Thursday, February 04, 2010

What's Wrong with College Football Playoffs

cross-posted at

So a lot of people, including the President, have been talking lately about remedying the evils of college football. The chief evil that needs remedying is apparently the Bowl Championship System, which isn't enough of a "real" championship and needs to be replaced with a system of playoffs. That's a big surprise to me, because I can think of a lot of other problems with big-time college football, and instituting playoffs would probably make them worse.

Just to face some basic facts: there is only so much full-speed, seriously competitive football that the human body can take. If you want to play two-handed touch on your lawn every day, that will work. If you're practicing with a team, practice can happen most days (although the coaches will build in some lower-impact days, and some rest). But actually playing, in the big time, is another thing. The question of how much football one man can take is answered, more or less, by the NFL's schedule: 16 games in 17 weeks. 16 games a season is a pretty low number, and if that's all the owners schedule, it's not because tradition matters more to them than money. It's because that's all the competitive football even the best, most elite professional players can really take.

Professional baseball players can play ten times as many games a season than NFL players do, and NBA basketball players can play five times as many games, because those sports don't beat up the athletes' body in the same way. If the NFL season were longer, or the games were more frequent, you would eventually see too many players getting injured ("too many" meaning in this case too many for the game to be fun) or the quality of play weakened to help players survive. (If the NFL had to play three games a week, you'd see a much, much less physical game.) Football is the most physically demanding and punishing team sport. The only harsher sports are individual sports, like boxing and the marathon, where serious athletes can't even compete once a week.

Now, the Bowl Championship Division Series is already close to full professional length, between twelve and thirteen regular-season games compared to the NFL's sixteen. That makes sense, considering that BCS college football functions, basically, as a minor league for the NFL. Players get accustomed to a longer and more intense schedule than they did as high school players, but not as long or intense as the pro schedule. That's necessary, as the players build up their conditioning, strengthen their still-developing bodies, and learn to play the game at a newer, harder level. So the current system is probably a pretty decent level of intensity, and the Bowl system, where there's a one-game postseason for a lot of teams, isn't so terrible.

But if you add, say, a three-round playoff to the college schedule (and if a playoff system starts there will outraged demands for more than three rounds), you're looking at college players playing something pretty close to the full NFL schedule. And that's going to mean injuries: more injuries, and worse injuries, including some career-enders. A kid who's trying to compete for the big time at the same time he's making the adjustment from an 10- or 11-game high school season to what's basically a fifteen-game Div I season is going to get hurt. The question is how much. The extended postseason, where you've got a lot of young and inexperienced players who are worn down by the long season but trying to redouble their efforts for the "meaningful games," is pretty much a recipe for some serious, serious damage. Will every player get hurt badly? No. Some will be lucky, and get only the routine injuries that football players routinely conceal. But plenty of people will get hurt worse than that, needlessly, and players who could have gone on to big things will end up out of the game for good.

A full NCAA football season is about as much as you can ask. Really. A full season plus two or three playoff games is a lot more than you can ask of a kid who isn't being paid. If it's "wrong" to not have a "real" championship, it's also wrong to ask a kid to risk his body and his future for free, just to please ESPN and the Vegas lines. Yeah, yeah, the kids get paid with an education. Sure. But adding another three- or five-week playoff season, right into the spring semester, pretty much goes to show what a sorry pretense that is. If this were about educating kids for something beside football, we wouldn't be talking about playoffs at all. And yeah, kids play Div I ball for their shot at the NFL. But extending seasons for players who aren't ready for that punishment means risking those players' shot at making the NFL ever. They only make that pro money if they excel and stay healthy. If they get hurt (or need to play more cautiously to keep from getting hurt), they get nothing. And that's not just "wrong" the way an imperfectly-satisfying-television-spectacle is "wrong." It's simply wrong: a selfish, vicious, rotten-hearted thing to do to another person.

No comments: