A hypocritical argument
Presidents' claim that playoff would hurt academics doesn't hold up
Posted: Wednesday November 17, 2004 6:42PM; Updated: Wednesday November 17, 2004 6:42PM
This BCS-standings business resembles a beauty contest. You can pull straws until Saturday deciding between Southern Cal, Oklahoma and Auburn -- and maybe even Utah.
That's why a playoff system is needed, something as simple as a Final Four, anything to determine a champion mano-a-mano. The BCS can undergo only so many facelifts before it looks as plastic as Joan Rivers. Even so, you won't see the debate played out on the field anytime soon, and the reasons tossed out by college presidents reek of hypocrisy.
The No. 1 argument against a playoff has to do with the integrity of the academic calendar. Presidents do not want to extend the football season into the second semester. Institutions of higher education should first and foremost be about academics, but the campus honchos are disingenuous -- not to mention inconsistent -- in throwing around the academic card so freely when it comes to Division I-A football.
If the integrity of the academic calendar is so vital, then explain why the Big Ten is pushing a proposal to extend the college baseball season until July? Or why spring sports like baseball, tennis, softball and track and field already run beyond the end of the semester?
Nobody utters a peep when a freshman at a school operating under the quarter calendar, like UCLA, where classes begin in late September, can possibly play four games before hitting his first college book. And nobody jumps on a soapbox about the NCAA tournament overlapping final exams at schools on the quarter system. Or acknowledges the multitude of college sports that wrap around semesters or quarters.
And if these college presidents are so ethically high-minded, why do they sit in stone silence while the college football schedule -- specifically rivalry games like USC-UCLA, the conference championship games, and the 20 days allotted for bowl game practice -- runs up against final exams in December? It's about money and perception. The campus CEOs will grab every green dollar so long as they come up short of appearing to be in the business of turning the college game into the NFL, and yet the sad truth is the college game is every bit as commercialized.
"With all due respect to a lot of the university presidents, I've always felt the issue about the academic calendar was inconsistent with the basketball situation and also their lack of attention to the [football] impacts in mid-December on the final exam side,'' offers John Sandbrook, a UCLA senior administrator and former assistant to the chancellor. "I haven't seen any discussion about people's concern about the conference championship games being right up against final exams. I'm saying to myself, 'Wait a minute, what is a greater intrusion in the academic calendar -- the start of the second semester or the impact on final exams in the first semester?'
"I'll be polite, I think the academic calendar has been kind of a useful defense for some to point to.''
Sandbrook is an expert on the subject of academics and postseason scheduling, not some sports-talk radio windbag. A decade ago, he was lead researcher for an NCAA committee studying the feasibility of a Division I-A football championship. And earlier this year, he wrote a comprehensive status update for the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a thoughtful watchdog group that would prefer to see the volume turned down on big-time sports.
While he purposely didn't offer any opinions, Sandbrook's latest research found that a championship game or a playoff concluded by mid-January wouldn't create significant havoc in the classroom. In fact, 45 of the 63 BCS schools -- or 71 percent -- had yet to start classes by the second week in January last year. And almost a third returned after the third weekend.
So, this argument about not wanting to drag student-athletes away from the classroom doesn't fly, especially when presidents are silent on the cash-driven phenomena of conference championship games and the traditional bowls that fall just before or during final exams. If nothing else, presidents should come down from their ivory towers and better explain why I-A football remains the only NCAA sport without a playoff. They need to give the nod of approval for change.
"We're going to have to get away from the system as we know it and add one more game,'' suggests Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, campaigning to insure his Tigers aren't denied a shot at playing for the national title. "Actually, it'd probably be good to have three or four undefeated teams every year and they would have to make a change, because there would be such an outcry. They're probably thinking it won't ever happen. But sooner or later you're going to have three or four teams that should be playing for it and not have the opportunity. So if you got a flaw in the system, it is easy to fix it.''
The system won't get fixed until college presidents get a grip on reality.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.