I wasn’t going to write much about the new four-team playoff. Maybe it’s the ennui of the offseason setting in, but the prospect of rehashing all the same arguments one more time just wasn’t very appealing.
What finally spurred me to write something was seeing the NFL Networks’s “Top 10 Traditions” show on Thursday night.
The NFL’s ‘great’ traditions included such time-worn nuggets as ‘Cheerleaders’, ‘Mascots’, ‘Tailgating’ and, lo and behold, the ‘pre-game flyover.’ Did you know that pre-game flyovers are an NFL tradition? Neither did I. But Brett Michaels of Poison fame and various other human debris showed up on the network to tell us all about it.
This horrible show reminded me of what’s at stake here. The advent of a playoff carries the danger of turning college football into a pale imitation of the NFL which, to me, would be the worst fate imaginable for such a unique and interesting sport.
I don’t want to rip The League too much. It has its charm and is obviously very popular. But it’s a product first and a sport second. It has a brilliant marketing strategy that has figured out how long it takes for someone to go to the bathroom during a commercial break. A large portion of its fan base follows the sport purely for fantasy league purposes. The Super Bowl is a social event centered primarily around gambling. The league as we know it began in 1970 and, like almost everything else created after that date, it tends to gravitate towards tackiness, soullessness and self indulgence.
College football shouldn’t lurch toward that model and I don’t think most fans want that either. While I don’t doubt that some do want it and that others don’t care one way or the other, I’m not convinced they have the best interests of the sport at heart.
Don’t get me wrong. Even a traditionalist such as myself isn’t mortally opposed to this four-team format. But I’m also a realist. The new system does not actually solve anything when it comes to picking a champion. It just expands the playoff pool. There is still a poll, except now we will call it a selection committee. There will still be subjective judgements that lead to major disagreements, with teams crying over being left out or discriminated against. And, if history is any indication, the answer to this problem will be an expansion of the playoffs, first to 8, then 12, then 16 and so on. Eventually, the regular season will be virtually meaningless and college football will be nothing more than NFL-lite. Congratulations.
[Future reporter to future player: "What's your goal this year? Player: "Same as it is every year. To go 9-3, win our division and make the playoffs."]
Some people will welcome that expansion and have no problem with it and even push for it. My first instinct is that they should be kept as far away from college football as possible. My second instinct is that many of them probably like college football, but they don’t like it quite as much as the NFL or basketball and therefore the history and traditions that so many fans hold sacred don’t mean as much to them.
I grew up watching the old bowl system and it never once occurred to me back then that there was anything wrong with it. College football wasn’t about this ravenous quest for a national title and television rights, but about beating your rival, going to the big bowl game, hanging out on campus before the game and singing the fight song. Oh, sure, the polls came out at the end of the year and people argued all offseason about how their team got shafted in one way or another. But your team was still the best and your rival still sucked no matter what happened.
It was fun.
Somewhere along the way, that was all dismissed as inadequate. Think of all the money to be made if we can come up with a new way to crown a champion, they said. Revenue streams was the mantra. And so the BCS–essentially a two-team ‘playoff’–was created. Old rivalries died. Conferences broke up. Bowls lost their importance. The sport became more popular even as dissatisfaction with the postseason grew, mostly because it titillated fans’ natural paranoia about injustice, conspiracy and corruption (feelings many in the playoff-hungry media were only so happy to stoke).
Now the solution to the old ‘problem’ is a four-team playoff that is replete with the same issues that dogged the two-teamer. It’s just that no one will admit it because it’s more important to them that the camel’s nose of the playoff has finally been snuck under the tent. Besides, we all know it’s only temporary, even if the contract is for 12 years. Some are already pining for an eight-team affair, but I think any move in that direction would be a huge mistake.
My stance is that if we are going to create an imperfect way of crowning a champion, we should do so while holding on to as much of college football’s history and tradition as possible. It is this history and tradition, as well as the connection that alumni and fans and small towns have to their teams, that makes the sport special.
But if a small playoff leads to a bigger playoff and therefore to an end to the sanctity of the regular season and disruption of these traditions, then the sport as we know it is finished. Do I trust that the powers-that-be and their willing allies in the media will prevent this from happening? I do not. Do I think we should take this gamble? No.
So if we are going to have an imperfect, unsatisfying championship process that degrades the value of the regular season, then we might as well go back to the old bowl system. It may have been imperfect, but in many ways it was far more appealing than what we’ve been dabbling with of late.
I’m under no illusion that we can recreate some lost college football arcadia–some change will always be necessary–but we can certainly be more mindful of the direction we are taking.
Otherwise we might wake up one day with a 16-team playoff…and Poison performing at half time instead of the marching band.