Bill James urges his colleagues to boycott the BCS.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Jan. 6 2010 4:11 PM

Boycott the BCS!

A statistical analyst takes a stand against college football's perverse, irrational Bowl Championship Series.

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4. The existence of this system has the purpose of justifying a few rich conferences in hijacking the search for a national champion, avoiding a postseason tournament that would be preferred by the overwhelming majority of fans.

In the way that I phrased that, it sounds like the big football schools are to blame. That's actually not the way I see it.

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There is no reason why the big football schools, whose alumni fund the big programs that compete for the national championship, should have to donate the proceeds of their competition to smaller schools and to schools that choose not to fund competitive football teams. The BCS is a result not of the greed of the big schools but the self-righteous avarice of the smaller and less-committed schools that form the bulk of the NCAA.

It is inherent in the nature of sports to seek a clear resolution of the competition. You have two football conferences, two basketball conferences, two baseball leagues—you want to know who the best team really is. That doesn't come from anywhere; it's integral to the sport. It's like a movie; either the boy gets the girl, or he doesn't. Either the cop catches the killer, or he doesn't. Either the hero wins the battle, or he dies on the battlefield. That's just the way it is, whether it's Shakespeare or schlock. Leaving the situation unresolved is unpopular because it's unnatural.

In the 1990s there was a strong movement, within the NCAA, to organize a national postseason football tournament. The problem was, had the NCAA in fact organized such a championship, two other events would almost certainly have followed:

  1. The smaller schools, which outnumber the big football powerhouses about 5-to-1, would have voted to send a lot of the money to the smaller schools that in fact had not participated in the national championship contest in any meaningful way.
  2. The big football schools would have bolted and revolted. They'd have walked out of the NCAA and formed their own organization. The two-tiered system of NCAA and NAIA schools would have been replaced by a three-tiered system with the NCAA occupying the middle tier.

The creation of the BCS system was simply a less dramatic revolt. And, as I said, the BCS schools were right: There is no reason why schools that don't fund programs to participate in the battle for the national championship should share in the proceeds of the contest.

There are two ways to get around this problem. First, the NCAA could pass a unanimous or nearly unanimous resolution, promising not to try to steal the proceeds of a national title contest and give the money to small schools, deserving nephews, or the church poor box. The BCS could then dissolve and be replaced by an NCAA Football Tournament involving eight to 16 teams, and the big football schools would wind up with just as much money or a little more.

Or, if that doesn't work, we can pass a law creating a new National Collegiate Sports Collaborative and requiring all schools receiving federal funding to join and participate. And if we have to do that, we'll decide how to split the money.

You don't actually have to pass the law; just bring it up in the House of Representatives and get 150 votes, and the BCS schools and the NCAA will work out their differences faster than Christiane Amanpour can get to a war zone.

But until that happens, statisticians, quantitative analysts, and all related professionals should have the dignity, the self-respect, and the common sense to have nothing to do with the BCS. This isn't a national championship—it's a big-money waltz. The only role that the computer rankings play in this is that they're there to take the fall when the system doesn't work—and it doesn't work most of the time. When it doesn't, you can put the blame on the greedy small schools that wanted to milk money from the big football factories, on the greedy big schools that wanted to keep as much money as possible in the fewest possible hands, on the lunk-head football coaches who can't program a computer to play tic-tac-toe but want to make all the rules, or on the Congress that sits idly by and watches it happen. You guys want to make a mess of this, you can make a mess of it without our help.

Bill James is the author of The Bill James Gold Mine 2009and the proprietor of Bill James Online.

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