Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Lingering Items--Annual Traditions Edition

Let’s see, it’s the second week of December and that can only mean one thing: the various BCS bowl matchups have been announced. Actually, it also means another thing: time for my yearly rant about the BCS.

To recap for those just joining our programming, everything that’s right about college football played at the highest level is undercut by the ridiculous thinking behind the Bowl Championship Series, from it’s completing misleading nameplate to it’s completing misleading mission. Ostensibly designed to yield an undisputed national champion, all it does is create more disputes than it resolves.

It may be that the BCS more or less got the match ups right this season, but that does nothing to justify its ill-conceived existence. The fact is that both TCU and Boise State, paired against each other coincidentally enough in the Fiesta Bowl, were essentially bought off with millions of dollars in order to keep their big mouths shut. It’s what the BCS does when it has a problem—papers over it with money. If that doesn’t work, it hires a consultant.

The BCS is on a slow but steady trip toward obsolescence. Congress is now involved and despite public perception that the only thing Congress ever does is spend your tax money unwisely, institutions tend to get their panties in a twist every time Congress sticks its nose in their business.

BCS defenders will do their best to fend off Congressional inquiries with the argument that Congress should have better things to worry about ignoring the fact that this little recreational diversion is a multi-multi million dollar business.

This is all well and good but what ultimately will do the BCS in is the convergence of greed and stupidity. I can’t wait.

The greed involved comes in many forms, nearly most of which do nothing for the actual players involved save for the little trinkets they get for participating. As you’d expect, there’s a NCAA rule on it which limits the value of those trinkets to $500. Of course, if you’re not in any sort of bowl game, like a Michigan player for example, getting those same sorts of trinkets from a booster will cause you to lose your eligibility.

The BCS is about the money, but not for the also-rans. The de facto Super Conference made up of the 15 or so programs (at most) that can actually compete for a championship get the spoils; the rest of Division I, not so much. This money helps fill the increasingly larger holes in the college budgets, holes that were there because of the cost of the programs in the first place but deepened because of the economic crisis.

In a perfect world the riches the BCS promises would incent more colleges to make themselves BCS-bowl worthy. And in some sense that’s worked. But the cost of fielding a program that can legitimately compete for a national championship in Division I football has grown, for most schools, far more quickly than the revenue side of their operations.

Indeed, the rising tide of BCS bowls has actually had the inverse affect on non-BCS participants. The “other” bowls became even more irrelevant, substantively and financially. There is less advertising dollars dedicated to those bowls, particularly now, and the crowds are dwindling. The BCS, designed supposedly to respect the integrity of the existing bowls, has basically protected the integrity of a handful of bowls and thrown the rest under the proverbial bus. Let me know how that Eaglebank Bowl works out.

Sooner or later an uprising of college presidents on the short end of the BCS stick will get wise to the suckers they’ve been played for by those dining on caviar. That tide will turn soon enough.

Also giving it a rather big push will be the incredibly flawed way that BCS participants are chosen. This may be the even bigger con. Each year the system gets tweaked but ultimately it’s weighted heavily toward human opinion in the form of various polls voted on either by coaches or the media. The underlying assumption in these polls is that the underlying task will be taken seriously by its participants. Says who?

How many media members or coaches have actually seen enough games played by either TCU or Boise State to have an informed opinion on their body of work or have an understanding of the relative weakness of their competition each week? Miami is in the top 20 but how many have really watched them play? Not to pick on the Cincinnati Bearcats, but they gave up 44 points to Pittsburgh and have given up an average of nearly 40 points in each of their last 4 games and they are in the top 5. Is it simply because they’ve won irrespective of the weakness of its conference or its defense this year? And that’s just four teams off the top of my head.

If you want an illustration of what really happens, consider the outcome of the final week of the USA Today’s coaches poll. On Steve Spurrier’s ballot this past week, he or the sports information director at South Carolina on his behalf, voted Penn State 9th, Iowa 10th and Ohio State 11th. That just proves they either aren’t paying attention or just aren’t taking it seriously. Other similar flaws can be found throughout.

While Spurrier’s vote was mostly irrelevant to the outcome it underscores an incredible problem. If one supposedly highly-respected coach or his sports information director can’t even be relied upon to get the big things right how can anyone have any trust that the little things are right? I put it to you, Dean Wormer, doesn’t that in turn undermine the integrity of the entire system?

