Sunday, May 13, 2007

Fair Competition III: Making Meaning

Let’s jump on another merry-go-round, shall we? All of these following issues have the same general theme: making sure that the individual games have integrity and matter. By matter, we mean that each game contributes to the overall goal of choosing a champion. But it’s key to remember that each side has different goals, so each game contributes differently in each system. Both the pro-playoff objective side and the anti-playoff subjective side will claim that their system ensures that every game in the whole season is important, but as usual, their perspectives are slightly different (and based on their own definitions, of course). Anti-playoff fans generally think that looking at all of the season’s games at the end of the season and using their whole body of work to rank the teams gives each game meaning. Pro-playoff fans generally think that regular season games have meaning because they’re used to determine who gets to the playoff, while the playoff games have meaning because they’re used to determine who wins the championship. Both of these assertions are basically right and correspond well with these fans’ overall subjective and objective positions.

One of the main things we have to examine is the seasonal setup. Both sides have a regular season – for the anti-playoff side, the regular season is the whole season. All of the games. For the pro-playoff side, the regular season is all of the games before the playoff. The regular season functions very similarly for both sides too – the goal, as it were, of the regular season is to find the best team(s). Yes, we’re using the term ‘best’ to mean the team(s) that achieved the most throughout the season – the same definition as the anti-playoff side uses as their ultimate goal. It is subjective – but that’s okay by the pro-playoff side. They’re fine with it (as long as they get to tack on an objective playoff at the end). The slight difference between the way the two sides see the regular season is that the anti-playoff side focuses on the top one team it produces while the pro-playoff side focuses on the top 4, 8, 16 teams (however many they want in the playoff). Since both sides use the regular season in this fashion, all games are of major importance in determining the rankings. Even the games between the bottom-dwellers can be used to determine win-loss records or gauge how good the best teams are and can be factored into the overall picture.

Everything seems hunky-dory, right? Finally something both sides can agree on! Yeah, right. The fighting starts when the pro-playoff side tries to tack their playoff on. As we’ve seen, both sides are adept at knocking each other down. Here’s how they attempt to do it in this realm. (Let’s start with the previous arguments, just to get up a head of steam…)

“A playoff would settle things on the field”

“Any team can beat any other team on any given day”

“Champions win when it counts.”

“So the regular season is devalued,
since only the playoff games ‘count’, right?”

“The regular season still has value –
you’ve gotta win those games to get to the playoff”


“A playoff devalues the regular season”

According to the anti-playoff side, once you cross the divide between the regular season and the playoff, and the setup turns purely objective, the games in the regular season cease to matter – the championship depends only on what happens in the playoff. We’ve already seen that the regular season games matter during the regular season. The pro-playoff side will counter that they’re also the main thing that determines the makeup of the playoff, proving their importance again. Regular season games and records usually determine which teams get first-round byes, home-field advantage, and more favorable matchups, all of which are very important to teams. But those things don’t change the fact that if you lose in the playoff, regardless of what you accomplished in the regular season, you’re going home. The anti-playoff side has two main examples they’ll use in showing the regular season’s meaninglessness when a playoff starts.

The first is the upset. Yes we’ve seen this argument before, and they’ll use it once again bring up the point that any team can win on any given day. And again, this complaint is based on a breaking of their own rules, not the pro-playoff side’s. Giving preferential treatment to upsets in a playoff “when it counts” works against finding the best overall team, which is the anti-playoff side’s ultimate goal. In a playoff it’s possible that with an upset, the seasonally better team goes home and the seasonally worse team moves on because of a single game. That’s unacceptable to them and their subjective system. But it sure makes for thrilling games, doesn’t it? That’s one of the pro-playoff fans’ main responses here, and they point to March Madness and the allure of cinderellas as proof. But their other, more powerful response is specific to the college football season and attempts to show that upsets wouldn’t be an issue in either an objective or a subjective system. Since a college football playoff would only include the top few teams, all of the teams that make it are going to be high quality, great teams that are extremely close to each other in terms of who’s seasonally better. (In fact, they’ll be a lot closer than teams in other sports that hold playoffs since it’ll only be the top 5%-10% included, whereas other sports include anywhere from 20%-50%.) There aren’t going to be any major upsets since all of the teams will be highly ranked.

