A noted conservative intellectual windbag once observed that football is “violence punctuated by committee meetings,” and while I’m aware that the man who said this was technically referring to the huddle as a symbol of suffocating bureaucracy, I still like to imagine George Will greeted the news of college football forming an actual playoff committee by hyperventilating into his bow-tie closet while waxing nostalgic about Hack Wilson.
Will’s irrational attempts to label college football a progressive plot may be the greatest advertisement for liberalism since the New Deal. But he’s not the only one who doesn’t seem to get it: Earlier this year, Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell said he prefers baseball (a perfectly decent sport, especially if that Lunesta prescription isn’t working out) to football because it is a simpler game. It isn’t fraught with all the inherent complexities (or the radical Marxist collectivism) of football, because God forbid one should be forced to confront dualities within our hobbies.
So, fine. Let those people stew in their three-ingredient recipes, whatever their reasons might be. Anyway, I like baseball; I am not here to condemn it. I am here to make the case for college football, which proved once again this year that it is batshit insane and totally inscrutable and utterly amazing.
What this college football season reinforced for me, once again, is that it is an impossibly complicated and ultimately irresolvable sport. What this college football season proved is that this is not a pastime for everyone, and yet it rewards those who pay close attention by reflecting the petty squabbles and disagreements inherent to George Will’s day job. College football has always been a political exercise, but now that it is being resolved by an actual bureaucracy, it is more fascinatingly contentious and complex than it has ever been. And its Rube Goldberg heart is part of what makes it great.
Here are some things you might have missed, if you weren’t paying attention this fall: The entity formerly known as the Bowl Championship Series became the mysterious 12-person committee (originally 13, before Archie Manning took a “health-related leave of absence”) known as the College Football Playoff, a generic moniker that sounds like something pulled from an Alan J. Pakula film. This committee included a controversial former secretary of state, and was fronted by an athletic director for a conference that was accused by thousands of hyperpartisan messageboard truthers of conspiring with a major television network to rig the selection process.
Along the way, two different schools hired public-relations firms in an attempt to lobby the committee; neither of those teams were selected, prompting one of those coaches (Art Briles of Baylor) to accuse the committee of failing to represent the South, even though the head of the committee (see above) represented the state of Arkansas, and another member was the athletic director at Clemson University, which, last I checked, was a wee bit south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
But it didn’t end there. This committee was mandated to issue weekly rankings, a fun little shell game replete with more red herrings than the third season of Lost, and resulted in one conference (the Big Ten) that everyone dismissed pushing a team (Ohio State) through in the final week after a 59-0 conference championship game victory. This led to one conspiracy theory about whether the opposing team (Wisconsin) had laid down on purpose to benefit the greater good of the conference, and a second about whether the committee had chosen a “brand name” (Ohio State) over a pair upstarts from the Big 12 (Baylor and TCU).
But wait, there’s more! Because the Big 12 didn’t hold a conference championship game and all the others did, this led to criticism of said conference’s commissioner, Bob Bowlsby, for refusing to endorse one team or the other before it was too late. (Even though the league’s own marketing slogan was – seriously! – “One True Champion.”) Never mind that the notion of a conference commissioner’s endorsement – for a committee was charged with picking the four “best” teams regardless of conference affiliation – should have theoretically been the exact kind of lobbying attempt that this group was hired to ignore. Because of the way it worked out, the Big 12 will almost certainly be pressured into expanding its ranks, for reasons that extend beyond its control, even though it may have accidentally stumbled across the best answer to at least a small measure of college football’s irresolvability.
The whole thing played out like a locked-room mystery without a resolution; it became fodder for our modern suspicion of pretty much everything associated with “the establishment.” Conspiracy theories thrived because this is what tends to happen when decisions are made behind closed doors without cameras or journalists, and then are explained to the public obliquely and illogically and in an overly serious fashion, in ways that seem borrowed from the Nixonian playbook.
In the end, the new system is just as politically charged and confusing and ludicrous as the old system. And that was great, because college football’s charm lies at least partly in its chaos and contention.
But there is more good news, and that good news is that we get two extra teams, and two extra games, and this is the other fantastic thing about college football: The games are fucking incredible. For all the ridiculousness it took to get here, the notion of a Final Four with Ohio State, Alabama, Florida State and Oregon is achingly beautiful to behold.
In order to be a college football fan, you must embrace this silliness. In order to be a college football fan, you have to take a step beyond simplicity and recognize that our sports, like our politics, like our lives, are fraught with complexities that are essentially irresolvable. If you can’t handle those opposing ideas – the wondrousness and the absurdity of it all – you’re probably in the wrong damned country, anyway.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb