Part of the reason it’s so difficult to explain the allure of college football to those who don’t understand it at all is because it so stubbornly resists objectivity.
It is a diffuse sport, with dozens of different teams competing in different regions, most of whom will never actually play against each other, which means it is almost impossible to quantify, which means it is also almost impossible to achieve a satisfying resolution without pissing off someone.
And this, of course, is part of what makes it great.
For the first century of college football’s existence, the sport’s best teams were filtered through a corrupt and money-driven bowl system based on skewed popularity contests. These popularity contests were known as “the polls,” and for many years, the polls – voted on by sportswriters and coaches alike, and subject to the whims and prejudices of all involved – were the only measure of a so-called “mythical national champion” that existed.
Often, a national champion was chosen because the voters felt that a certain coach and/or school “deserved” to finally win a title (or, all things being equal, they just voted for Notre Dame); when Tom Osborne’s Nebraska Cornhuskers won a national championship in 1994 despite the fact that Penn State was also undefeated, this was the sporting equivalent of Paul Newman winning an Oscar for The Color of Money. In 1998, inspired in part by the Penn State-Nebraska morass, the powers-that-be invented a slightly less slippery system called the Bowl Championship Series, which incorporated supposedly objective metrics like computer polls, but which didn’t really make things much better at all, because it was still, at heart, inherently weighted toward the subjectivity of poll voters.
And so this year, college football has taken another step forward, embracing a four-team playoff system, and outsourcing the selection of those four teams to a committee. This seems like a broad step forward for the sport – and, in many ways, it is – but if you needed a reminder that the college football’s championship process is an ultimately illusory and irresolvable problem, you got it last weekend.
Pat Haden is a former quarterback at the University of Southern California, and currently serves as its athletic director. He is generally known throughout the college football universe as a man possessed with both intelligence and integrity. But last weekend, the Trojans were locked in close game at Stanford, and at some point during the game, USC’s first-year head coach, Steve Sarkisian, got so upset about some aspect of the officiating that he asked Haden to come down to the sideline and aid him in making his case. And so Haden did as he was told, and lobbied the referees during USC’s 13-10 victory, and none of this would have been particularly noteworthy if it wasn’t for the fact that Pat Haden is also a member of the College Football Playoff’s 13-person selection committee.
Immediately, there were calls by national media for Haden to resign his position as a committee member, as if he had violated some unspoken tenet of objectivity by openly advocating for the institution that employs him. It’s a naïve argument, but I can’t blame people for advancing it, because there is still a blind hope that college football will adhere to some higher standard, and that those who are in charge should somehow transcend their own biases.
This, of course, is never going to happen: Five members of the selection committee are currently serving as athletic directors at various schools; another, Condoleezza Rice, is a professor at Stanford (and is not particularly well-regarded for her ability to properly vet the inclinations of those around her). At the very least, every one of the selection committee members went to college. They all undoubtedly spent their lives rooting for certain schools and rooting against others; if they didn’t, we wouldn’t want them on the committee because they wouldn’t care enough about college football to matter.
The committee has insisted that it will eliminate this problem by asking members to recuse themselves if/when teams they’re associated with are considered for the playoff; but even if the committee does tend toward objectivity, this will not change the perception that the committee, when it chooses that fourth playoff team over some other potentially deserving team (or teams), is screwing someone over. It will be like this forever, no matter what college football attempts to do to mitigate the problem; even if there comes a time when artificial intelligence can make these choices for us, I imagine Auburn fans will accuse the selection committee’s HAL 9000 of being biased in favor of Alabama, because this argument is what college football is ultimately about.
If the past few months have made one thing clear, it’s that football, at both the professional and college levels, has serious problems. The college game, in particular, is untidy and hypocritical and infuriating; it is a roiling cauldron, a back-and-forth of regional advocacy and intolerance for one’s neighbor. It is, in short, a metaphor for our messy and constantly evolving national argument. College football is inherently subjective because America is inherently subjective, and this is why Pat Haden’s outburst means everything and nothing at all, and this is why I hope, even as the sport changes, that it never really changes at all.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb