Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Dirty Business of the BCS

I have a love/hate relationship with college football. Growing up in Northeastern Ohio I was essentially raised on the game and I have a deep appreciation for the nuances and the history of the sport. I have watched the game evolve and players get better as the seasons go by. It’s a remarkable game that provides endless entertainment.

Growing up in Ohio, it’s hard to not have strong feelings about the Buckeyes. Most people love them. Ohio State has a long, illustrious history and some of the greatest figures in the game have spent time in Columbus. Still, there are those who can’t stand Ohio State. They get tired of having all things scarlet and gray crammed down their throats 365 days a year. I can certainly appreciate how they feel.

My problem with college football isn’t specific to Ohio State, but since Ohio State is one of traditional powers in college football the things I hate about the game are very much a part of the Ohio State legacy. The greed, the corruption, the politics, the cheating…Ohio State isn’t above breaking the rules, but anybody who thinks they’re alone is living a lie.

The NCAA enables the sort of plausibly deniable malfeasance that Ohio State engages in to go on at the bigger programs. It’s good for business and in the end that is exactly what college football is. The difference between college football and the NFL is that the NFL is honest about its agenda. The NCAA still tries to pretend that it serves a noble purpose.

In college football everybody is on the take but only the players suffer consequences when their greed gets the better of them. This January the NCAA will parlay it’s approval of a non-sanctioned postseason into hundreds of millions of dollars of which the players who risk life and limb in these games will see nothing in the way of compensation. Sure, the bowl sponsors do arrange for the players to receive gifts but when you think about the money changing hands at the administrative level these gifts are insulting.

Players accept it because the NCAA has managed to convince everybody that it’s in the best interest of the “student athlete” to forego compensation. If players were paid for their performance, the NCAA argues, then they wouldn’t focus on their academic development.

Of course the NCAA doesn’t seem to care about the quality of the education being offered. Many college football players attend college for five or six years without obtaining a degree. Many of the players who do receive diplomas accomplish this feat in convoluted courses of study that have no value in the real world and even less value to the so-called “student athlete” who might want to pursue a career in football.

Apologists will tell you that the money that changes hands gets put back into the schools. They’ll tell you that college football generates revenue that supports gymnastics, swimming, field hockey and tennis. This is true, but not until a lot of old men in suits get paid. Most of the college coaches you’ll see on the sidelines in January make base salaries that exceed one million dollars per year and most of those coaches are under contracts that guarantee that money for a number of years beyond this one. A few coaches even have provisions in their contracts that allow them to renegotiate for a raise if they achieve certain performance benchmarks, few of which pertain to the academic achievements of their teams.

Beyond base salaries coaches are able to broker marketing deals on behalf of the team that secure even more money and most coaches have agents that seek out endorsement contracts that are completely independent of their collegiate responsibilities. So the average compensation package of your typical coach roaming the sidelines in a BCS bowl is quantified in terms of millions of dollars. A few coaches will actually receive bonuses measured in millions if they win their BCS bowls. Meanwhile the players are walking away with a few hundred dollars worth of corporate swag. That’s fair.

Still, I could get past this. Players go into this situation with eyes wide open. They know they’re going to get used for four or five years and some of them manage to negotiate illicit deals on the side that may or may not be facilitated by their coaches. Athletic directors and coaches look the other way and the NCAA ignores these issues until they are so blatantly obvious and embarrassing that somebody has to be sacrificed upon the alter of deniability. At a big revenue-generating program like Ohio State or USC it’s the wayward player, at a less important school you’ll see scholarships stripped and bowl privileges revoked. There’s no oversight committee checking up on the NCAA to ensure that it is enforcing its rules and applying its penalties evenly and none of the college presidents are going to rock the boat because they know that their own programs wouldn’t survive a thorough investigation. So mum’s the word.

But so is money and that brings us to this year’s BCS selections. Obviously the BCS title game pits the number one ranked team in the final BCS standings against the number two ranked team. This year both teams finished the season with one loss. Interestingly enough the top ranked team, Oklahoma, lost to another team that finished the season with one loss: Texas. Even though the usual suspects are telling fans to let it rest, this is cause for concern. Texas seems to have a very legitimate argument that they should be playing for a national title.

