This year we will observe an entirely new system decide who the nation champion is in college football. The much maligned
BCS has departed, with a new four team playoff put in place to decide the winner. People have long been critical of the BCS, and at long last it will be seen whether a departure from the old system is an improvement. The NCAA has put together a committee of people who have many years of experience with college football, and should be able to accurately select the top four teams in the nation. It is interesting how much work goes into deciding a champion, not just in college football but in the vast majority of American sports. We have an obsession with determining who is the best, and we feel cheated if there is not a definitive answer at the end of the season. This is in stark contrast to A. Bartlett Giamatti‘s assertions that sport should be enjoyed as an activity of leisure. He wrote that sports should be “careless, and carefree…they are to be happy.” While still undoubtedly fun, the very existence of the playoff selection committee makes it obvious that it is no longer carefree.
Harkening back to J. Huizinga’s Homo Ludens from the beginning of the semester, we can see that college football no longer has the element of disinterestedness that Huizinga asserted was crucial for something to be considered as play. No longer does it “interrupt the appetitive process,” but rather feeds into it. The “student-athletes” involved in the sport generate millions of dollars in revenue, and the sport has certainly acquired a business-like characteristic. In fact the term student-athlete itself has become a hot button issue in recent times. The question of whether or not collegiate athletes should be paid has already been beaten to death and covered thoroughly in this very blog, so I won’t delve into it here but we should keep in mind the status of the people who are participating in the sport. To be completely honest, the cutthroat nature of college football today more closely resembles something Niccolò Machiavelli would be proud of than anything Giamatti or Huizinga envisioned. Attempting to win “at all costs” has become the standard in not just football, but throughout collegiate athletics.
The NCAA has appointed a group of people in suits to judge the on-field performance of young athletes, and determine who will be given the opportunity to play for a national championship. Debates will rage on about whether the correct teams are selected, and there will be questions as there always is. In typical NCAA fashion, neither the votes of each committee member nor the specific criteria they use when selecting will be made public, leaving the door open for the conspiracy theories and controversy that have become just as a much of a staple in the sport as the forward pass. However maybe the real debate that we should be having is whether or not the way we view the sport is an issue. After all, we have morphed a leisure activity into a billion dollar industry.
It is interesting to examine why we love college football so much. Grantland’s Andrew Sharp wrote an excellent piece discussing what makes college football so enticing. He talks about the traditions, the new playoff system, and touches on the rampant corruption that has spread through the sport. But he also writes that it is a “temporary reprieve from all the other the misery” of the week and that “thinking is totally beside the point.” It is easy to see the parallels with Giamatti and Huizinga here, and maybe their viewpoints aren’t as outdated as what some might believe.