Sunday, May 13, 2007

Tradition and the Season

“College football is the only sport
that doesn’t use a playoff” &

“A playoff works for the NFL, college basketball,
and other college football divisions”


“Just because other sports have a playoff
doesn’t mean college football needs to” &

“There are major differences between
those other sports and D1-A football”

It’s good to tie these two arguments together, even when they appear separately, because when pro-playoff fans use the “college football is the only sport that doesn’t have a playoff” argument, implied is the belief that an objective playoff works well for other sports. Without that implied belief, the first statement completely fails as an effective argument. There’s a few main factors that make these sports both distinctly similar to and different from division I-A college football – in general, pro-playoff fans will emphasize the similarities between college football and other sports, saying that a playoff could work because of them, while anti-playoff fans will emphasize the differences, saying that a playoff wouldn’t work because of them.

(An important thing to be aware of is that you can’t switch either sports or factors in the middle of making comparison arguments because the factors that makes college football similar to one sport make it different from another. You can’t switch it up and say things like:

“A playoff would work in college football because the NFL has one”
“But the NFL has 32 teams while college football has 120”
“So what, college basketball has hundreds of teams and they have a playoff too”


“A playoff won’t work because you can only play one game a week.
It works for college basketball because they can play multiple games a week”

“But the NFL plays only one game a week and they have a playoff”
“So what, the NFL only has 32 teams while college football has 120”

If you purposefully switch sports or factors in order to win arguments and feel smart, stop it – that’s a dick thing to do and you’re not helping the situation.)

When it comes to the NFL, there’s a few big differences between it and college football, many of which we’ve already covered. There’s a big difference in parity, there’s a big difference in the number of teams each sport has, and there’s a big difference between each sport’s ability to base their postseason on objective, win-loss records, etc. We’ve covered those in the competitive issues already, and you either fall on one side or the other. But the biggest difference between college football and the NFL (and the other sports as well) is their traditions.

Tradition plays a major role in college football, moreso than in any other major sport I’d argue. There’s gameday traditions, school and university traditions, team traditions, stadium traditions, bowl traditions, etc. Some of these rituals will never change, and you’ll have to pry them out of the cold, dead hands of diehard fans. But the traditions we’re focused on here are the things that will change if a playoff is instituted. As such, it’s pretty much a given that the pro-playoff side is interested in changing the way things are done while the anti-playoff side is interested in continuing to do things the same way they’ve been done. So you can pretty much make the assumption that if something proposed by the pro-playoff side is going to change the landscape of the sport too much, the anti-playoff side is going to be against it. That fact underscores a lot of the offense vs defense between these two, as we’ll see – the pro-playoff side makes a proposal for change and tries to move the ball, and the anti-playoff side tries to block it and stop them. As I did at the end of the fair competition section, I’m also going to be throwing in some observations about the realities associated with such changes. Most of them are going to seem like they’re a defense of the anti-playoff and traditional positions, but they’re not, and I hope you can see past them as such. The reason they’ll seem that way is because the current system is based on rankings and that’s what the pro-playoff side is trying to change. If college football had a playoff and the anti-playoff side was on the offensive attack, trying to get college football to change to a rankings-based system, the observations I’d be throwing out would be about the reality-based things the rankings would have to overcome in order to work.

“Just because it’s tradition doesn’t mean
it’s the right way to do something”


“Instituting a playoff would rip the
traditional heart out of college football”

I would argue that the bowls are the biggest single obstacle to implementing a playoff. Why? Because they’re the prime example of the power of tradition in college football. They’ve been around longer than most any other sporting tradition, not only in college football but in any sport. They were around decades before the NCAA, before helmets, before the forward pass, and before anybody associated with the sport today was born. Getting rid of the bowls in favor of a playoff, as some pro-playoff fans propose? It’s not going to happen, sorry to break it to you. They’re too big, too powerful, and too seeped in history. The bowls are here to stay, and any playoff scenario is going to have to incorporate them somehow. That doesn’t mean that the bowls don’t evolve as well – they do. Yes they’ve changed, but those changes have resulted in a strengthening of their position of power. Maybe not for some of the newer, or more commercialized bowls, but certainly for the older, bigger ones.

Along with their first salvo against tradition in general, one of the things that pro-playoff fans note is that traditions were changed when the BCS was instituted, so why not change them to something that works better? They’re right – the BCS did change traditions that had been in place for a long time. But here’s the thing – two things actually: 1) certain people are still having a hard time accepting the relatively minor changes that were made in 1998, and 2) the changes a playoff would require are bigger than those 1998 changes by far.

