The Sports Talk/Political Talk Convergence of Dangerous Group-Think

by Neil H. Buchanan
In the days leading up to the moment when Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema revealed that they honestly and truly are willing to allow constitutional democracy to die, a minor story hit the wires about the University of Alabama's football coach, Nick Saban, who was reported to have urged his longtime almost-like-family friend Manchin to support voting rights legislation.  The New Republic's daily newsletter mentioned the story, adding that this was a big deal because Saban's position probably would not go over well in beet-red Alabama.

It turns out that there was much less to this story than met the eye.  The Business Insider article covering the news -- which did, via its headline and opening paragraphs, make it appear that this was big news and meant what it appeared to mean -- described Saban's having signed onto a letter of support for federal voting rights legislation.  I had no idea that Saban had grown up in W.Va., but if there was that connection, then this was good news.

However, the article then notes that Saban insisted on adding a footnote to the letter that he signed, saying that "Coach Saban is not in favor of getting rid of the filibuster in the Senate. He believes this will destroy the checks and balances... ."  Unless "getting rid of the filibuster" is different in Saban's mind from suspending it for voting rights only (and there is no indication that it is), this is a big nothingburger.  Saban, in fact, fully supports Manchin's position, which is that he supports voting rights laws but is not willing to do what is necessary to pass them.  So just as Manchin has said all along, Saban agrees that he sorta-kinda wishes that we could save democracy, but not really.

The big lesson from this episode is that it is easy for people to fall for the Manchin two-step.  When The New Republic's editor fails to notice the deception (and, I should be clear, I and my friends did not notice it right away), we can see why this game works so well.  Here, however, I will use this as an opportunity to talk about college football, which I have not done on this blog in quite a few years.

The Saban/Manchin story clarified something that I had not noticed until now, which is that sports arguments -- and especially the emergence of sportstalk shows filling ESPN's hours as well as hundreds of other cable outlets, Youtube channels, and podcasts -- mirror the idiocy of modern political arguments.  The cable political shoutfests and sports shows emerged simultaneously over the last few decades, but sports talk was always openly stupid in a way that political talk initially was not.  But boy oh boy, has political talk caught up, modeling itself on the sports side of the media universe!

I grew up obsessed with college football, along with most of the other major sports.  Over the course of my life, I have almost entirely lost interest in everything sports-related except college football.  I wish that I could move past that last hurdle, but at least thus far, I have not been able to look away.  In any case, I have watched these unbelievably mindless sports arguments play out over the decades, with absurd conventional wisdom congealing for no particular reason.

One prominent example of herd thinking is the Top 25 polls.  For the longest time, both the sportswriters (the AP poll) and college coaches (originally the UPI poll -- but to be clear, it was an open secret that most coaches delegated filling out the poll to an underling) had a firm rule that a team could not move down in the rankings if it won that week's game.  It did not matter whom they beat, or if they barely pulled out a win against a terrible team while teams ranked below them beat top-ranked teams.  You win, you don't get "jumped" in the polls.

Related to this was the idea that "you play who's on your schedule," and if your schedule was weak, then "the players shouldn't be penalized for something that they couldn't control."  This led, among other prominent examples, to a ridiculously undeserving BYU team winning the mythical national championship in 1984 because they won all of their games and then beat a 6-5 Michigan team in a minor bowl, whereas the two best of many clearly superior teams (Oklahoma and Washington, if I recall) were not undefeated.

This particular line of non-thinking has, happily, been superseded over the years.  Under the current system, the committee that chooses the four teams for the championship playoff explicitly state that strength of schedule matters, and they frequently will move teams down even after victories.  In that regard, we have progress!  And if I want to analogize this to political talk, maybe there is hope for improvement there as well?

Would that it were so.  The ability of the sports chatterers to replace one line of illogical thinking with another is endless.  Some bits of conventional wisdom never go away, such as the idea that referees in every sport should "swallow their whistles" and "let the players determine the outcome," which means that even egregious fouls and penalties should not be called, lest "the refs decide who wins."  Yeesh.  That one has been around forever, and it never seems to go away.

Back in the college football world, the many people who are desperate to destroy even more young men's bodies by expanding the playoffs see everything as another reason to, yes, expand the playoffs -- to 8, 12, or even 16 teams.  This year's playoffs provided a particularly infuriating version of this motivated thinking, by viewing the relatively one-sided semifinals somehow as proof that "more teams should have had a chance."  The team that I reluctantly still support, Michigan, happened to be one of the two overmatched semifinalists, and the other was Cincinnati.  They both lost pretty badly, so obviously there would have been better games if there were more teams!  What?