The BCS managed to solve that problem by pairing Texas up with a very overrated Ohio State team in the Fiesta Bowl. Logic would dictate that Texas, as the third ranked team in the final BCS poll should play the next best team which, in this case, seems to be Alabama. Alabama spent most of the year ranked number one before losing to Florida in the SEC title game. Of course, if Texas happened to beat Alabama convincingly then Texas would have even more of an argument for being the best team in the country. By relegating Texas to a less appealing battle with an Ohio Sate team that has a recent history of BCS failure, Texas won’t have as compelling a case. Everybody, you see, beats Ohio Sate in January.

The BCS BS doesn’t stop there. BCS officials weren’t happy to see Utah and Boise State finish in the top 10. Granted, both schools come from weak conferences but they are the only unbeaten teams remaining and a lot of fans would like to see how they fare against traditional powers. Boise State famously upset Oklahoma in a BCS game two years ago but it was on the strength of a gimmicky play so most people think it was a fluke.

The BCS doesn’t care about flukes. The BCS cares about two things: money and credibility. And credibility only matters because it influences future revenue. Credibility is why Texas is being insulted with a game against an Ohio State team that beat 10 creampuffs and it’s why the BCS doesn’t want teams that are in non-BCS conferences winning BCS games. If that happens a couple more times the BCS will have to re-evaluate which conferences deserve the BCS honor. The ACC and the Big East won’t like that.

Another problem with schools like Boise State and Utah is that they don’t travel many fans. It was bad enough when West Virginia failed to sell its ticket allotment last year and bowl officials had to fill seats with random people from the streets and it hurt West Virginia to be on the hook for that money. The reality is that most schools don’t have a national fan base that can buy tickets to bowl games on the west coast. Most schools aren’t in the middle of a metropolitan area that has enough people with the money to make the trip to watch a BCS bowl. So the BCS likes to keep the club exclusive.

Which is fair, but don’t run around claiming that the BCS Championship game is the national championship fans have been looking for. The problem is that a lot of people will lose interest if the BCS admits that what they’re really doing is arbitrarily nominating a champion from a number of select schools that generate a lot of money.

That’s why the BCS opted to punish by sending them to the Sugar Bowl to face Texas. Rather than invite unbeaten Utah to Arizona to face Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, a game many Utah fans could rive to, BCS officials begrudgingly sent Utah to be sacrificed for being insolent enough to shake up the final poll. Alabama was two scores shy of playing for the national title. They won 12 games over the course of the regular season and only lost to a favored Florida team in the SEC title game. Utah’s unbeaten and it’s players relish a shot at playing on the national stage but reality tells us that Utah won’t last a quarter. Stranger things have happened but the smart money says Utah won’t even be competitive against Alabama. But Utah might put up a fight with Ohio State, and could beat Virginia Tech and/or Cincinnati which is why the BCS didn’t make those games a reality.

It’s interesting that the two weakest teams in the BCS picture are playing each other. That will give the casual observer the illusion that the game is interesting. Cincinnati won a disappointing Big East conference this year and Virginia Tech staggered to a win in the beleaguered ACC. Nobody things either of these teams worthy of a BCS honor but they won titles in conferences that are guaranteed a BCS berth. So the BCS swept these two embarrassing dust bunnies under the rug by having them play each other.

If Utah were to throttle either of those schools the BCS would have a lot of explaining to do. How could the BCS continue to deny entire conferences access to the BCS party when it’s been proven that those conferences can beat BCS teams in big games? The same is true if Utah holds its own against Ohio State. The BCS can’t accommodate everybody which is why fans want playoffs. If the Utahs and Boise States of the world compete toe to toe with BCS schools in BCS games the push for playoffs will continue to strengthen.

So the BCS manipulates the matches to minimize scrutiny. We might carp about some of the selections, but after the games are played fans will accept the results. As long as those results don’t impugn the integrity of the BCS the BCS officials are happy. Alabama will clobber Utah, Virginia Tech and Cincy will wallow in mediocrity and Texas won’t have much to brag about if they humiliate Ohio State. In the end, the BCS will have successfully determined who the best team in the country is and nobody will have room to complain. Most importantly, the money will end up in the right hands once again.

And that’s what college football is all about.

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