992 arguments and more

By Sam Mellinger
Updated: October 22, 2010

KANSAS CITY — You’ve undoubtedly heard plenty of talk about college football and the BCS. You may have also heard of the clearly titled book “Death to the BCS” that does the best job yet of making the argument for a playoff.

But did you know that Kansas City is something of the center of the debate?

In one corner, working in Prairie Village, is BCS executive director Bill Hancock.

“We are proud of the BCS because it matches No. 1 and 2 in a bowl game, gives us the most compelling regular season in sports and rewards 70 groups of student-athletes every year (with bowl appearances),” Hancock says.

In the other corner, living in Shawnee, is one of the book’s authors, Yahoo sports writer Jeff Passan.

“If the people at the BCS hadn’t opened their mouths and tried to argue things that are so easily refutable, this book would’ve been a pamphlet,” Passan says.

Full disclosure: I consider both these guys friends. Jeff is a former colleague at The Star, whom I’ve laughed with over many a beer. Bill is one of the nicest human beings in the world, whom I’ve enjoyed getting to know over the last year or so.

Bill and Jeff don’t know each other, not directly, but each spoke in recent days for this column, thought to be the first time that one of the BCS’ harshest co-critics and fiercest supporter have spoken to the same journalist for the same story.

Jeff is on the right side of this, but Bill’s view will continue to rule in the foreseeable future, and for that I blame you and me. Follow along.

If you care about college football, regardless of how you feel about the BCS, the book is worth your time. It’s informative, provocative, entertaining and unapologetic — by far the most complete argument against the BCS.

By now, it almost seems odd that there even needs to be a case made against the BCS. Polls show more than 90 percent of college football fans favor a playoff, and anybody involved in politics or polling would point out the difficulty in getting 90 percent of people to favor world peace.

Passan and fellow Yahoo sports writers Dan Wetzel and Josh Peter slam the BCS and anyone unfortunate enough to be standing near the crime scene. If you want a college football playoff, this is your rally leader. If you like the BCS, get to know your most formidable opponent.

“So for now the BCS survives,” they write, “a roach amid a typhoon of Raid, emanating coldness … even the unyielding push of common sense is held off with mistruths and misdirection that turn the entire issue into a river of red herrings.”

That is pretty much the tone of all 192 pages, chapter after damning chapter that smash the BCS over the head with metal chairs. The authors refer to the BCS power brokers as “the Cartel,” lords over a mismanaged fortune who are interested primarily in making sure nobody else shares their power or money.

What cuts deepest is that this is not some reactionary rant built on emotion or misinterpreted facts. The book is amazingly researched, meticulous in its points and laid out in stunning clarity. The takedown of the nontitle bowl games is particularly strong.

The result is a convincing case that a playoff could not only maintain what we love about college football, but also enhance it.

The authors say the extra money generated by a playoff could not only offset lost revenue from the current bowls and regular season, but also help balance the budgets for the 106 of 120 Division I athletic departments currently losing money. Some of those losses are made up by taxpayers, so it’s an issue that goes well beyond football.

“The people who run the BCS like to point to the popularity of college football as affirmation of the system,” Passan says. “The reality is that it’s amazing as many people like college football with this current system.”

Hancock replies: “The authors are fixated on money, and our focus is on the student-athlete and giving them the best experience possible through the bowl system.”

The book is not the perfect argument. Legitimate counterpoints exist. Any playoff means more games and injury risks for an unpaid work force with nothing to gain, for instance. But this shouldn’t be viewed as a debate decider as much as a conversation starter, and on that level, it is spectacular.

Even if — to the chagrin of most all college football fans, me included — its goal isn’t likely to be achieved anytime soon.

For a moment, forget all the defenses of the BCS that you’re used to hearing. Forget about the travel hassles or bowl traditions or importance of the regular season.

Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of the BCS and potential playoff, but they can’t disagree with the logistics and realities that make this such a long shot.

First, the logistics: College football’s structure makes any major change incredibly difficult. Bud Selig can expand baseball’s playoffs, Roger Goodell can suspend players who haven’t even been charged with crimes, and David Stern can do most whatever he damn well pleases.

But college football lacks that singular power. One of the enduring lessons of the last year’s college sports shake-up is that every conference and school is out for itself. What are the chances that dozens of school presidents and six conference commissioners, all with unique and selfish agendas, can come together on the same playoff plan?

The other problem is the reality, and here is where, in a completely ironic way, we all share some of the blame: It’s hard to change something that’s already making everyone involved rich.

You love college football, I love college football, and neither one of us is going to stop watching because of the BCS. We are addicted with no desire to quit, and the more we watch the more entrenched the other side becomes.

Whether they know it or not, the college presidents have the real power here, and so our best hope is that they realize they’re leaving money on the table that could help a lot of universities.

That’s our best hope, but it’s still not a real good hope — in part because the other thing the book tells you is that the people running college football don’t care what we want.