Monday, January 2, 2012

Thoughts on NCAA BCS football - part 2

Continuing where I left off ...

So I'm a fan of NCAA BCS football, for whatever reason, with the Oklahoma Sooners at the top of my short list of favorite teams.  With all the brouhaha about the post-season and the mythical national champion of BCS football being chosen primarily by polls that rank the teams subjectively and/or objectively via various arbitrary formulae, I've been forced to consider the possibility of an eventual playoff format.  I have mixed feelings about that, now.

All the other divisions of NCAA football already run playoffs to determine a national champion on the field of play, rather than being based primarily on polls.  There's no plausible logical reason why the former Division 1A couldn't or shouldn't have a playoff, other than the greed of the universities because of the money generated by post-season bowl games.  Presumably the bowl games have an inherent need to survive in any future post-season scenario involving playoffs.  This is, of course, all about the money.

And the same goes for the frantic re-alignment of the BCS conferences, with some teams now leaving one conference to join another.  Yet another case of it all being about the money.  The money drives the programs and the programs generate the money, in a nice case of the snake swallowing its own tail ...

At some point in the past, I had the naive notion that athletic competition in colleges was about sports and, for lower-level sports (referred to as "non revenue-generating" sports) like wrestling or gymnastics, or even college baseball, that's mostly what it's still about.  The student-athlete is not a myth in collegiate sports, but it is truly a vanishing species in NCAA BCS football.  The football players on NCAA BCS teams are recruited first and foremost as football athletes, not as students.  We don't care about your SAT scores, so long as they meet the minimum requirement.

In thinking about things going on with BCS football of late, I was forced to recollect my past experiences.  Thinking back, what I truly enjoyed were the traditional rivalries between teams that had long histories, going back in some cases a loooooooong ways:  OU-Texas, Michigan-Ohio State, Notre Dame-Southern California, Auburn-Alabama, and so on.  There were also lesser rivalries among teams that historically have had few aspirations to be national champions:  Minnesota-Wisconsin for the Paul Bunyan Trophy, Purdue-Indiana for the Old Oaken Bucket, Oregon-Oregon State in the "Civil War", and so on. With the ongoing demolition of conference team lineups, some old rivalries have been ended with no apparent concern for the loss of tradition.  College football with its regional rivalries had an aura of fun and friendly competition, that only marginally were related to pulling in tubs of cash.  This is being destroyed in the NCAA BCS.

In college, individual teams of the past didn't copy relentlessly the strategies used by winning teams.  College teams had personalities of various sorts and part of the fun was when teams with vastly different strategies clashed on the field.  College football had diversity in the style of play.  This is changing as the need to train NFL rookies seems to be a primary goal.  And it seems everyone must copy the style of football played in the SEC to have a chance to win a national championship.

The bowl games used to be mostly a reward for a successful season and a chance for some teams to play each other that ordinarily would not meet very often during the regular season because they were in different regions.  When the bowl games became a process increasingly focused on deciding the mythical national championship and the final rankings for the year, this fun-focused perspective on bowl games changed into something dark and filled with emotional meanings:  vindication and joy for the winners, but also humiliation and sorrow for the losers.  And the BCS formula has given us a rematch this year of a game between teams that have already met.

If NCAA BCS football eventually goes to playoff with 4 or more teams, which seems inevitable, then a champion of sorts will be determined on the field, but something else will have died.  College football will have become nearly indistinguishable from NFL football, except for the salaries paid to the players and the overall average talent level.  Most collegiate football players don't go on to play in the NFL - some play for "minor league" professional teams like arena league football, or american-style football in Europe or Canada.  But for most collegiate athletes, even at the BCS level, the end of their college playing days is the end of competitive football for them.  Interestingly, the NFL continues to draw many players from schools in the "lesser" divisions;  NFL-quality athletes are not found exclusively in the BCS.

For those not destined to become professional football players, these athletes remain mostly students and are football players only secondarily.  If their football careers are terminated prematurely by an injury, no big payoff is lost - they just get to focus their attention on academic issues, not athletic performance.

