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Debunking the Myth of the "Mythical" National Championship

No sooner had I heaped richly deserved praise upon Sunday Morning Quarterback than he turned right around and said his piece on the central subject upon which we disagree . . . namely, the wisdom, vel non, of a Division I-A college football playoff.

Writes SMQ:

An Ohio State win will not "settle" the matter this season; a unanimous opinion remains no less an opinion, and as long as any agency anywhere reserves the right to bestow a "National Championship" on whomever it pleases for whatever reason, while the only possible benefactor of actual legitimacy washes its hands of the process, the entire exercise of champion-crowning will remain a fanciful - if ever profitable - game of pretend.

That part of me that wishes I had majored in English (yes, "majored in English"; an English major is a British army officer) is moved to reply with a pair of poems:
by Richard Wilbur

I read how Quixote in his random ride
Came to a crossing once, and lest he lose
The purity of chance, would not decide

Whither to fare, but wished his horse to choose.
For glory lay wherever turned the fable.
His head was light with pride, his horse's shoes

Were heavy, and he headed for the stable.

The Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I---
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The point is clear; the decision not to decide is itself a decision.  The National Collegiate Athletic Association, which is younger than the Rose Bowl and only about 30 years older than the Associated Press poll, could crown a champion, yet it chooses not to do so. Is it unreasonable to assume that this is so primarily because most of us are perfectly comfortable with the existing method of choosing a champion?

Moreover, Sunday Morning Quarterback's criticism of the "mythical" national championship---which exists only because we agree to acknowledge that it does---applies to many things in life, not least of all the N.C.A.A.

The problem that the N.C.A.A. was created to combat a century ago no longer exists; just as the raison d'etre of the Republican Party was fulfilled with the passage of the 13th Amendment, the purpose for which the N.C.A.A. exists was accomplished once the forward pass was legalized.

The perpetuation of the organization occurs because those involved allow it to occur, not for any other or better reason. N.C.A.A. sanction is like fiat money; it is real only because we accept its legitimacy . . . and, like the dollar, the currency of the N.C.A.A.'s credibility has been devalued. Were the college presidents to stop recognizing the authority of the N.C.A.A., it would prove every bit as ephemeral, every bit as "mythical," as the 70-year-old institution of the A.P. poll.

Why, then, does it matter whether the N.C.A.A. grants or does not grant its imprimatur to a particular method of crowning a champion? Other athletic events are sanctioned by the N.A.I.A. without any involvement from the N.C.A.A.; the N.C.A.A. tournament exists alongside a separate basketball tourney that produced an N.I.T. champion that had swept the "official" national champion during the regular season; N.C.A.A. member institutions sometimes even file lawsuits against the organization to which they belong.

There is, in short, nothing so special about the N.C.A.A. that its approval should confer special status. Besides, if we are going to criticize coaches and sportswriters for their bizarre quirks and asinine rationalizations, shouldn't we also acknowledge that the N.C.A.A. is itself the fountainhead of much that is ludicrous?

Finally, the N.C.A.A. may keep itself at one remove from Division I-A college football's postseason structure, but its involvement is undeniable and its approval, while tacit, is tangible. The N.C.A.A. licenses and determines eligibility criteria for bowl games and lists national championship poll results in the record book. The N.C.A.A. may be able to claim that the system of bowls and polls was born out of wedlock, but that system's paternity is not in doubt, even if no formal legitimation proceeding has been commenced.

Go 'Dawgs!