Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Does College Football Need a National Champion?

Yesterday the presidential oversight committee of Division 1 college football formally approved a plan for a four team playoff system starting in 2014. This comes on the heels of years of calls for a playoff system from the media, coaches, players and even President Obama. Many members of the media are hailing this as a victory for justice and all that is right in the world, and it seems clear that the NCAA has finally listened to the fans desire for a playoff system, or at the very least reacted to declining TV ratings for bowl games.

This seems to be a win-win. What problem can there possibly be with the creation of a more just playoff system?

With the health risks inherent in playing high level football, we as a society need to think long and hard before pushing for more high intensity football games, especially between players who are not even payed for their participation.

It really raises a fundamental question: why do we need a national champion in college football? I am not proposing a competition-less world like 6 year old t-ball where all games end in “ties”, but I think this is a very important question to ask.

There are inherent difficulties in the concept of a college football national champion. There are 119 Division 1 college football teams, and teams typically play twelve games a year, predominantly against teams in their own conference. How can we ever definitively name a “national” champion when so few of the teams can ever play each other. It is impractical to play more games. College basketball can more easily name a champion because they can have a sixty plus team tournament with multiple games over a single weekend.

The truth is, the other levels of football have the same problem. The NFL has thirty two teams play sixteen games each (though only thirteen teams since each team plays divisional rivals twice) and determines their playoff teams. Each team plays slightly more than a third of the league, so the randomness of what teams are on your schedule has a significant impact on the success of your season. Although it is imperfect, the NFL does need to determine a champion due to the professional nature of the sport.

The other extreme is High School football. There are thousands of teams nationally, so there is no momentum behind a national High School champion. We are all satisfied with state champions, often multiple champions per state, and no one feels cheated.

The question becomes, is college football more like professional or High School football? You can argue both sides. The NCAA clearly states that college players are not     and can not be professionals. The players are still active students and represent their institutions, so it would seem to be more similar to High School football. At the same time, it is absurd to say that college football is like High School football. High School teams don’t fill 100,000 seat stadiums in Ann Arbor, Michigan or play on national TV weekly. College football is a multi-billion dollar industry loosely associated with our schools of higher learning in a complicated and often hypocritical way.

What we have is a sport which the NCAA promotes as being similar to High School football, but in reality is much more similar to the pros. The national champion discussion is the ultimate proof as to what the NCAA truly thinks about college football. No one clamors for a High School national championship because they are just kids playing for their schools, and the pride of a state championship is plenty reward. No one makes that argument for college football because no one believes it. We want a national champion, just like the NFL.

If the NCAA truly believes that college football is non-professional, then it should push for the dissolution of the national championship, not add games to more accurately determine one. College Football keeps adding more and more games. In the 1950’s national champions routinely played 9 or 10 games. In the 60’s it was more likely to be 11 games. In the 70’s and 80’s it was 12 games, in the 90’s 13 games, and in the last decade 14 games. They keep adding more games for amateur “student-athletes” to increase revenue and have conference championship games to “more accurately determine the conference champion”. With the playoff system the top teams will play 15 games, in essence a professional schedule.

The NCAA has two choices, either make college football a professional sport or pull it back altogether. If college football is akin to High School, then let each team play 10 games in their conference and allow the conference winners to relish in their glory, eliminating the national champion altogether. For most fans that would be enough. College football is about conferences and regional rivalries. Ohio State fans care that their team beats Michigan, not that they beat USC in the Rose Bowl. Auburn and Alabama, Cal and Stanford, Florida and Florida St., Texas and Oklahoma-that’s what college football is about. Who are we determining a national champion for? I think most fans would be perfectly satisfied with conference championships and eliminate this unsolvable and unfair national championship question altogether.

How could so many media members be clamoring for more high intensity college football games? How dare they push for unpaid players to risk their health so fans and media can feel “more certain” that the correct national champion wins? At the very least, why aren’t they simultaneously pushing for a decrease in games to 10 per team plus a playoff?

The Talmud in the first chapter of Sanhedrin has an interesting debate about what is preferred in a legal dispute, a verdict or a compromise. There are two competing values, truth and peace. If a judge renders a decision there is truth but often no peace, if a compromise is reached there will be peace but there would seem to be no truth. As the Talmud states in Sanhedrin 6b:

Rabbi Judah b. Korha says: Settlement by arbitration is a meritorious act, for it is written, Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates (Zechariah VIII, 16). Surely where there is strict justice there is no peace, and where there is peace, there is no strict justice! But what is that kind of justice with which peace abides? — We must say: Arbitration.  So it was in the case of David, as we read, And David executed justice and righteousness [charity] towards all his people (II Sam. VIII, 15). Surely where there is strict justice there is no charity, and where there is charity, there is no justice! But what is the kind of justice with which abides charity? — We must say: Arbitration.

The Talmud concludes that ultimate justice is arbitration, is peace. You don’t always need to have the “full truth” brought to light, especially if the fallout will be too great. When it comes to a college football national champion, do we really need “justice”? Can “justice” ever really be attained? It is time to find a middle ground. If we want college football to remain amateur, then football fans need to push for less games and focus more on conference championships instead of national championships.

There is real justice in that.

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz is a rabbi in the Bay Area.