Bill James urges his colleagues to boycott the BCS.

The stadium scene.
Jan. 7 2009 4:24 PM

Boycott the BCS!

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

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Suppose that you are a football coach and you are having an interview with an athletic director. "Vince," says the AD—in our fantasy your name is Vince, because you are a football coach—"this is a great opportunity for a young coach. The Mountain West Conference is an up-and-coming league with a bright future. We're offering to increase your salary almost a full 10 percent over what you're making as an assistant in the SEC, and we've got a four-year-old Honda you can drive anytime you need it. We've just got a couple of special requirements for you."

"Sure," you say optimistically. "Let me hear it."

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"First," says Gomer—in our fantasy the AD's name is Gomer—"you can't recruit anyone more than 50 miles from our campus. We're trying to build up local support, see. If you bring in those local boys, that will help us build our fan base. And second, no passes over 10 yards."

"Excuse me?"

"No passes longer than 10 yards. We're a ground game, see; always have been. When we went 7-1 back in '74, we only threw 19 passes all year. That's our tradition, and that's the right way to play football, just punch the ball up the middle. That's the way we want to play it."

If you have an ounce of sense or a smidgen of self-respect, Vince, you're out the door before Gomer can get the cigar out of his mouth and start to explain that the four-year-old Honda is really a six-year-old Hyundai with a real estate ad painted on the door.

A couple of years ago, Dr. Hal S. Stern, the head of the Department of Statistics at the University of California-Irvine, wrote an article in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports "advocating a boycott of the Bowl Championship Series by all quantitative analysts." Stern argued that statisticians shouldn't want anything to do with the "computer rankings" that are an element of the BCS system. I am writing here to sign onto Stern's call for a boycott. Tell Gomer to stuff it, in other words.

"It is," wrote Stern, "generally a bad idea for quantitative analysts to remove themselves from the decision-making process," but there are also times that, to preserve your self-respect, you pick up the briefcase and walk out of the room. This, in my view, is one of those times. The problems with the BCS are:

  1. That there is a profound lack of conceptual clarity about the goals of the method;
  2. That there is no genuine interest here in using statistical analysis to figure out how the teams compare with one another. The real purpose is to create some gobbledygook math to endorse the coaches' and sportswriters' vote;
  3. That the ground rules of the calculations are irrational and prevent the statisticians from making any meaningful contribution; and
  4. That the existence of this system has the purpose of justifying a few rich conferences in hijacking the search for a national title, avoiding a postseason tournament that would be preferred by the overwhelming majority of fans.

In truth, my objections to the system are a little different than Stern's. His biggest objection, I think, is No. 4 above—that the BCS system is used to justify something that should not be justified. To me, the deal-breaker is No. 3—the imposition on the computer rankings of irrational rules that essentially guarantee the failure of the process.

But let's take them one at a time:

1. There is a profound lack of conceptual clarity about the goals of the method.

This is reflected in the fact that the rankings are routinely described as "computer" rankings. Computers, like automobiles and airplanes, do only what people tell them to do. If you're driving to Cleveland and you get lost and wind up in Youngstown, you don't blame your car. If you're doing a ranking system and you wind up with Murray State in western Kentucky as the national football champion, you don't blame the computer.

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