The second example anti-playoff fans will use to combat the pro-playoff's ‘the regular season still has value’ argument is the possibility of rematches, which they also see as inherently unfair. This argument would seemingly hold more weight, since it attacks the pro-playoff sides by claiming that they’re breaking their own objective rules. Here’s where it gets fun. Guess which phrase they bring up to support this viewpoint? Settled on the field. Genius. (Are you getting dizzy yet? Me too.) New England beat the Giants when they played them in December before the playoffs in 2007. They settled it on the field. Why should they have to prove they’re better again? Pittsburgh beat Baltimore not once but twice during the 2008 regular season – why did they have to do it again in the playoffs? Hadn’t they already proved twice on the field that they were better? According to anti-playoff fans, staging a rematch in a playoff, when it counts, makes the regular season matchup meaningless.

But there’s a trick to this argument. We already saw that a single game, on the field better, can’t be used in a subjective system to determine seasonally better. The anti-playoff side used this defense back when we originally encountered the on the field argument. Now that they’re trying to use it to combat an objective playoff system, it should work, right? Wrong. They’re not trying to say that the playoff portion of the season is meaningless, they’re saying that the subjective, regular season portion is meaningless. The divide between the regular season and the playoff, which got them upset in the first place, is blocking them here. If the anti-playoff side is going to use the objective, settled on the field argument, then the pro-playoff side can point to the fact that the regular season, where the anti-playoff side is focusing their attack, is subjective. They’re using one of the anti-playoff side’s main weapons against them. Brilliant.

This shows us yet again what happens when one side attempts to poach on the other’s territory – they end up proving each other’s point. In order to attack the playoff, the anti-playoff side needs to resort to the objective on the field argument. In order to defend their regular season as meaningful, the pro-playoff side needs to admit that every game is important in a subjective system. Around and around we go on the regular season merry-go-round. Let’s jump over to the post-season ride.

“The college football season is nothing like a playoff”


“The whole college football season is already a playoff”

One of the main reasons a playoff is such an attractive option is that the playoff games in an objective system automatically have a great deal of meaning. The winning team moves on, still in contention for the championship, while the losing team is out. Each round of the playoff is infused with the importance of the whole season, and when you get to the title game, the only thing that matters to the championship is the outcome of that one game. The importance of each game is clearly evident. So, obviously, one of the best ways to ensure that games in your system have a lot of meaning is to claim “playoff” status. The pro-playoff side does this easily because, well, their plan is a playoff after the regular season. Duh. But, interestingly, the anti-playoff side tries to get in on the act as well, claiming playoff status for their whole regular season. Does this claim have any merit? Well, sort of. Say it with me – it depends on how you look at it.

No, the college football regular season is not a “playoff” in the strict sense of the word – but that doesn’t mean that it’s not playoff-like in many respects. (Two more extreme and unrealistic views that people on both sides of the argument misuse… seeing a pattern here?) Interestingly, pro-playoff and anti-playoff fans use two very similar pieces of evidence when supporting either of these positions. Anti-playoff fans say that losing one game can mean that you’re out of the running for the championship, therefore the season is like a playoff; pro-playoff fans say that you can lose one or more games and still be in the running for the championship, therefore the season is nothing like a playoff. Two sides of the same coin. The key to fully understanding this coin is looking at it objectively or subjectively, just like we have been, and realizing that both of those statements are true, depending on which side you’re looking at them from. And as with our other coins, you can’t discount one side without eliminating the other.

Some seasons it’s easier to see one side than the other. Anti-playoff fans will point to times when the BCS matched up two undefeated teams, or harp on the fact that as long as a BCS conference team goes undefeated they’ll virtually a lock to be in the championship game. Pro-playoff fans will point to times when there were no undefeated teams, or harp on the fact that more often than not, a one-loss team makes it into the championship game. Yes, a loss in the current regular season might eliminate you from the discussion of a subjective champion. But it might not. It all depends on what side of the fence you’re already on and what definitions you’re using.

Fair Competition II: On the Field <> Fair Competition IV: the Big Picture

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