Kyle Gets Contrary: Congress, the B.C.S., and the Virtue of Being Elitist

It is no secret to anyone that I am staunch in my opposition to a Division I-A college football playoff in any form whatsoever. It is, I hope, also no secret to anyone that I give mid-majors their due when casting my BlogPoll ballot and when welcoming our new Boise State blogger to SB Nation.

In spite of the latter reality, however, my fealty to the former fact has caused me to get contrary once more in response to a recent, and cogent, posting by Year2 at Team Speed Kills.

Year2, one of the growing number of Florida fans who frequently leave insightful comments here at Dawg Sports, regularly engages the weighty issues affecting college football with nuanced analysis and his observations concerning the Bowl Championship Series are no exception.

Year2 poses a simple question with a forthright answer requiring a complex explanation. He asks, "How exclusionary is the B.C.S.?" The short version of his response is, "Very." Part (but only part; I recommend reading the whole thing) of his detailed explanation is as follows:

The NFL is built with parity in mind of course, so it's not surprising to see it have the highest percentage of unique teams (22 of a possible 34). It's somewhat a surprise to see college basketball on the relatively low side, given that the tournament has a reputation for being a random crapshoot. As it turns out, there's a relatively familiar feel at the end.

College football though isn't just last, it's dead last. The dynastic NBA, which has had just eight (!) unique championship teams since 1980, managed to get three more unique teams in the finals than Div. I-A football has. . . .

College football doesn't even average a single unique team a year in the BCS era. If it feels like the same old teams playing for it all every season, it's because they basically are.

Even just a simple seeded plus one would have allowed two additional SEC schools - Georgia (in '02 and '07) and Auburn (in '04) - a chance to take home some hardware. Going back to '92, it would have allowed some of the historical have-nots (Northwestern in '95, Kansas State in '98, Oregon in '01) a chance to get a ring. Not that anyone was beating '95 Nebraska or anything.

The point is, everyone who says the BCS is exclusionary is right. It's not just the BCS though, since it goes back ever farther. Over at least the past 17 years, no other major sport has been as exclusionary as college football and it's not that close.

Leaving aside my uncertainty over the significance of the statement that college football is "dead last" (as opposed to what? just last? living last?), I have two basic responses to Year2’s inescapably correct conclusion. These are they:

1. Which excluded teams would you include and which included teams would you leave out to make room for them? In 1997, the interminably long and soporifically dull "Titanic" was nominated for every Academy Award under the sun, except one. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth occurred among those who care about such things over the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio was denied an Oscar nod for best actor.

However, there can be only five nominees per category, so putting DiCaprio in necessarily meant omitting one of the others. The actual best actor nominees that year were Matt Damon for "Good Will Hunting," Robert Duvall for "The Apostle," Peter Fonda for "Ulee’s Gold," Dustin Hoffman for "Wag the Dog," and Jack Nicholson for "As Good as it Gets." It’s not enough merely to say DiCaprio deserved it; you have to say DiCaprio deserved it and Damon, Duvall, Fonda, Hoffman, and/or Nicholson didn’t. To all the Leophiles out there, I said then, and say now, good luck convincing me of Robert Duvall’s, Dustin Hoffman’s, and Jack Nicholson’s deficiencies as actors.

There are plenty of good arguments for the proposition that the B.C.S. got the national championship game pairing wrong in a given year (although there are few compelling arguments for the proposition that the ultimate recipient of the No. 1 ranking was unworthy). What would-be B.C.S. bowl contenders undeservedly were left out of the mix, though? Utah in 2004 and 2008, Boise State in 2006, and Hawaii in 2007 all made the grade, but experience has shown that this list of B.C.S.-bound squads from leagues not receiving automatic bids contains one team too many, not one team too few. Other claimed contenders from major conferences played their way out of any argument on their behalf.

If, as very well might be the case, your argument is that you would exclude the champions of the A.C.C. or the Big East from an automatic seat at the table, be careful before you wish for a playoff to replace the B.C.S., because a playoff, if it comes, will come only with the consent of the major conferences, none of which would agree to change the existing system without a guaranteed bid being reserved for its league champion.

