Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Also Known As The Factory System

There is a sports story which has had me seething for months, one too important to be covered in just a few notes. College football has three concurrent and interlocking scandals--the continuing stink of the BCS (also known as the Boring Cheesy Series, the Baloney Championship Shit, and the Bullshit College Scandal), the rules violations popping up at the major colleges like fungus, and the degrading round of conference shopping we just went through.

For me, the sins of college football far exceed those of pro sports. Performance enhancement problems like in cycling, or baseball, where the athletes are much clearer in their motivations--they are highly-trained, focused mercenaries, willing to pursue any means to gain an advantage--are much more forgivable. Pro basketball, pro football--it's much the same, but the rigors of the season itself impose discipline, and the players just need to have a modicum of following the laws in the offseason. College sports, though, should--must--have some relation to education, or the presidents of their schools are doing a great disservice by tolerating them. Instead, the players are generally totally uninvolved in higher education, performing a type of indentured servitude which gives them the right to seek professional employment--if they keep their noses clean, show talent or the potential to develop it, and don't get injured too badly.

Due to colleges' cozy deal with the NFL--they perform an important role comparable to baseball's minor leagues (for which the talent is at least paid something)--the period of servitude is three years in college football. That's two more years, or three times as much, as the one-and-done deal college hoops has with the NBA for those who really have the talent, and who are, like most big-time college football players, just biding their time educationally and running a high economic risk waiting for the call.

Yes, the costs of putting on big-time football programs are high, even if the talent is unpaid (above the table, at least); they need to get return on their investment and use the cash-spinning program to fund their money-losing sports programs. Lots of equipment, scouting costs, and the huge salaries of a top-flight coaching staff (bidding against the NFL here)--these are justifications for colleges to search for better conference deals and destroy the existing ones. State budgets are strapped, so the public universities which make up most of the top football schools are more than ever on their own to be financially self-supporting.

Revising Conference Monickers
None of this excuses the shameless hucksterism of this year's off-season conference auctions. The only good news is that contractual requirements slow the pace of all the switches that were determined, so that this year's conference lineups will still be recognizable. Next year, not so much.

So, in the interest of our readers' being able to interpret standings, we review the principal players in the BCS (Bottomless and Completely Stupid). We start with the conference all envy (in football, at least), the SEC (a/k/a Separated from Education Completely). The SEC's brand of near-pro ball and endless supplies of well-fed Southern beef have led to five straight wins in the (Fictional) National Championship game (or FNC), with another expected this year (so don't bother watching to see how the FNC comes out this year). The only cloud on the horizon is NCAA investigations of rule violations at several SEC schools, which could lead to future suspensions from postseason play and even possible forfeiture of some past crowns (as happened recently with USC). The SEC has a history of teams going in and out (see South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Arkansas), but is quite happy with what they've got now and didn't have any active additions or deletions from their roster this year.

Next, there are a couple of big-time wannabee conferences. They can't beat the SEC, but expansion to twelve or more teams would allow them, under the rules, to plop for a big conference championship payday. Those are the Big 10 and the Pac-10; the former has been living a lie for a few years now, since they added Penn State, and soon will get its required 12th, Nebraska; the latter will get a couple of wannabees from near-Pac states Colorado and Utah. The Pac gave up its coastal status years ago by adding the two Arizona state schools, so these two newbies will not change the marginal aridity much. To their credit, the Pac has been fairly flexible about name changes and will shift easily to becoming the Pac-12. The Big Ten has not; I now officially dub them the Big XII.

That will be to recognize reality, but also trying to avoid creating confusion with the suffering and similarly name-inert Big 12, losers of Colorado and Nebraska. Dropping to X will cost them a big payday, so I expect conference kingpins Texas and Oklahoma to go raiding in the near future to get their numbers back up to the required target. There were two other big losers in this round of Let's Make a Deal: one was the MWC (now known as the Mountain Who Cares?), who lost Utah and gained total-hopeless-sellout-imitation-college-with-blue-Astroturf Boise St., which jumped in the mistaken notion that the MWC will be destined to get a BCS automatic berth (Breaking News: BYU, the "Notre Dame of the West", is also departing the MWC: they will go it alone in football and accept a downgrade to the WCC in other sports. Good riddance, I say.) The other loser conference (somebody has to supply the wannabees) is the "Totally Wack" (a/k/a WAC, formerly known as the Western Athletic Conference), which has been through this too many times in the past. No doubt they can find a few more Division I-A colleges looking to move up, in order to fill some slots from their depleted ranks.

The conferences that are really getting away with things in football are the ACC (Also-ran Coast Competition) and the Big (in basketball) East. They both get guaranteed berths in the Big Creampuff Showdown, though their football fortunes have slipped dramatically, along with those of usual conference front-runners Florida State and Miami (respectively, not respectfully). The two leagues have a good cash cow strategy, where the allure of possibly winning the conference and losing a prestige bowl game, along with their admittedly awesome basketball programs (the Big East's roster in basketball is about twice as long as that of football, including some colleges with minor or nonexistent football programs, lone wolf Notre Dame, and conference splitter Louisville), together constitute a winning formula. And, if the football team suffers, cut costs further.

Yes, I am jealous that the football considerations are jerking around the basketball programs. And, no, I don't hate college football, as long as one is talking about non-BCS variety. The football programs where the big money isn't at stake feature football that's more fun, more experimental, and show much more respect for the concept of the student-athlete. On the other hand, the BCS musical chairs game is college presidents' attempt to Polish a Turd: they refuse to look at the real issue, the perennial FNC qualification disaster. They should dump this whole phony, pandering system for a small single-elimination tournament of eight or twelve teams. Instead they cite hypocritically the impact on their "education" of extending the season with multiple games, while trying to barter bigger TV deals and sneak in conference championship windfalls.

Finally, another bit of good news from a different sport: the NCAA basketball tournament, one of the real jewels of amateur sports remaining in the US (men's and women's), dodged a bullet with the calls for massive watering-down of its standards and will implement only a modest expansion in the near future. All I ask is that they just get rid of the NIT, and move the Eastern regional permanently to Madison Square Garden, the week after the Big East Classic.

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