight-team tournament, or the 17th team in a 16-team field. No matter what system you set up, someone is bound to be ticked.
Still, I fell hard for the 16-team playoff proposed in the meticulously reported 2010 book Death To The BCS; that plan would bring more teams into the postseason tent, and would deliver more revenues to the schools. It would be a month-long (at least) televised spectacle that would attract even casual sports fans. Sixteen teams was a win-win. So a four-team playoff is a bit of a letdown. The BCS, however, is effectively dead, so we have to cheer at least a little for that.
I asked Matt Sanderson, co-founder of Playoff PAC, a small group of Washington, D.C.-based lawyers dedicated to shattering the current system, for his reaction to the plan. After all, he got his playoff, so he must be pumped, right? He was pleased, but not wildly enthusiastic. “Well, it’s a step in the right direction,” Sanderson says. He cites the competitive bidding for the national title game as a positive. This process should, in theory at least, generate more money for the schools.
His beef is that the semifinal games are still tied to the bowls. Playoff PAC has done painstaking work exposing the hypocrisy and corruption associated with the bowl system. For example, its complaint to the Arizona Secretary of State helped spark an investigation into shenanigans at the Fiesta Bowl—the event’s funds were once used to pay a $33,188.96 tab for ex-bowl CEO John Junker, as well as four golf memberships for Junker and a $1,200 outing to a strip club. Junker, who got paid more than $500,000 annually to organize a once-a-year event, was fired in April 2011.
Playoff PAC has also reported on improper political contributions made by the Sugar Bowl and a four-day cruise taken by Orange Bowl officials and dozens of college athletic directors and their spouses. The group has also challenged the tax-exempt status of bowl games, which are supposed to benefit “student-athletes.” “These bowls have had so many ethical problems,” Sanderson says. “If college decision makers are going to tie their fates with the bowls, they’ll have to live with the consequences.”
In today’s fast-twitch media culture, the four-team playoff won’t be embraced for long, if at all. Fans and reporters shout for a playoff on message boards and on Twitter, get their wish, and then gear up for the next shouting session. We’ll want more teams, we’ll want the bowls to disappear, we’ll call the selection committee stupid. We’ll agree that the current playoff needs improvement. But this isn’t all that terrible. In such a fractured country, at least college football complaining unites people about something.