The Death Star

College football isn't just boring—it's become a villain

December 5, 2018
SEC Championship - Alabama v Georgia
Kevin C. Cox

Here's what's about to happen on Dec. 29: Alabama is going to be beat Oklahoma by a score that is slightly closer than expected, Clemson is going to murder Notre Dame, and for the fourth straight season, Grinnin' Dabo and Nick the Tyrant will meet for the national championship. (This meeting was technically labeled a "semifinal" last season, but...semantics.)

Some people will make the argument that dynastic rivalries in sports are good, and sometimes—if we're talking about aesthetic geniuses like the Golden State Warriors taking on human gods like LeBron James, for instance—they're right. But in college football, when it's a matter of two soulless corporate franchises utilizing indentured servitude and dark money to manufacture assembly line championships for increasingly entitled fan bases, it's extremely bad.

Part of this, of course, comes down to the idiocy of not expanding to an eight-team playoff. I wrote about this last year, and by swapping in a few different team names, I could basically re-print the same column. In 2018, we have the same annual injustices—this time it's Ohio State getting left out because they had one bad game that was judged worse than everyone else's one bad game, even though they looked amazing by year's end, and Georgia getting left out even though they're clearly better than Oklahoma and Notre Dame. We have the same set of teams ranked fifth through eighth who could absolutely win a title. We have the same outrage of a team going undefeated and not getting a chance to win the championship (UCF, again). And we have the same fundamental impasse, where a bureaucracy moving at glacial speed is stuck in a compromise position of four teams when literally everyone—even the people in charge—understands that eight would be better.

But there's another reason for the death of parity, and that reason boils down to money. The fact that only two college sports generate revenue, and that one of them generates way more revenue than the other, presents a clear hierarchy of national interest. We care about college football and college basketball more than any other college sport, and we care about college football way more than we care about college basketball. Because we care so much, the people in charge make millions upon millions of dollars. Which means, no matter what the NCAA would have us believe, that the institution of college football is fundamentally professional.

In every other professional sports league in America, there is a player draft, a luxury tax, maximum salaries, and various other mechanisms designed to preserve some measure of parity within the league. It departs from free market capitalism in that sense, and is actually more socialistic than most American business models, but nobody complains because the alternative is to have a small number of wealthy teams dominate each sport forever. Nobody, except possibly Yankee fans, wants that.

In college revenue sports, players are not paid, and since they also can't proceed directly from high school to the professional level (which may be changing in the NBA quite soon), they are given compensated in three other ways. One is illicit benefits, which is beyond the scope of this column. The second is "free" "education," which is mostly useless to the real stars, and the third is freedom of choice regarding their school, which is not useless.

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It's that freedom of choice where things go haywire, because when have men like Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney who combine intelligence, charisma, and monomaniacal energy to become undisputed superstars, it provides an incentive for all the best players to attend their schools. Not only will they have a chance to contend for national championships, but the Sabans and Swinneys of the world can convincingly argue that it also gives them the best chance to succeed in the NFL. This happens in basketball, too, but because basketball involves fewer players—meaning that one or two stars can alter a team's fortunes—and the March Madness format is inherently volatile, it's rare to see a team control the championship for any length of time. Not so in football. The sheer number of players required means that a team like Alabama or Clemson who can hoard talent at every position will overwhelm the lonely stars at lesser schools, and guarantee themselves at least a shot at a title for as long as their genius coaches stick around.

We're only seeing the start of this phenomenon, since national titles are relatively new in the sport, but it's been long enough to prove the point: in terms of competitive balance, college football is far more like European soccer—where three to four teams dominate every domestic league down through the decades—than it is like anything else in America. (Case in point: If Alabama wins this season, Saban will have captured six of the last ten titles in a league with 130 teams.) There may be some who appreciate this, particularly if they root for one of the emerging royal dynasties, but for most, the death of true country-wide competition is a disaster for most fans. It has made the sport predictable and boring.

Under the current system, the situation will not remain the same—it will get worse. There is no regression to parity coming, only a continuing spiral into talent inequality. The names of the juggernauts might change when Saban and Swinney give way to others, and teams like Georgia might insert themselves into the upper echelons for a period of two to five years, but the reality is immutable over time—it's a vicious cycle where the rich get richer, the elite are known before the season even begins, and everyone else competes for meaningless bowl appearances and the rare upset.

There are ways to change this, and they range from the minor to the major. On the minor side, the NCAA could expand the playoffs to eight or 16, and give the Alabamas and Clemsons more chances to lose in a single fluke game. On the major side, they could permit players go straight from high school to the NFL so that the elite colleges can't run minor league football factories, or they could pay the players and use that payment to justify instituting some kind of draft, or to impose limits on the number of top 100 recruits each team can sign.

But those changes, even the most minor, feel increasingly like pipe dreams. After all, this is an organization that needed 15 years to transition from an arbitrary national title game to a flawed four-team playoff. The NCAA epitomizes systemic inertia, and despite the clamor for a wholesale transformation, it's surpassingly unlikely that they'll become less resistant to change. College football has backed itself into a corner, and the only drama left for fans like me and you is whether Real Madrid or Barcelona—sorry, I mean Alabama or Clemson—will win this year's national title coin flip.

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