The College Football Playoff Is Finally Here—So Watch Your Back, NCAA
The new tournament set to replace the Bowl Championship Series could empower student-athletes by operating outside the NCAA's stifling, increasingly dysfunctional jurisdiction.
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) discuss college football's new postseason tournament, the College Football Playoff.
As far as product names go, it's less Kleenex, PlayStation, or Twitter than store-brand macaroni and cheese, an unimaginative exercise in what-you-read-is-what-you-get. Are you ready for the "College Football Playoff?"
I hope so, because that's literally what's coming.
Earlier this week, the sport's power brokers revealed the official moniker for their in-the-works four-team postseason tournament—a replacement for the much-reviled Bowl Championship Series, something fans long have clamored for—and while they claimed they hired a marketing firm to help with branding, it's hard to imagine the actual name-creation meeting consisting of anything other than: a) 25 seconds of brainstorming; b) a looooong afternoon guzzling martinis at the bar across the street. (Give the same people the Sports Illustrated account, and say hello to the annual "Mostly Naked Models" issue).
That said, I shouldn't poke too much fun. The name might be straightforward to the point of self-parody, but it still matters. It matters for what it doesn't include. Namely, four big letters: N-C-A-A. Just this week, association president Mark Emmert spoke at the annual Football Bowl Association convention in California, where he pronounced that "intercollegiate athletics has never been stronger in America." In one respect, Emmert is exactly right—college sports are strong, in that they're more popular and profitable than ever. Especially football.
And that's why the NCAA itself has never been weaker.
Forget administrative incompetence, the ongoing O'Bannon lawsuit, the fundamental unfairness and unsustainability of amateurism, the fact that college athletic directors are increasingly fed up. The biggest reason the NCAA is teetering is that the big-time football schools don't need the organization. Not anymore. Not when they can make tons of money without NCAA interference. In men's basketball, the association acts as a profit-skimming middleman, selling the multibillion-dollar television rights to the popular postseason basketball tournament and spreading the spoils around; in football, the power schools and conferences broker their own broadcast deals for even larger piles of cash, which they get to control and keep.
As Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports—and speaking of corporate names!—points out, "College Football Playoff" does not include the terms NCAA, FBS or Division I-A. The reason? "That way," Wetzel writes, "if the high-major college football schools decide to bail on the NCAA itself, the playoff isn't tied to outdated labels." And bail they will. Maybe not in five years. Maybe not in 10. But eventually, just as soon as institutional inertia gives way to full-fledged opportunism. The people who run big-time college sports adamantly refuse to share their profits with their own labor force; why on Earth would they indefinitely continue to share them with a bunch of redundant bureaucrats in Indianapolis? One day, we're going to have a College Basketball Playoff, too, and that point the NCAA as we know it will cease to exist.
Hampton, does the College Football Playoff mark the beginning of the end for the NCAA? If so, is that a good or bad thing?
The new playoff system a great thing. Nope, not because four teams can compete for the national title instead of only two. That's merely cute. It might even give non-SEC schools the chance to dream.
The CFP is great, though, because of another acronym. That one in Indianapolis.
As you rightly suggest, Patrick, the new system is one more bell toll of doom for the NCAA. With apologies to Churchill, the new playoffs may not be the beginning of the end, but only the end of the beginning. Still, this is phenomenally good news for anyone who wants to see college athletes treated more fairly.
Like you wrote, the conferences will gain more power. Soon they will likely see no need to share their TV billions with Indiana lawyers. Yay. With the NCAA a shell of itself, there will be no one to enforce their innumerable, inscrutable, mostly exploitative rules governing student-athletes. There will be no compliance officers. That means, simply, no one will comply. With nobody to stop boosters from giving cash and gifts, and no meaningful penalties for players taking them, it's simply bound to happen.
Now you might say the universities still won't feel liking sharing. With alumni handing out money almost over the table, why would they?
They will. Because of the very same, insane, win-at-all cost mentality in college sports that's so often (rightfully) decried.
Someone at a future version of Michigan or USC—or in the leadership of the coming Big 20 or Pac-25—will realize that offering a players a legal, regulated, above-board stipend will be the greatest recruiting tool in the history of college athletics.
Imagine you are a high school d-lineman or running back. You could go to a college where you have to take money on the sly, always hoping some skeezy booster slips you a few bucks before the weekend. Or you could go to a school where you know for certain that you'll get a check each month—one with the university seal on it. Like a stand-up person. Most people don't want to be crooks.
For that matter, schools could start offering athletes the right to get a job if they want one. Some super-smart school will probably even offer their players a little cut from the sale of jerseys with their number. Who knows? But this much is for sure: The super-conference that becomes first to legally pay their athletes will draw a wave of talent like zombies drawn to human flesh. They will win more, and everyone will follow suit.
Jake, bring us home on the CFP. Will the new playoff finally make football fans happy? Better yet, will it make the NCAA sad?
I honestly have little to offer on whether the C-F-P will make the N-C-A-A S-A-D. I think setting up a payment system for college athletes is much further away than most sports progressives think and will require a real societal groundswell. How else are you going to convince America that our higher education system should provide specific pecuniary benefits to some, but not all, of its students? Illegally is fine, of course—haven't you seen The Wire? The athletes may get paid eventually, but the CFP won't be the tipping point. That will be a labor-friendly appellate court panel that forces the Supreme Court to hear a case like Ed O'Bannon's.
As for the action between the goalposts, I'm stoked for new playoff system, though not because I think it's any better (or even significantly more meritorious) than the BCS. I'm excited for CONTROVERSY, with a capital C. Of the four entrants into the new playoff system, one will be the highest-ranked team from the five (for now) power conferences. The other three will be determined by a selection committee a la March Madness. But instead of deciding between Team No. 68 and Team No. 69, these committee members will be forced to choose who is the fourth-best team in the country, and who is fifth. You think the computer nerds who made up a third of the BCS got it bad from the media and public? Wait until an SEC at-large team slides into the last playoff spot ahead of a 12-0 Boise State team. The accusations of bias will be swift and vitriolic. I can't wait.
Also, who objects to three meaningful bowl games every January instead of one? Who's saying no to more drama, more potential champions, more opportunities for great college football moments? The biggest problem with the BCS (other than the greed mixed with collective incompetence) was that you knew, without a doubt, that all the bowl games but one were irrelevant. Now we will know, with equal certainty, that will we get three playoff-caliber games every year. Oh, and no more than two teams from the same conference can make it. Maybe we'll actually get some non-SEC champions.