The Case Against College Football

It is September, which means that NCAA sanctioned intercollegiate football is about to begin a new season.  Each year at this time students, alums, and pundits eagerly await a new opportunity to experience the tradition and pageantry that is complaining about NCAA Football.

While there are as many differing complaints as there are teams, most of the loudest complaints revolve around the notion that the NCAA does not sanction a National Championship at the highest level of intercollegiate football.  Instead, a coalition of the six most powerful (read: richest) conferences (The Southeastern Conference, Pac 10, Big 10, Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference, and the Big East)(Oh, and Notre Dame) has formed a scheme called the Bowl Championship Series, or BCS, to artificially create five post-season games involving (hopefully) the best 10 teams from those conferences.

Then, to make matters worse (or so goes the loud complaining), the BCS relies on a complex system that involves human polling (the USA Today/Coaches poll and the Harris Interactive College Football Poll) and six different computerized ranking systems (Anderson/Hester, Richard Billingsly, Wes Colley, Kenneth Massey, Jeff Sagarin, and Peter Wolfe) to create a ranking of the top 25 teams.  It is from these rankings that teams are selected to play in the five BCS post-season games.  The top two teams in the final version of the BCS rankings play in the fifth and final game which is known as the BCS National Championship Game.  It's also worth noting that, regardless of ranking, the winners of the six member conferences are automatically granted a slot in the five BCS games.

The reason any of this matters is, of course, money.  The BCS, thanks to it's shiny new TV contract with ESPN, will dole out about $143 million this year, mostly to its member conferences, with slightly under 20% going to any other conference lucky enough to get a team in.

Obviously this scheme does not make the members of the other, lesser, poorer conferences very happy, but even more obviously, the BCS and its member conferences don't give a damn.

All of this is cause for complaint, I'm told, because the BCS system doesn't generate an actual national championship.  There are several reasons given as to why this is so, but most of them revolve around the notion that no championship is valid unless some form of tournament was employed to determine the winner.  I say hogwash.

There is no need for a national championship in college football.  There's no need for a national championship in any intercollegiate sport.  The various institutions have, for mutual benefit, arranged themselves into conferences.  Each conference determines an annual champion according to rules agreed upon by the members.  In all cases those rules are based on the notion that each team in the conference plays a schedule of games each season against some or all of the other teams in the conference, and based on the win/loss records generated by those games a champion is determined.  This is a perfectly valid outcome.

Greed is the only reason there's any talk of a national championship in college football.  Greedy TV networks want to broadcast it so they can gouge their advertisers for more money.  Greedy stadium owners want to sell tickets and parking and hot dogs.  Greedy fans want to claim that their favorite team is better than some other teams.  The irony is that for all the hyperventallating about a national championship, it is greed that has kept the current system in place.

There are 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division 1-A).  If we assume, for the sake of argument, that there was a national championship tournament of eight teams, and that a committee (similar to the selection committee that selects the teams for the NCAA basketball tournaments) was responsible for choosing the participants, there would only be about 25 or so teams out of those 120 that would ever have even a remote chance of being included.  Which is to say that less than 25% of all the FBS teams would ever have a chance to play for the title.

Currently there are 35 post-season bowl games, which means that 70 teams have an opportunity to participate in a post-season game.  That's 58% of the 120 teams in the FBS.  Each of those games pays out money to the annual participants and to the participants conferences.  So, wisely, the presidents of the 90 or so schools in the FBS who cannot possibly hope to ever compete for a national championship have opted to keep the current system.  A system that generates revenue, that encourages participation, and that doesn't give a damn about a national championship.


  1. But tournaments are fun.

  2. I tend to agree. I've read a lot of student papers about this subject over the years.

    I thought Peter Wolfe was the lead singer for the J. Geils Band. Wait, that was "Wolf." "Wolfe" is the lead singer of some other band.


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