Friday, January 9, 2009

To BCS or not to BCS

Let me post on something I have no interest in whatsoever, the burning question of whether college football should drop the BCS system an institute a proper playoff. Almost everyone has weighed in on this, including president-elect Obama, so I suppose I should as well, though I think it has probably been well over two decades since I watched more than a few minutes of a college football game.

The arguments for a playoff are strong. The current system favors the richer conferences that dominate the BCS selections, and without a playoff system the national champion in college football is destined to remain nominal and notional.
Okay, if people want a playoff system, I won’t stand in their way. But beyond the economic arguments, which I won’t dispute, the basic argument for a playoff system seems to be: in all other sports, a champion is decided by head to head competition. Why is it in college football that there is no playoff system at all, just a series of endless bowl games at the end of the season?
There is pressure, as there always is, on the outlier and the exception to conform to the norm. Why don’t you have the sacred division between the regular season and the post season, like all other sports, where the only purpose of the regular season is to decide which teams are eligible to play in the post-season? And why don’t you recognize that the whole point of sporting competition is to crown a single champion; we need to pick 64 teams, whittle them down to a sweet 16, a final 4, and then one team to lord over them all?
Because, I guess, college football has managed to survive for well over a century without a playoff system, and survived very well. College football is a product of our remarkably decentralized system of colleges, and what has always been most important are the local rivalries, Harvard beating Yale or Michigan beating Michigan State has always stood higher in the hierarchy of importance than some sort of external national ranking. Local rivalries have always been so strong that a national competition has always been superfluous.
I have never quite understood why there is such an obsession with determining a single winner in so many aspects of our life, what has been called the winner-take-all society. Has the United States really been well served by all of its executive power vested in one single person? As we saw with the expiring Bush presidency, however much power we grant that person, he or she will never think it enough. Why does every company and organization need a single CEO? Why is power sharing or cooperation always seen as something fit only for wimps?
All American institutions move toward hegemony, and away from amphictyony, a loose collaboration of equals, which was the structure of the 12 tribes of Israel when they wanted a single king to rule over them, and Samuel told them it was a bad idea. It was . We are so afraid of the disorder of equals that we opt for the order of hierarchy almost every time.
Anyway, there is something admirable about the decentralized structure of college football, and I find it distressing that there is a general clamor that insists that college football be turned into a version of every other American institution, a giant funnel which, in the end, only one victor emerges victorious. There are already far too many playoffs, kings, and pharaohs in American life. Let our people disaggregate. Let a hundred dull bowl games bloom.

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