Saturday, December 05, 2015

College Football Playoffs

Today will tell us everything about who major college football's Final Four will be.  No doubt, there will be one or two schools, just like last year, who will have a legitimate beef.  There is talk that the Final Four should be an Elite Eight.  It stands to reason that such a format would ensure that at least the best six teams in the country will have a chance to contend for the national championship.  Among the ideas thrown about would be to take the champions of the five major conferences and then three at-large teams.  That would seem to honor the regular seasons of the major conferences and give strong second-place finishers, strong teams from another conference and Notre Dame in a great year the chance to participate.

This seems to be a high-class problem, and one that the powers that be, along with the advertisers and networks, can address to their satisfaction.

Today, we will find out whether Alabama will go through (they should beat Florida), whether Clemson can keep its hold on being Number 1 (they could lose to Alabama) and whether Stanford can keep its dreams alive (they should beat USC, but the Trojans have been a team on a mission since the firing of Steve Sarkisian).  And, of course, the winner of the Big 10 Championship Game should go through, too.

All of this begs a few questions that continue to trouble me.  First, the issue of concussions and their long-term effect on players.  Second, the issue of measuring academic progress and ensuring that the players, who make significant efforts, get fair value for their contributions.  That means either that they are true student-athletes who make meaningful progress toward degrees, get the ability to finish should they exhaust their eligibility and get post-college medical care should they need it.

The first issue is very troublesome.  That data is bad at best and challenging at worst.  I predict that the game will change dramatically over the next twenty years or become extinct.  Either teams get larger and players' number of plays in a game gets limited or the rules get significantly changed about hitting both in practice and in games.  Or a combination of both.  The risks to one's health are so great that something must change, given the data that is out there about life well after football.  It just isn't natural for overweight men (and, yes, almost all football players are overweight when you compare their weights to what the Federal government's suggestion for weight is) are banging into each other for so much of the year.

The second issue is bothersome.  The purists and traditionalists argue that there isn't much to be done in this area because every scholarship player is getting a free education and that this is a very significant payment for their playing football for the college.  What that suggests, though, is a view that football is an extracurricular like any other, and that it doesn't require either a substantial commitment during the season or year-round.  But it does.  And what happens is that coaches want players to take courses that end at a certain time of the day and that, well, are easy enough not to distract them from helping win football games.  Now, this doesn't happen at all institutions, but at many coaches are more interested in keeping their jobs and winning than they are about educating their players, regardless of what they say publicly or what they say in a recruit's home.  The data bear it out.  And because of that, it is hard to argue that we as a society are not condoning herding kids into this system and chewing them up for our own entertainment -- and that it is up to them to argue and negotiate for an educational pathway that leads to a meaningful career after college.  It just is not always that simple.  And let's not forget that a bunch of these kids gain admission not because they are ready for college but because they have the potential to do spectacular things on a college football field.

So, as we go into the playoff season, bowl season and the holiday season, college football gives us a lot to think about.  And even if it gives us things to pull for and cheer about, we also must ask ourselves the question -- "at what cost?"  And if we wince or want to shake it off or want to ignore it, then that means we are acknowledging that all is not right and that we should do something about it.