The Sugar Bowl was a lot of things -- a network ratings scam, a profligate entertainment, a money-laundering operation, a lost weekend, a vulgar display and an esoteric dispute between computers and humans. What it was not was a legitimate way to decide the college football national champion.
Call it the Blatantly Commercial Scheme bowl. The whole thing was dirty as sin. At some point between the selling and the swilling and the various corporate-branding activities, a football game was played between Oklahoma and Louisiana State, and LSU got a trophy, although what exactly the trophy represented was not clear. Who's No. 1? Well, we don't precisely know. People will say that we shouldn't take anything away from Oklahoma or LSU, but I disagree. Yes, please, do take something away from them. Take away the notion that these two teams were playing for "all the marbles," because they were in fact only playing for half of them, or maybe a quarter of them. LSU won, 21-14, in what was essentially a home game before 79,342 at the Superdome, marred by five turnovers and made uglier by the incessant advertising. The only thing that came out of this Sugar Bowl was a fractional champion -- and yet another demonstration that college football suffers from a bent and unfair rewards system.
To start with, nearly half of the NCAA football schools, 53 of the 117 Division I-A members, were locked out of receiving a Sugar Bowl invite because they aren't members of the racket called the Bowl Championship Series. Furthermore, the BCS computer declared that Southern Cal, the team ranked No. 1 in the country by two human polls, wasn't deserving of a place here, either.
These facts are at the heart of an important dispute, one that no kickoff can settle. Apparently, it's going to take an act of Congress to do what's needed: Dissolve the BCS and replace it with a playoff.
If an event of substance took place in New Orleans this week, it was BCS chairman Mike Tranghese's announcement that the BCS school presidents are adamantly opposed to any kind of playoff. They refuse to even discuss it.
Now, that's interesting. Why should university presidents reject the notion of a playoff without so much as a conversation? Why?
Because a playoff would mean that 117 schools shared more equally in the revenue, and the decision-making, of college football. That's why.
The BCS computer-based scheme was created six years ago under the guise of picking a champion, but its real consequence has been to concentrate all of the money and power in college athletics in the hands of just 63 schools in the six major conferences (the ACC, Pacific-10, Big Ten, Southeastern, Big 12 and Big East). The other five conferences have little say, and no chance of getting into the major bowls with their massive financial pots. The BCS revenue from the 2002-03 season was $114 million -- and more than $109 million of that went solely to the BCS colleges.
Tranghese said the BCS presidents are opposed to a playoff because it would erode their precious academic standards, and mean playing too many games. It could force teams to play during exam periods, or extend the season into the winter semester. It would not, gasp, be in the best interest of the student-athlete.
"This is not about money," Tranghese said. "It's about providing a lot of kids with a chance to play in a bowl."
He added that if a playoff were implemented, "Graduation rates would go down."
Tranghese is a personable, intelligent man stuck in an untenable position, but this discussion is not even faintly about academics. You would need a geologist to find the graduation rates of some BCS schools. Each year when the NCAA issues its annual report on academic performance, there is some wonderful new statistic. In 2001, according to the NCAA, Oklahoma graduated 6 percent of its players.
I have a question. If the BCS presidents are so concerned with the academic and physical well-being of the student-athlete, how come Kansas State played 15 games this season? And how come Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr was permitted to drag his team to Los Angeles on Dec. 20 and put it through two-a-days in preparation for the Rose Bowl -- when the team wasn't required to be on site until Dec. 25 and the game wasn't played until New Year's Day?
A Division I-A playoff is an absolutely viable solution. It works perfectly well for the other three divisions of college football, the NCAA's Division I-AA, Division II and Division III, which have operated playoff systems for years without ruining their academic integrity. They play the first round at the end of November, and the championship before Christmas. Many of those schools have better grad rates than the major football universities. I haven't noticed that a playoff has hurt Colgate.
The real reason BCS presidents won't listen to a playoff proposal is that they have spent the last six years realigning and building unwieldy super-conferences at the behest of the ABC network (the only real winner this week). A playoff would mean disassembling all of that apparatus, and "re-branding" it, and rebuilding it. It would also mean that schools would have to revert to a more reasonable 10-game regular season.
It's not an easy solution, of course. But these are college presidents -- they're supposed to have brains.
I know for a fact that the BCS presidents are preoccupied with money. I know it because the chancellor of Nebraska, Harvey Perlman, said so, in a hilariously ponderous letter that was published in The Washington Post. Perlman, one of six presidents on the BCS oversight committee, was defending the system against my admittedly constant and quite savage attacks of logic.
"Jenkins claims that BCS teams are 'out for the money.' But she should explain why universities that fail to make investments in their programs and that fail to attract a large fan base deserve to participate in the revenue generated by those teams that do."
In other words, why should Nebraska have to share a dime with any school that's not big and rich and win-at-all-cost?
This is what passes for ethics among the BCS presidents.
Maybe Nebraska should explain why the six BCS conferences all have profit-sharing agreements with each other -- but not with the other half of the NCAA Division I-A membership. Or better yet, maybe the IRS should just audit Nebraska's cut of the bowl money as "unrelated business income."
It's been the difficult job of chairman Tranghese, who doubles as commissioner of the Big East, to defend the BCS publicly all week. In doing the bidding of Perlman and his fellow presidents, Tranghese is forced to talk out of two sides of his mouth at once, veering from idealism to realpolitik with every sentence.
Even he admitted, during a conversation with questioning football writers Sunday morning, "Make no mistake, at the end of the day every single one of us is selfish and we will do whatever we have to do to protect ourselves and our conferences." Then he added, "But sometimes we have to step above the fray, and do the right thing,"
Sometimes they have to do the right thing? There you have it: the perfect expression of the BCS ethic at work. No wonder they could only declare a partial champion.