In some ways, I'd like to see a playoff for the NCAA Division 1A national championship - to see the issue settled on the playing field rather than some arbitrary process other than athletic competition.  But in other ways, I'll probably lose interest in the process.  The NCAA football game will be entirely about the money, and  the rich will likely get richer at the expense of the poor.  Another microcosm of our society, I suppose.

Thoughts on NCAA BCS football - part 1

I don't resemble an athlete in any way, and never have.  My athletic prowess is minimal and I've never had much involvement with sports on a competitive basis at any level.  I played at various sports as a boy and realized I had no talent for it.  But over the years, I became something of a sports fan - not a true fanatic, but definitely a willing spectator.  My two favorite sports are NCAA football and NCAA wrestling.  These are two very different athletic competitions:  football is one of the ultimate team sports, whereas wrestling is one of the ultimate individual sports.

Anyway, we're now in the process of winding down the NCAA football season for another year.  My favorite team, the Oklahoma Sooners, finished the year 10-3, having won the Insight Bowl game.  But it was a year that began with high expectations for a BCS national championship.  The team played really poorly in the three games they lost, including a thorough beatdown in Stillwater.  I'm among the many fans disappointed at how this year's team performed.  But a friend recently drew my attention to the long period of consistent football mediocrity at the University of Minnesota, and I regained my perspective on the Sooners.  Oklahoma football has had an incredibly long run of football success, with occasional short spans of relatively poor performance on the field.  We Sooner fans are terribly spoiled, like those of other "top tier" NCAA football teams:  Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Texas, Southern California, and so on.  To not be competing for the national championship is to fail.

It's obvious that the main result of being consistently competitive at that level is a huge fan base that essentially pays for the program's success with their ticket purchases, game concessions, purchases of team memorabilia from the university-sanctioned franchises, and huge donations from rich alumni.  The fans want their teams to be competitive at the highest possible level and are willing to pay the price to make that happen.  In fact, some fans go beyond the legal limits on what they should be doing in order to help their favorite team become successful.  This corruption is but one of the downsides to the transformation of NCAA top-tier football into a business, rather than a mere sporting event. [This transformation mirrors the transformation of universities from being educational institutions into businesses!]  As with any business, success breed more success - just as failure breeds more failure.  Big-time NCAA football schools tend to remain successful for long periods and the next tier can only hope for occasional flashes of moderate success that aren't sustained.

The BCS system emerged from the legacy of the old Division 1A within the NCAA.  But the BCS has become a huge cash cow for the universities that manage to make it to the top levels in the sport.  The bowls that form the post-season for good teams mostly are big money-makers for the sponsors.  The fans spend their money on travel as well as tickets, concessions, parking, and memorabilia.  Successful coaches command enormous salaries before they even win a game at the institution that's buying their services.  Some of the players themselves are corrupted by the vast amount of money flowing into the university coffers, wanting to get a piece of the action in exchange for their services to the success of the program.  After all, they get little or nothing in return for their contribution - except a free education, and room and board  [for which non-scholarship students (or their parents) pay many tens of thousands of dollars], which isn't valued very highly by some of these athletes who believe, with some reason, that they aren't ordinary students.  Sports agents hover around the top athletes, hoping to convince the players to buy their services and command the largest possible salaries as NFL rookies.  To many of the athletes, the university is mostly a path to the big NFL payoff to come, not an education.  In turn, the university regards their athletes as expendable assets.

I enjoyed NCAA football most at OU because the four years I spent following football at the University of Wisconsin were characterized by declining football success on their way to an extended period of mediocrity.  Of late, things have changed for Wisconsin and, although I still root for them as an alumnus, I don't have the same emotional involvement with them as I now have with OU.  Why is that?  My very first year at OU, the fall of 1967, the Sooners had a 10-1 season, winning the Orange Bowl.  Being at the games in Owen field was tremendously exciting and I was hooked as a Sooner fan.  Everyone likes a winner, of course.  When the team is winning, it's "we" are winning - when losing, it's "they" who are losing!  Clearly, I loved being associated with a winning team, like any fan, after the blah feelings I experienced in Camp Randall.

More to come in Part 2