That means your 2008 eight-team playoff field would have had seats reserved in advance for A.C.C. champion Virginia Tech, Big East champion Cincinnati, Big Ten champion Penn State, Big 12 champion Oklahoma, Pac-10 champion Southern California, and S.E.C. champion Florida, while Boise State and Utah would have been fighting for one of the two at-large berths along with Alabama, Ohio State, Texas, and Texas Tech. Anyone who thinks mid-majors would fare better under that system than they do under the current one needs to do the math.

2. Why is it deemed undesirable for a system designed to identify the best teams in college football to be exclusionary? For reasons passing my understanding, we as a society tend to throw around the word "elitist" as though it were a pejorative term, but the alternative to being an elitist is to have no standards of excellence. We may quarrel over what criteria ought to be used in determining the elites, but that is not the same thing as doubting that elites do, or ought to, exist.

If the goal is to put an end to elitism, then postseason bids ought to be handed out by putting the names of all the bowl games in one hat, putting the names of all the Division I-A college football teams in another hat, and pulling one name from the first hat and two from the second hat until all the contests have been paired randomly. If that is to be the new model, those who equate the B.C.S. with communism need to concede that their proposed alternative is socialism . . . and those who disparage elitism from elected positions in the national legislature should hope their constituents do not notice their hypocrisy in the process.

At its best (and I seldom see this point made even appreciably well, particularly not by the politicians who have chosen to make this issue a centerpiece of their purported efforts on behalf of the commonweal), the argument for the Utahs and Boise States of the world essentially is the same argument Thomas Jefferson made on behalf of a natural aristocracy based on virtue and talents rather than an artificial aristocracy based on wealth and birth.

The problem with such a claim on behalf of the virtuous Broncos or the talented Utes against the wealthy Demon Deacons or the high-born Bearcats is that there is no historical evidence to support the notion that college football’s is a fixed aristocracy. Year2’s exegesis goes back to 1992, but look what has happened in the interim:

College football affiliations are far from stagnant. Just in the last decade and a half, we have seen Arkansas and South Carolina added to the Southeastern Conference, Florida State added to the Atlantic Coast Conference, Penn State added to the Big Ten, the Southwest Conference disbanded, four Lone Star State teams added to the former Big Eight, three former Big East teams added to the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the composition of the Big East, the Mountain West, the Western Athletic Conference, and Conference USA reshuffled multiple times.

The club is insular because the dues are high, but the doors are far from closed. In the last three decades, we have witnessed the addition of W.A.C. members Arizona and Arizona State to the Pac-10, the rise in the reputations of Florida State and Miami (Florida) from unimportant independent backwaters in the 1970s to major national powers in the 1980s to B.C.S. conference teams in the 1990s, the 1984 national championship being awarded to B.Y.U., the promotion of such programs as Louisville and South Florida to B.C.S. conference membership, and the invitation of Boise State, Hawaii, and Utah to major bowl games. (Bear in mind that, as recently as 2004, an undefeated conference champion B.S.U. squad was squaring off with a once-beaten conference champion Louisville unit in the Liberty Bowl. Times have changed and they have done so in a hurry.)

We’ve all been there. Alabama is one of the marquee programs in the history of the sport, but the Eastern news media did not give the Crimson Tide their due until the Red Elephants beat mighty Washington in the 1926 Rose Bowl. Georgia acquired national notoriety by going undefeated in 1920 and narrowly missing an unblemished record in 1927, playing the likes of Yale and N.Y.U. on the road throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s, and tying third-ranked Fordham in New York City in 1936, yet still it took the Bulldogs until 1941 to receive their first major bowl bid. You’ll have to pardon me if I somehow manage to remain dry-eyed at the plight of the mid-major. Nine decades ago, my team was a mid-major. We managed to overcome that stigma without getting Congress or the courts involved.

In the meantime, I consider exclusiveness a virtue. The Bowl Championship Series is designed to showcase the country’s top teams, and it is 25 per cent more open than it was just five years ago. College football is more exclusionary than other sports? Good for college football. The fact that other sports are willing to stand there with straight faces while handing out championship trophies to the likes of N.C. State in college basketball, the New York Giants in professional football, and the Florida Marlins in major league baseball while Division I-A college football is not highlights a problem not with college football, but with every other sport.

Maybe Congress should hold hearings on that.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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