As we wait for the start of the USC-UCLA game, let me recommend to you Sally Jenkins’ column on the BCS. Many of her criticisms are familiar, particularly the injustice of holding a self-declared national champion game, without a playoff structure, six weeks or more after the end of the regular season.
The trenchant part of her argument deals with the real, potential and perceived corruption of the BCS system. While watching the Nevada-Boise State game, it certainly occurred to me that the WAC commissioner and the other teams in the conference must be rooting for Boise State, given the additional money at stake if the Broncos qualified for a BCS bowl game. Might this attitude filter down in subtle or less subtle ways to referees, timers and replay booth officials? On the other hand, TV and corporate sponsors might have a vested interest in keeping little Boise State out of a BCS bowl game if the Broncos crowded out, say Notre Dame. The networks can certainly affect the context of games in various ways. Ask Brian Billick (in a different context) how thrilled he was to play a late-season, Thursday night game on the road against a division rival.
As I’ve said before, unless one is willing to uproot big-time college athletics entirely, as George Will seems to want to do, one is always going to face such problems. They are certainly nothing new. Jenkins argues that “there is nothing wrong with wealth in college sports -- TV and corporate largesse pays for countless athletes to compete in less visible, nonprofitable sports. It’s naive to say money should be removed from the game, and anyway, cash and college football have always gone hand in hand. . . . The problem is not the ever-swelling profits, but that they are flowing into a crooked, jimmy-rigged BCS system that stresses the bottom line over the lines on the field.”
Wealth is perhaps is more of a problem that Jenkins’ thinks. Money corrupts and the bigger the payday, the greater the temptation to corruption. The BCS is the worst but not the only example. I’m not sure where that threshold – the tipping point, as Donald Rumsfeld would say – is, but the ever-increasing, in-your-face involvement of corporations as sponsors surely pushes us in this direction. I don’t mean to make an anti-corporate argument – the free market is a good thing, and deep-pocket boosters and alumni deep have their well-known drawbacks. And there was never a golden age where business didn’t matter.
But Jenkins rightly points out the risk that the public purpose of the game subtly changes, from sportsmanship and athletic excellence to profit and promotion. Fans used to throw roses or oranges on the field to signal their bowl game hopes. As the Nevada-Boise State game wound down, the Bronco players donned sombreros – and waved bags of TOSTITOs® Brand Chips. In case you didn’t notice, you’ll be reminded a thousand times between now and January that it is, after all, the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.