Sunday, May 13, 2007

Fair Competition I: Switching Sides

"If you want to get technical,
rankings can’t produce an objective, clear-cut champion.”


“If you want to get technical,
sports with playoffs don’t have a subjective champion.”

Okay, well, we have to deal with this side argument first and get it out of the way. First of all, both sides are right – rankings can’t be objective and playoffs can’t be subjective. Technically, there’s no way that either side can produce a champion of the other variety. But it has happened – playoffs have produced best champions, and the rankings have produced clear-cut champions. Usually the examples each side uses to combat these technical arguments are when was one team dominated a sport for the entire season. The 1972 Miami Dolphins went undefeated in the regular season and the playoffs. They were undoubtedly both the clear-cut and the best champions. Same with the 1996 Chicago Bulls – clear-cut and the best. Even though those champions might not have been voted on by writers or coaches in a subjective way, they were obviously the best. As far as the rankings go, the 2002 Ohio State and the 2005 Texas squads were the only undefeated teams those years, having beaten the only other undefeated team (Miami & USC, respectively) in their bowl game. Even the biggest BCS detractors admit the system worked in those years – even though the Buckeyes and the Longhorns might not have been part of an objective playoff system, they were as clear-cut as any. Beware of fans on either side who are unwilling to admit to these champions on technical grounds. Along those same lines, usually only the most hardcore pro-playoff or anti-playoff fans try these technical arguments because it’s too easy to defeat ‘technically…’ with common sense (something hardcore fans from both sides tend to overlook or use only when it helps them). Common sense requires a slight bending of each side’s rules.

Seeing the rules bent helps us dig a bit deeper into each side’s definition of champion and notions of fair competition. We know that pro-playoff fans want their champion to be clear-cut – in other words, definite and unquestioned. They want a situation in which only one team has a valid claim to the championship, and a playoff gives them that. The pro-playoff fans can accept the Buckeyes and Longhorns as clear-cut champions because no other team has a valid claim on the title. On the other hand, anti-playoff fans want their champion to be the best over the whole season, and in order to gauge that the season usually has to be equal throughout. The college football season as it is now, with all teams playing roughly the same number of games of equal value, gives them that. But switching from a subjective regular season with all teams participating to an objective playoff with a handful of teams participating breaks the continuity of the seasons as a whole and throws it out of balance. The reason the anti-playoff fans can accept the Dolphins and Bulls is because they were dominant throughout the whole season, both the regular season and the playoffs. Even though they switched to an objective playoff after the regular season, and not all teams played the same number of games, and not all games were equal, the seasons still ended with one team that was clearly the best throughout. Since this is the main goal, and it was achieved, the way it was achieved isn’t as important. Incidentally, these goals aren’t to say that the pro-playoff crowd doesn’t care about their champion being the best, or that the anti-playoff crowd doesn’t care about their champion being clear-cut – they do. But those concerns take a back seat to their overall goal.

But beware – each side has to be very careful how much it bends the other’s rules or moves towards the other’s side of the landscape. They risk both wandering into apples and oranges territory and stepping on their other side’s notions of fair competition when they make adjustments to the other’s definitions to fit their own agenda. Do they do it anyway? Of course, as we’ll see. So now that we agree that each side can produce a champion of the other variety, the question becomes, how often do they produce them? What about those seasons when there’s no dominant team and things aren’t as easy?

“The team that wins the playoff is obviously ‘best’ –
they were the best of the good teams to make it to the playoff” &

“A playoff would produce a ‘best’ champion more often than the
rankings do a clear-cut champion – so it’s a better option”


“The team that gets all or a vast majority of the votes
is obviously the clear-cut champion” &

“Being close every time is better
than being completely wrong sometimes”

These arguments are attempts to appeal to the masses and to show that each side’s system is better for everyone during the average season. Does either side have a shatterproof argument? No. When we’re dealing with teams that aren’t dominant and seasons that aren’t exceptional, each side will find problems with the other’s claim to be the better solution. These problems arise because one side feels the other has broken the rules for their definition of champion and that the competition is no longer fair to all involved.

