A Perennial Perversion of Fair Play

Controversy characterized last week’s NCAA track championships. A large contingent of athletes, administrators and fans were outraged by rules imposed on the participating teams by the NCAA’s College Track Championship committee. Athletes from half of the participating conferences were given sizable and insurmountable head starts in each and every event, guaranteeing top finishes and coveted championship hardware for the favored conferences.

Preposterous, isn’t it? Fake news, for sure. No one would stand for it. Yet a similar scenario unfolds each and every Division 1 (“FBS”) college football season with the so-called “College Football Playoff.”

Truly preposterous is the fact that it all happens with the blessing of the NCAA, which is ostensibly “committed to providing a fair, inclusive and fulfilling environment for student-athletes and fans.”

Here’s how the scheme works:

Near the middle of the college football season the NCAA-sanctioned College Football Playoff (“CFP”) committee releases their rankings, which, while taking into account games played, are heavily biased towards certain favored “power 5” (“P5”) conferences by past performance and preconceived notions. Each year the top 10 to 15 spots are consistently held by P5 teams, with an occasional outsider cracking the top 10. Every conceivable justification is used to keep P5 teams from falling out of the top 10, and to keep non-power 5 (“group of 5” and independent, hereafter referred to as “G5”) teams from climbing in. That way, when the four “playoff” teams are anointed, and the remaining big-bowl participants are selected, the P5 conferences usually have 11 of the 12 big-money bowl berths.

Then, with the exposure and windfall reaped from top-tier bowl games, P5 conferences are able to hire better coaches, build better facilities, recruit better athletes, and command much higher television revenues, all of which solidify their stranglehold on the top rankings, on the so-called “championship playoff” spots, and on the next year’s rankings and revenues. For G5 teams it is truly a vicious cycle. For P5 teams, it is the Golden Goose.

Just how golden is their goose? Forbes reported in 2019 that 64 P5 teams split 573 million dollars of bowl revenue (an 8.95 million average per team), while 66 G5 teams settled for 98.75 million (a 1.5 million average per team). P5 teams made almost six times more in bowl revenue than G5 teams. Beyond the bowl bonanza, P5 teams raked in over 10 times more television revenue than G5 teams.

When it comes to major college football, those with the money make the rules, and the NCAA openly participates in the perennial perversion of fair play that purposely perpetuates the imbalance of power.

The Covid-compromised 2020-2021 season was no different from prior seasons. The CFP managed to fill 11 of the top 12 bowl berths with P5 teams, even though two undefeated G5 teams finished in the top 12. And, like in past seasons, there was a lot of head-scratching regarding the rankings, such as how a three-loss Florida Gators team was placed above undefeated Cincinnati, and how undefeated Coastal Carolina ranked below three-loss Iowa State and two-loss Georgia.

“I can’t help but think what might have been this season had all FBS programs been given the same equality of opportunity,” Coastal Carolina President Michael T. Benson wrote in an open letter to the CFP committee. “Just think about that: Football is the only sport where the deck is stacked insurmountably against those who have the inevitable classification of ‘Group of Five’ before toe hits the leather each fall.”

Benson went on to explain why the deck is so solidly stacked the way it is: “The [power] five” have worked to ensure that a different kind of Golden Rule remains firmly in place at the highest level of Division 1 football: those with the gold make the rules.”

Yes, indeed, when it comes to major college football, those with the money make the rules, and the NCAA openly participates in the perennial perversion of fair play that purposely perpetuates the imbalance of power.

If the NCAA had any integrity, any desire to level the playing field and ensure equality of opportunity, it would jettison the four-team playoff mockery in favor of an expanded field.

Benson and other well-intentioned opponents of the CFP propose expanding the playoff to eight teams, but still chosen by rankings. That would do next to nothing to level the playing field. Sure, once in a while a G5 team would find itself in the eight team playoff, but the P5 conferences would still dominate, and the resulting money and exposure would ensure their continued dominance.

The only fair and equitable solution is to expand to a 16 team playoff, with a guaranteed spot for the champion of each of the 10 conferences, and six at-large bids for deserving teams (including independents), selected by a published poll of all FBS head coaches, who would be prohibited from voting for any teams in their own conference.

There are no legitimate objections to such a playoff (unless you object to less dough in P5 pockets).

Too many playoff games? Division 2 (“FCS”) college football has a 24-team playoff, with eight teams granted a first-round bye. In 2019, 20-0 North Dakota State won it all. The 2019 FBS champion Clemson only played 15 games.

Not enough weeks in the season? The FCS champion played 20 games. There is no reason why an FBS team couldn’t do the same. Start the season earlier, or reduce the number of regular season games. A 12 game regular season, with a maximum four game playoff run, would result in only 16 games for the champion and runner-up.

Not enough postseason games to fill all the bowl games? In 2019, there were 29 bowl games played. A 16 team playoff would take the place of 15 bowl games. Non-playoff teams could be invited to play in 14 (or more) non-playoff bowl games. There would be half as many meaningless bowl games as there are now.

In addition to the absence of a downside, there is significant upside to be had from a 16 team playoff.

With each conference champion guaranteed a playoff berth, conference regular seasons become way more meaningful, followed by a postseason that generates more interest, excitement and revenue, much like college basketball’s March Madness.

Over time, as a level playing field leads to exposure, revenues and recruiting will become more balanced, and parity across conferences will increase, resulting in more exciting games and even more fan interest.

And a significant upside is that maybe the NCAA would be able to say — with a straight face — that it is truly “committed to providing a fair, inclusive and fulfilling environment for student-athletes and fans.”

One can only hope.

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