When the BCS was implemented, one of the first changes that happened was that the Rose Bowl lost their traditional matchup of Pac10 champion vs Big10 champion. Sure, they agreed to give it up one year out of four when they would host the national championship game, but I doubt the Tournament of Roses honchos could’ve foreseen that they would lose one or both of their conference champions nearly every other year too. Most of the country sighs and let’s out a collective “so what?” anytime this fact is brought up, and it isn’t that big of a deal to people outside of the west coast or midwest. But to the Rose Bowl, the Pac10, and the Big10, it is a big deal – and they’re a very powerful bloc. You’re dealing with one third of the BCS conferences and the biggest, most powerful bowl, and if those three aren’t on board with a playoff, it’s not going to fly.

So how can a playoff incorporate the bowls, specifically the Rose Bowl, and not piss off the honchos any more than they already are? Can it be done? I’m not so sure. Turning it into a first-round or even a semi-final game chops a good portion of its importance away – using the Rose Bowl as a play-in game to get to another bowl is a slap in the face to the bloc. Even if you keep that early round game between the Pac10 and Big10, the Rose Bowl isn’t going to be happy one bit with that. So what it we made the Rose Bowl the national championship game each year, making it the Super Bowl of the college football playoff? That wouldn’t be as objectionable to the anti-playoff crowd, but 1) that doesn’t curb the desire for the Pac10 champion vs Big10 champion matchup, and 2) that would really piss the other BCS bowls off. It’s a better option than the first, but still not preferred. What the Rose Bowl really wants is to go back to the old bowl system before the BCS, and even though that’s not going to happen, that’s the direction they’re pulling the ship.

“Fuck’em. We’ll do a playoff without those guys.
They can have their little Rose Bowl and we’ll have
a playoff that determines the national champion”

Yeah. Good luck with that. The BCS needs the Rose Bowl more than the Rose Bowl needs the BCS – you know it and they know it. And let’s not forget that there’s over two dozen other profitable bowls out there, and their livelihood is at stake as well. They might not have as much individual power as the Rose Bowl, but as a group, they make up a lot of people who control a lot of purse strings. Turning the bowls into the playoff might seem like the only feasible option, but the impact to the tradition of the bowls as an end-of-the-year event still might be too significant for them all to agree to. This is mainly because it would mean that teams would play in more that one bowl game, something that goes against the hundred year history of bowls and shakes its very roots. Bowl games were originally designed to give successful teams an opportunity to play a bonus game at the end of the year and their fans an opportunity to vacation someplace warm for a week and see their favorite team play somewhere and someone different. It’s still a special thing to “go bowling”, and teams (and fans) often make a whole week out of their bowl trip. Playing in more than one bowl game would undoubtedly dilute the whole experience and minimize the importance of the bowls themselves. That isn’t to say that other things haven’t already diluted the bowl season in general (having more than 25 of them, stretching them out over a full month, and can anyone say “Poulan Weedeater Bowl”?). But the core reasons for and tradition of each bowls as a one-time, unique and special event for a team is still intact. And we’re not even touching on the economic ramifications of transforming the bowls here.

All of the arguments that we just examined regarding the bowls and tradition can be applied when we compare DI-A football to other sports as well. March Madness has become a tradition for college basketball, just like the bowls are the tradition for college football. But what about college football’s lower divisions? Pro-playoff fans use the fact that college football’s three lower divisions have playoffs as an argument in favor of change, but the anti-playoff side will say that it’s just as much an argument in favor of tradition. For Divisions I-AA, II, and III, a playoff IS the tradition. They’ve been holding playoffs to determine their national champions for over 30 years. For many of those years, they’ve even been holding their championship games at the same location every year. (Let’s put it another way – back when they started holding playoffs, the NCAA Basketball Tournament, March Madness as it was to become, only consisted of 25 teams.) While DI-A was switching from the Pre-Polls definition to the Polls Definition to the BCS Definition (and then changing the BCS at a relatively breakneck pace), the other college football divisions were holding their playoffs, building years of tradition.

So as an issue or factor, tradition is one that the pro-playoff side doesn’t really have much firepower against. It’s simply personal choice and a matter of how much you value tradition. Let’s add another factor into the mix here: the season.

