The official website for the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) carries the banner: “FCS Football: Where championships are earned, not given!”
Despite that conspicuous admission, the NCAA clings to its discredited Bowl Championship Series, an indecipherable product of computer rankings and voting that purports to match the nation’s best two teams from the regular season in a title game. Along the way, it enables another series — of big-money enterprises known as bowl games, which generate tourism income for their host cities and six-figure salaries for their directors, but deny universities hundreds of millions in new revenue they’d realize from the popularity of a true playoff system.
Division I-A football remains the only NCAA sport whose championship isn’t decided through a playoff system. It’s a deficiency that has become a target of increasing ridicule among fans, some of whom may have the power and/or money to do something about it.
President Obama and some members of Congress have threatened legislation. The Justice Department has made noises about an anti-trust action. But the best solution may have been undertaken by Mark Cuban, the irascible and very wealthy owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, who is exploring the idea of bankrolling a 12- to 16-team college football playoff — to the tune of $500 million.
University presidents, who have the ultimate say in the matter, should follow Cuban’s effort closely, and be open to change. If hundreds of millions of new dollars could be channeled into university athletic coffers — perhaps saving some sports programs from the chopping block or restoring others that have already been cut — it would be immoral not to consider it seriously.
Old arguments against a Division I-A playoff were shot down long ago:
“Playing more games would inhibit athletes’ studies.” That’s apparently not a problem in the lower divisions of NCAA football, including the FCS, where Eastern Washington University will play Delaware on Jan. 7 for the national title. Both teams will be playing their fourth game of the postseason.
“A playoff system would destroy the traditional pageantry of the bowl games.” They could continue, either as part of the playoff system, as an adjunct to it, or even as early-season nonconference games, providing interesting (and revenue-generating) matchups in warmer weather.
A bowl schedule saturated with mediocre teams and lackluster matchups could be replaced by a wildly popular, four-week format where every game takes on national importance and universities, not private interests, rake in the riches.
As in the lower divisions, it would produce a national championship that is truly, and inarguably, earned.
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