As I mention in my bio, I write occasional political commentary for a blog called the Gadflyer. One of the things I have written about quite a bit is social security “reform.” I put the word “reform” in scare quotes because, while some people are sincere in their belief that the social security system is broken and needs to be fixed, the motives of many pushing reform are, to put it politely, questionable. Furthermore, I don’t believe it’s broken at all, and the more arguments I hear that try to make the case that it is, the more convinced I am that there aren’t any good arguments for why social security needs to be reformed.
Why do I mention that here? Because the more arguments I hear in defense of the BCS and, more generally, in opposition to a college playoff system, the more convinced I am that there are no good arguments in defense of the BCS at all. Two of those attempted defenses were aired on Mike and Mike yesterday. The first, that the NCAA opposes a playoff system because of academic concerns, can be dismissed out of hand. And, in fact, Dickie V had a good rant on this during yesterday’s show. He noted that his daughter, who plays tennis has to miss more class time than does his son-in-law, a football player. Furthermore, the obvious time period for a playoff would be during the December-January school break. And, as Vitale pointed out, if the other divisions in college football can manage one, there’s no good reason why Division I-A can’t. I would add that however weak the academic arguments were before this year, the NCAA’s approval of a 12th regular season game makes a final mockery of those arguments. As Golic aptly summed it up yesterday: “the idea that there’s no playoff because of academics is just an insult to our intelligence.”
A second line of argument got much more of a hearing because Greenberg is, as he describes it, a convert to the BCS. And, his teaser for this particular argument (advanced by Bob Davie), was that this was the best argument there was for keeping the BCS and rejecting a playoff system.
The argument: that regular season games, like Michigan-OSU, would mean much less if there were a playoff, because the entire focus of the season would be on the playoffs and jockeying for position in that playoff. So, as Davie had previously argued, if there were a playoff, no one could blame Coach Carr or Coach Tressel for resting players. Therefore, Greenberg kept asserting, “everything would change” in the college regular season. Golic vehemently disagreed and so do I. First, there is no possibility that Michigan-OSU would ever be anything but a death match between the two schools, under any circumstances. As Golic kept pointing out, this year was a fluke – as big a game as UM-OSU often is, there’s rarely as much at stake in terms of the national picture as there was this year. And, that fact doesn’t change the fact that the teams, the schools, the fans and the communities all regard it as the big game every year. Second, even under a playoff system, there would be many years in which the winner of the OSU-Michigan game would get into the playoff system and in which the loser would be left out. (repeat argument for the top two teams in every other major conference). In other words, thinking strictly in terms of the post regular season implications, it would rarely be the case that the battle for the conference championship would not also have decisive post-season implications. Third, Greenie made the argument that many people question the value of the conference tournaments in basketball. For example, it’s often true, Greenberg said, that when a team makes a great run through the conference tournament, only to be eliminated in the first round of the NCAAs, that perhaps that team should have saved itself for the big dance. And, conversely, it’s often true that teams that exit their post-season conference tournaments early end up making a big run in the NCAAs. Greenie’s right: people do often question whether the conference tournaments are worth the effort with the NCAAs looming. But that fact undermines Greenberg’s argument, because the fact is that, especially in college, teams and players always want to compete and always want to win.
If it were true that a post-season playoff would turn schools into rational actors, saving themselves for the games with the higher stakes, we ought never to see the non-bubble teams compete hard in the conference tournaments. But, the fact is, we do every year. Why? Because, as Golic pointed out – college sports is different than pro sports in that regard. The professional regular seasons are a pre-tournament for the post-season, which is what every professional franchise plays for. College sports is different. Of course everybody wants in, whether to a bowl or a tournament. But, the notion that coaches would rest their players rather than compete for conference championships or to battle their key rival is to misunderstand college sports.
There is no better example of how little, in fundamental respects, the post-season figures into the calculations of coaches and programs as they approach games against a big rival than Duke-UNC basketball. While many argue that UM-OSU is the No. 1 football rivalry in Division I, there is really no disputing the No. 1 rivalry in men’s college basketball.
But, here’s a funny thing about that rivalry – with extremely rare exceptions, there is almost never anything tangible at stake in any given Duke-UNC game, especially as it pertains to the NCAA tournament. In almost every season, each program is a lock for the tournament. In almost every season, each team is very likely to be a high seed, if not the No. 1 seed in its region. In other words, this one game on the teams’ schedule is of no larger consequence to either team’s chances once March Madness begins. So, we don’t really need to speculate about what might happen to a great rivalry if we already had in place a post-season tournament that was the undisputed culmination of the season. We already have that. And, despite the presence of a culminating, winner-take-all national championship, and despite the fact that to a far lesser extent in college basketball than in football, the regular season, once you’re in the top four in your conference, means very little, there is one thing you can set your clock by twice every college season: that every Duke-UNC game is a war, an incredibly intense, hard fought fight to the finish. There is no rivalry in sports that so consistently delivers close, tense, taut games at such a high level of competition. By the logic of Greenberg’s arguments, especially since Duke and UNC always play each other on the last day of the regular season as they’re already awaiting their inevitable invitations to the NCAAs, we ought to see the starters get minimal minutes and play at half speed and, by extension, ought never to see the kinds of games we do in fact get year after year.
Like myself, Greenberg grew up in New York, in a pro sports town. By his own acknowledgment, it’s taken him a long time to grasp the special fever and excitement of college athletics. But, he’s still missing the boat on this one.
If there is a good argument in favor of the BCS and against a playoff, it has still yet to be made.