Thursday, November 20, 2008

My First Major Disagreement with President-Elect Obama

As I discussed in a recent post, I have been grimly anticipating the inevitable disappointment that comes after a political victory. Those of us who supported Barack Obama willfully accentuated the positive and eliminated the negative in our minds, and reality will surely come crashing down when the new president becomes post-partisan on an issue that is fundamental to us. The possible nomination of Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State was, one might argue, Obama's first such mis-step. His call not to punish Joe Lieberman is also a worthy candidate for "first big disappointment."

I am clearly on record on this blog as a severe critic of both Clinton (here and here) and Lieberman (here and here), yet I remain serene. Although I do not understand why people are saying that Hillary Clinton is "overwhelmingly qualified" to be Secretary of State (or anything along those superlative lines), I can at least see the arguments for putting her in that post. Similarly, as much as I was hoping to see Lieberman punished, I completely understand why it makes sense not to do so under the current circumstances.

No, my disagreement with our next president concerns something much more important: a college football playoff. In a recent interview, Obama reportedly said that he favors an eight-team playoff to determine a national champion in the top division of college football. He added: "I don't know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me on this." Well, I'm a pretty serious college football fan; and I completely disagree with him on this.

I am not going to argue that this is an issue that the president should leave to others. It is clear that he is not going to make this a high priority item, because he was obviously just having fun spouting off about a subject that comes up regularly in the life of any sports fan. My disagreement is thus not with his sense of priorities, since he seems to have his priorities in order. No, I disagree on the merits. There should not be a playoff system.

Although Obama said that he would balance his proposed three-round playoff by "trim[ming] back on the regular season," that will not happen. Any playoff system will increase the number of games that the best teams play. Every game, especially every high stakes game, brings with it a non-trivial number of serious injuries -- injuries to players who (as a matter of probability) will almost certainly not make a lot of money as professional athletes. Adopting a playoff system thus comes with the certain cost of serious injury each year to a non-trivial number of players. Injuries also become more numerous and more serious as the number of games increases, because the players' bodies are weakened by repeated punishment. Looking at the list of players who are "out of the season" or "out for 6-8 weeks" after each week's games is no less worrisome merely because we've become coarsened to it.

For the same reason, I opposed the addition of a 12th regular season game last season -- on top of the championship games that end the season for the ACC, the SEC, and the Big 12. Add an eight-team playoff, and you'll have two college teams playing 16 games in most years. There is no way that colleges are going to agree not to play regular season games to reduce the number of games that a handful of teams must play. The number of games ratchets upward, not downward.

That is the cost. What of the benefit? We'll know who is the best college football team! So what? As it stands, one team (and sometimes two) can say plausibly that they are the best in the country at the end of the season. We have a very imperfect system that designates a mythical winner. Changing that system so that we have a "winner" in a sense that gives people more of a sense of consensus ("It was decided on the field") is a benefit, I suppose, but it is difficult for me to take that as a serious reason to lengthen the season in an extremely violent sport.

Moreover, this supposed benefit itself comes with its own related cost. One of the most fun aspects of being a sports fan is arguing about things. To this day, I become red-faced when I rant about the 1984 national championship that was awarded to BYU. Miami's championship in the early 90's after they lost to Notre Dame, undefeated Penn State's snub in 1995, and Michigan's shared championship in 1997 all stick in my craw. Total rip-offs. No excuse for the stupidity of those voters!! But hey, that's part of the fun of it. The current system is silly and ad hoc, but so is football (and all sports). Let's yell at each other about it and at least agree not to sacrifice the health of still more young men to satisfy our need for closure.

So, President-Elect Obama, you're wrong. We should not have a college football playoff. You're right to focus on the less interesting stuff, like whether we're going to have an economy next month.

[Note: I held all of the above opinions before my Michigan Wolverines began this terrible season.]

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan