As we stand on the precipice of a new college football season, Hemingway’s thoughts on bullfighting seem particularly germane to the state of college football. Every fan of the game recognizes and loves that there is something beautiful about the game, its pageantry and its traditions and history. I, like so many other Americans, have a weekly ritual that reserves the lion’s share of Saturday afternoons for watching, enjoying and lamenting the fortunes of my team.
But, despite my love for the game, I know full well the truth of it. The sport is filled with matadors and bulls, and we can be certain that at season’s end, though the lesser teams will have provided us with spectacle and entertainment, a big team from a power conference will hold the championship trophy. This would not necessarily be a tragedy in itself but for the fact that the selection of the champion is not, and is not really meant to be, a reflection of who the best team in the nation is. Instead, the season begins with scores of college football teams having no chance to win the national championship, irrespective of what they do or how good they are.
In 2007, I had an argument with a friend who was celebrating his one-loss University of Florida team’s championship. I pointed out that that year’s Boise State squad had gone undefeated and had beaten a BCS power, Oklahoma, in a bowl game. I simply asked him, “What could have Boise State have done to have won the championship?” In a moment of honesty, he could but only say, “probably nothing.” I agree except for the "probably." Boise State entered the season that year, not as the matador, but as the bull. They huffed, they charged and they gored, but in the end they were never going to win—the rules and structure of college football simply did not allow it.
What is shocking is the degree to which this answer seems not to bother people.
Imagine, for example, if you invited friends over to your house to play high-stakes poker, then explained to them that no matter what cards they held, they could not win the game because your carefully constructed formula and a poll of your other friends had determined that they weren’t good enough. On its face, this is ridiculous, and nobody would ever accept such terms as the grounds for a credible competition. Taken this way, the BCS structure is not a mere flaw in the college football system, it is an existential failure, given that what it purports to do is to produce a single champion.
Sports must rest upon the basic proposition that the rules allow each team an equal chance at winning, with the only separator of the competitors being their skill and the intervention of luck. Hemingway was right to say that bullfighting was not a sport because the two sides entered the competition with unequal chances of success based upon the rules and structure of the encounter. In much the same way, to the extent that we are talking about the national championship, college football is also not a sport; it is a season-long spectacle, not an honest competition.
Of course, the BCS system is a complete anomaly within American sports. As a nation, we put far more value on playoffs than we do on consistent excellence over the course of a season. One of the frequent defenses of the BCS system is that to go to a playoff would devalue the regular season. The proper response is, “So what? We’re not a regular season kind of people.”
Americans tend to see athletics as a way to take the measure of a person under the most trying of circumstances. Lebron James won more regular season games the last two years than anyone in basketball, but he bolted out of Cleveland as a failure because he could not win The Big One. The Buffalo Bills of the 1990s are not fondly remembered as one of the great teams of their decade; rather, our vision of them will always be of a talented team that stared destiny in the eye and blinked. In much the same way, it seems odd to award a place in the title game based on a team’s ability to handle a hiccup or down day on a road trip to Oxford, Miss. on some nondescript Saturday, as opposed to having earned a trip to said game by winning a tough playoff game in Michigan Stadium or the Los Angeles Coliseum with the whole sporting world watching.
Any process that does not have a playoff will end up rewarding a completely different set of skills. Playoffs are as much a test of mental toughness, mettle, focus and sustained and contained intensity as they are of physical ability. The better team will more often win in the regular season, whereas the grittier, smarter and more tenacious team will tend to win out in playoffs. A regular season juggernaut can be filled with sunshine soldiers like Lebron’s good-time Cavaliers, but playoffs reward players like Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant who seem to overflow with bad intentions and an obsession with winning at all costs.
That playoff and regular season games test very different things is born out in the fact that the best regular season teams tend to do genuinely awful in the playoffs. In the NHL, the President’s Cup winner has won just three Stanley Cups in the last decade; the NBA’s regular season best-record holder has won just twice in 10 years, as has Major League Baseball’s best team. The NFL regular season is a bit better, with the best team winning the Super Bowl four times in the decade. All told, in the major professional sports, the best regular season team wins the championship less than a third of the time.
We are to believe that our current system is not perfect, but at least it is better than it used to be when conferences were bowl-tied in ways that frustrated attempts to put the top teams against each other. I disagree. Previous iterations made no real pretense about creating a genuine championship. The current system is the worst of all worlds, valuing regular season consistency over playoff toughness, excluding scores of teams from any substantive involvement in the championship pursuit and then claiming without any sense of dishonesty that the team holding the crystal football at year’s end is in fact the undisputed champion.
Like bullfighting, college football can only but fill one with an abiding sense of ambivalence. I grew up going to games at Oregon’s Autzen Stadium, and the dozens of Saturday afternoons I have spent at Michigan Stadium will always remain among my most cherished memories. Marching bands, tailgating, late Sundays sleeping off victory-induced hangovers and intimate gatherings with 80,000 of your closest friends are special and wonderful. But, just as Hemingway lamented the inevitable death of the bull, so too do I come to a point of deep internal conflict in which I must balance my love for the beauty of the on-field product against my disgust at the travesty of the NCAA’s refusal to give the fans an honestly produced champion.