At the exact intersection between tradition and the season is the fact that the BCS has altered the schedule of the post-season, much to the consternation of some fans. Part of the tradition of college football was that the bowl season built up to New Year’s Day when the Rose Bowl and other major bowl games were played. Bowl season used to coincide exactly with the holiday season, and it became part of the identity of the holidays in the U.S. People have extra days off from work, spend time with family and friends, watch bowl games, and put an end to the previous year. After the New Year’s Day bowl games, everything in people’s lives (and college football) started anew, metaphorically if not in actuality. The anti-playoff side claims that shifting the end date of college football to a week later has devalued the overall experience because it lasts a little too long. The fact that some non-major bowls are played past New Year’s Day has irked some on the anti side as well. It just doesn’t feel right to them. Some people don’t care about this either – again, like tradition, it’s a personal choice that doesn’t have a right or wrong solution.

Moving away from tradition and more into seasonal territory, let’s look at college basketball, the one of the three comparison sports which has a very different season. The main difference between basketball and football with regards to their ability to implement a playoff is the fact that basketball games can be played much more frequently than football games. Football is limited to one game per week, maximum, while basketball can be played three or even four times a week (just look at the conference tournaments). As it is, we’ll go with the low number that March Madness uses – two games per week. But even going from one game a week to two is a big difference. Basketball can do a 64 team tournament in three weekends – it would take football six, nearly half a season. But (almost) nobody on the pro-playoff side is saying that we need a 64 team tournament. The most they realistically claim is a 16-team, which would take four weekends, or maybe an 8-team, which would take three weekends. Either one would require significant changes to the current seasonal setup – but could it be done?

An option the pro-playoff side suggests is to expand the season out and start the playoff later, using some of the BCS bowls as the early rounds. We’ve already heard the traditional, ‘no-games-past-New-Year’s-Day’ argument, but as we said, that’s more opinion and personal taste than anything else. The anti-playoff side does have a couple of other solid defenses to use against this argument though. First, a lot people claim that there’s already too big of a break between the end of the regular season and the BCS bowl games. Depending on the conference and bowl game, a team might have five weeks off, which many attribute to a drop-off in the quality of play in bowl games. (Just ask the Big10.) The team that finishes late-November really isn’t the same team that plays in early-January – there’s just too much time off. Second, a college football playoff that went into mid-January would have to compete with the NFL playoffs. As big as college football has become recently, it’s still no match for the NFL behemoth and would run into major interference from the league, the networks, and other people with a vested interest in the NFL.

And if we’re talking about expanding the season out, logically we’ll eventually come to the academic argument. Let’s just call this one a side argument, since it doesn’t really help either side. Why is it a wash? Well, because the two arguments basically cancel each other out.

“All that ‘academics!’ crap is just an excuse”


“A playoff would negatively impact student-athlete academics”

Both of these statements are true. Yes, a playoff would probably hurt student-athletes academically. Instead of preparing for one game, they’d have to prepare for multiple games which would take up more of their time. That’s pretty much a no-brainer – there’s only so many hours in the week, and the more time they have to spend on football the less time they have to spend on academics. Negative impact. So how is that just an excuse? Well, because all of the other college football divisions have a multiple-game playoffs that interferes with their academics, and you don’t see the commissioners whining about that, do you? No. If the anti-playoff side wants to go the ‘it would extend into the next semester’ route, all the pro-playoff side has to do is point to college basketball or any other two-semester sport. That’s all there is to it, and it really is that simple. Both sides are right. Can we move on now, Congressman? Thank you.

Before we were interrupted, we were judging the merits of extending the season into January. Prospects for the pro-playoff side weren’t good. So they have to try another angle... what about ending the regular season early and moving the bowl games up? We’ve already covered the ‘tradition!’ and ‘academics!’ bases regarding the other divisions’ playoffs. But ignoring those, the framework of how the playoff works for those lower divisions can help the pro-playoff side on a number of fronts. A unique thing about the lower division playoffs is that they start in mid to late-November and run for four weeks through mid to late-December. Is this feasible for DI-A? Yup. Start in late August, as usual, finish by mid-November, and then start the playoff. Teams would have to lose a couple bye weeks, sure, but they’d be able to keep their 12-game regular season schedule, something that’s very important to them. We’d have to move “Rivalry Week” to the beginning of November, or whenever. But other than those minor changes, it’s definitely possible. The bowls could stay in December, and the bigger BCS bowls could generally be used as the final playoff games. Voila! This is the pro-playoff side’s best shot, if you ask me. As much as having the playoff roll into mid-January won’t work, having it in December will. Of course you’ll still have to get past all of the traditions...

Onto the most used (and misused, and misunderstood) argument!

Fair Competition IV: the Big Picture <> Money. Money money money

1 comment:

4rx said...

That is it correct playoff is use for a different games so you do not have to be worry of it