If the goal in this country is to have an undisputed national champion then of course a playoff system is the only alternative. First things first, let’s reach consensus that establishing an undisputed champion is even a worthy goal. College presidents can’t claim that a playoff system isn’t in the academic best interests of the players but somehow justify the BCS as a worthy pursuit.

But if the BCS is to persist it ultimately can’t exist in its present form but must be the culmination of an actual, credible playoff system. And it’s not that hard to figure out despite what the BCS-hired twitter gurus will try to tell you. Put it this way, every college involve prides itself first on its research capabilities. Certainly an institution able to make headway in the field of molecular biology can find some frat kid with a little time on his hands to draw up a bracket using Google Docs.


What’s turning into another annual holiday tradition is the voting results of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s veteran’s committee. Revamped last year, the purpose is to honor veterans whom the media did not otherwise feel were Hall worthy during their initial period of eligibility.

This year the Veterans Committee elected former St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog and former umpire Doug Harvey. That’s all well and good. Even better, though, is that once again Marvin Miller is on the outside looking in, though he’s inching closer.

Miller fell two short votes for election and if Hall voting has proven anything it’s that just having your name hang around for enough years eventually gets you in. It’s as if these borderline candidates are being rewarded for their persistence, even in retirement.

Let’s hope Miller proves to be the exception to the rule. The passage of time will never adequately erase the memory of how his strident views and Oz-like persona combined to nearly ruin the game. His is a legacy that continues today.

It’s because of Miller that baseball still doesn’t have a salary cap and is divided into haves and have nots. The economic problems facing baseball are so vast and the union’s contributions under Miller and his progeny to solving them so slim that baseball remains on the brink of killing its own golden goose.

I’ll give Miller credit for being a tough advocate on behalf of his clients but that singular skill doesn’t erase the fact that he never worked for the betterment of the game itself. He always saw baseball in relative terms and could have cared less about its long term health.

Miller certainly had a profound impact on the game, but then so too did the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and as far as I know the Veterans Committee hasn’t ever once considered enshrining former Japanese premier Hideki Tojo into the Hall of Fame. The same should go for Miller.


Speaking of baseball’s annual pre-holiday “winter” meetings, the news on Tuesday that the Indians are shopping closer Kerry Wood may have been expected but that has nothing to do with general manager Mark Shapiro’s talent judgments. The issues are larger and relate, as most things economic do, to the aforementioned Miller.

Ostensibly the Indians are shopping Wood because he doesn’t fit into their plans. It’s the same half-truth that accompanies the phrase “I’m not looking to get into a relationship right now.” Since when doesn’t a closer figure into any team’s plans?

Of course, what Shapiro really means is that this particular closer with his particular salary, like that particular girl with that particular mole on his nose, doesn’t fit into his plans. That’s a very loud and truthful statement on the state of baseball economics.

The Indians don’t have another established closer on their roster but are more than willing to go it without one because it’s far cheaper. They know there is no realistic chance for this team to be competitive so why not be uncompetitive at a cheaper price? If you or I were paying the bills you can be damn sure we’d think the same way.

There is always the potential that someone like Jensen Lewis, given the opportunity without having to worry about Wood sitting in the bullpen, can establish himself. That’s the pie-in-the-sky upside. But this move isn’t about Lewis, it’s about a payroll the Indians can no longer afford.

This illustrates precisely why baseball is such a mess. With no salary cap and no meaningful revenue sharing, teams like the Indians do not have any meaningful chance to compete with teams like New York and Boston on a yearly basis. They must rely solely on luck, as in most of their young roster getting good at around the same time and before they’re eligible for either arbitration or free agency. Once in awhile it works. But year in and year out it doesn’t.

Wood, like Victor Martinez, C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee before him, is a “luxury” that bottom feeder teams like Cleveland can’t afford. It’s fun to have champagne tastes but the Indians have a beer budget and with that even a slightly lesser label like Wood is out of their reach.

Nothing on the Cleveland Browns? Ha. This week’s question to ponder: Did the NFL purposely schedule this week’s game against Pittsburgh on Thursday knowing that the NFL Network is still unavailable to a large part of the country?

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