The main arguments and evidence that each side uses against the other come from the opposite extremes – times when a playoff decidedly didn’t name the best team champion and when the rankings decidedly were not clear-cut. You know these two main examples too – the 2007 NFL season and the 2008 college football season. Using their own definition of champion as the best, the anti-playoff side looks at the NFL season as a whole and thinks that there’s no way that New York, at 14-6, can be declared ‘best’ instead of 18-1 New England, even though the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl. At the same time, using their definition of champion as clear-cut, the pro-playoff side looks at college football and thinks there’s no way the 13-1 Florida Gators can be declared a clear-cut champion, even though they received 108 of 125 first-place votes in the rankings. These are powerful arguments to use against the other side, and fans on either front aren’t going to leave their best weapons holstered. The tough part is being big enough to admit that the other side has weapons as good as yours. But they do. If you argue for one interpretation, you can’t discount the other – they’re two sides of the same ‘breaking the other’s rules’ coin. (I like to think most fans understand this, even though they might not admit to it for arguing purposes.)

Now get ready for some loop-the-loops.

The anti-playoff crowd will often try to use these extreme examples in their favor by flipping the discussion around to the opposite rhetorical viewpoint, which is more conducive to their argument. They know that they can’t try to argue that the rankings can produce a clear-cut champion more often – it’s undoubtedly a losing argument because pro-playoff fans will counter with how much of a complete debacle the BCS is. If there’s one thing in this playoff issue that the vast majority of fans on both sides agree on, it’s that the BCS is not their preferred way to settle the competitive championship question. (A quick aside - if you purposefully equate “anti-playoff” with “pro-BCS” in order to win arguments and feel smart, stop it – that’s a dick thing to do and you’re not helping the situation. They’re not the same.) So instead of saying they can consistently produce a champion who’s the only deserving team, the anti-playoff argument is that a subjective, rankings-based system will never produce a champion who can be seen as undeserving. It’s a subtle difference but one that’s important to their overall case. Take any of the years when college football had more than one team that could be seen as deserving of the national championship. The pro-playoff side uses those as examples of a failed system, but the anti-playoff flips it, responding, “Was the champion undeserving? No.” Part of the reason they like this flip is because it seems to give them a leg up on the pro-playoff crowd – but it’s still based on their own values and definitions, not the pro-playoff side’s. They’re not concerned about the champion being clear-cut, they’re concerned about the champion being the best, and the current, subjective system doesn’t produce champions that don’t have a legitimate case for being the best.

Overall though, this rhetorical flip breaks the pro-playoff side’s rules because it still leaves the door open for more than one champion – the big no-no of the pro side. So it’s out. The other argument the anti-playoff side uses here, that the team that gets the most votes is obviously the clear-cut champion breaks this rule too (in addition to misrepresenting the pro side’s definition of clear-cut). The votes are subjective, and as much tradition and weight as the AP and coaches polls hold, the system they’re a part of allows for more than one team to have a valid claim of the championship. That’s just the nature of a subjective system.

On the other end, the pro-playoff crowd will often try to twist the definition of ‘best’ around to fit their needs. They might be able to claim the best champion and a whole season, but anti-playoff fans will claim that their rules have been broken because the playoff skewers their definition of what a season should be. A playoff breaks their definition of a best champion because first, teams will play different amounts of games in the season. With an 8-team playoff in college football, some teams would play 12 games and some would play 16 – that’s 33% more games, which is too big of a competitive gap to equally compare teams and their achievements. Second, and more importantly, the anti-playoff rules are broken because not all games count equally – the playoff games are more important than the regular season games. (Don’t worry, we’ll get to the big ‘devaluing-the-regular-season’ argument soon...) Basically, the anti-playoff side knows that their subjective champion is debatable, and the way they choose to make that debate fair is to make sure every team has the same amount of information (aka, number & type of games) available for voters to look at. If a few of the teams have more performances on a bigger stage, it makes the situation unfair even before voters begin the debate, the big no-no of the subjective side.

So in the end, in order for the pro-playoff crowd to make claims that they can produce the best champion, they have to cross over to subjective territory, the domain of the anti-playoff crowd. That not only allows anti-playoff fans to pull out the same arguments that get used against their subjective system and champion but it also allows them to bring up the faults of a playoff system which can only produce the best champion under ideal circumstances. Vice versa for when the anti-playoff side has to cross over into objective territory. Only overwhelmingly dominant teams can bridge the gap between an objective playoff system and a subjective ranking system, being both a clear-cut and the best champion. Claims from either side that their less than dominant champions are able to do this as well usually involve rhetorical tricks and/or a breaking of the other side’s rules.

Introduction: Setting the Scene <> Fair Competition II: On the Field

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