Again, I wish that I had not followed this in such detail (especially because I was abroad for the entire Fall semester and cannot even pretend that I did this passively by noticing games on TV's in the background in restaurants and bars ... in Cambridge, England?).  But I did, and the argument that this year's games prove that we need a bigger playoff is nonsense.  The fact is that there were, pure and simple, two dominant and clearly superior teams this year, Georgia and Alabama.  They were — how can I say this? — better than everyone else.  Much better.  Other than Georgia's disapperance in their first game against Alabama, they were scary good, with a defense that dominated in ways that are seen once in a generation.  Bama had some close games, but they were still clearly, clearly head and shoulders above everyone else, and they had their better game against UGA too early.

And it is not as if any of the lower-ranked teams were going to do better against the Bulldogs or Tide.  Number 5 Notre Dame had played an embarrassingly weak schedule, and their single loss was to Cincinnati at home, a game that was not particularly close.  (Heck, they barely beat Toledo.  Go Rockets!)  Was Ohio State, which had just had its doors blown off by Michigan (I have to admit that writing those words makes me smile), going to do better?  Oklahoma State?  Utah?  And it is worth remembering that many semifinals (and some finals) in the Playoff era have been blowouts.  There is no connection between this year's outcome and any argument to expand the playoffs (or, alternatively, to support the idea that the selection committee should have skipped over what were obvoiusly the other two top-Four teams).

The point is that a group of people who obsessively follow an activity can all converge on truly stupid conclusions.  Sounds a lot like inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom, does it not?  And just as political conventional wisdom can seep out into the world in damaging ways, so can sports conventional wisdom show up in unexpected places.  I have often noted that political reporters who clearly have no understanding of the economics of federal debt and deficits will intone solemnly that those debts and deficits are horrible, horrible, horrible.  Why?  Because the reporters hear that message all the time, and they have no way to know any better -- other than becoming better informed, but who wants to do that?

A few months ago, Stephen Colbert included a short bit in his monologue riffing on a story in which a college football coach's pants caught fire, and the coach asked a player standing nearby for help putting them out.  Colbert said something like this: "To be fair, that player is not being paid to be an emergency responder -- or to play football!"  This was especially notable because Colbert, by his own repeated admission, in fact does not follow sports and thus knows nothing about any of this.  But one of his writers told him to deliver that line archly, confident that everyone would know that he was being clever.

The fact is that college football players are indeed paid to be college football players.  Full-ride scholarships plus room-and-board are not nuthin', as any parent or student trying to pay for college can attest.  Being essentially above the law as Big Men on Campus for four years is also something that most young people can only dream of.

There certainly are ways to improve the way that players are treated.  They should be provided with lifelong health care to deal with the uniquely damaging aspects of playing the game, the worst of which (concussions and other brain damage) can be hidden until decades later.  They should never lose their scholarships for not being able to play, and they should receive disability insurance as well.
Most importantly, they should receive the college educations that they have been promised.  To those who say that there is a plantation-like aspect to college sports, with all of the racial aspects that such an image evokes, I say that I would rather guarantee that as many of these young people as possible receive a sound education that sets them up for life.  Education is a more effective antidote to poverty and racial disadvantage than giving up and letting all of the spoils flow to the tiny sliver of top players who are going to make it in the NFL anyway.
The Name, Image, and Likeness money spigot that the NCAA opened up recently is a good example of how the money flows unevenly.  Alabama's current starting quarterback was a millionaire many times over before he even took a snap last season.  He will be a top pro draft pick very soon.  Paying the players with cash -- in addition to, or instead of, the considerable compensation that they currently receive -- is not going to help the 97 or 98 percent of players (including most players on the very best teams) who will not have a market value as a player anywhere approaching what a college education provides.

I should say that the current system already provides good educations to most players.  That is important, and also underappreciated.  But the point is that it could be better, and more players could be set up for a better future by getting a solid college education.  And in particular, playing two or three more games a year -- without the union protections of the NFL (imagine a sport dominated by Deep South teams being unionized!) -- is merely another way to break bodies and brains for the benefit of the few.

There is much more to say, but I will add here that today is one of the days when the non-trolls among Dorf on Law's readers must be especially angry with the people who caused Professor Dorf to write: "This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Blog Closed to Comments."  Reasonable people can differ with me on various points in this post (except about Notre Dame), but there is nowhere on the blog to say so.  Thanks, trolls!!

Even if I am missing something or my conclusions do not follow, however, my larger observation here is that the conventional wisdom about "players not getting paid," and "expanding the playoffs is obvously a great idea" are highly contestable, to say that least.  Just as the American political scene is distorted by illogic and fallacies, so is the sports scene.  We might not all agree on the best paths forward in either area, but it is obvious that both areas are currently dominated by dangerous group-think.  And in both areas, that bad thinking leads to decisions that harm vulnerable people.