Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Sniffing the Finger

While this post begins with a chimpanzee scratching his butt with his finger--insert your punch line here (suggestion: "but all your posts start that way)--and winds all over the place, it will eventually continue the discussion about personal narratives.

First off, we need some background research. If you've never seen the best seven seconds on YouTube--the infamous chimpanzee clip--please watch it now.

In case seven seconds is too much of a time commitment, the video shows a young chimpanzee sitting on a rock. He scratches his butt with his finger, smells his finger, throws up his arms in shock and tumbles backwards over the rock.

I'm so incredibly fond of this video that whenever someone does something incredibly stupid, I call it "sniffing the finger."

One of my best friends is named Mike, and we talk sports. All the time. We both believed that the only way LSU could lose the "BCS Championship" was if Les Miles totally screwed up the game, which we also believed was entirely possible. So when Ohio St. got off to a 10-0 lead, Mike called me, laughing, and said "He's sniffing the finger!"

The BCS sniffs the finger. Boy, does it ever. I've wondered why this system is such a pathetic fraud, and I think I finally understand why. There are many reasons, but I want to discuss two.

Reason one: Sports exist to provide clarity, not obscure it
Why do we love sports? Because there are winners and losers. There are rules. It's fair.

I don't want to see a thousand shades of grey when I watch sports. Art, yes. Sports, no.

Consider this:
Their theme is that she is in an arranged marriage. He is after her money and they are just--it's miserable. So you can see the desperation in her face.

And mine.

That's an actual ice dancing commentator, who (much to my horrror) I stumbled across during a Sunday afternoon of channel surfing.

Here's the irony, though: with the recent changes in the scoring system, ice dancing and figure skating are less subjective than college football.


Have you noticed which sports seem to generate the most disdain in terms of fairness? Almost uniformly, it's sports where there are judges voting. Voting doesn't provide clarity. It's not fair. That's what the current college football system relies on, though, and even worse it relies (to a large extend) on coaches voting. It's like having a beauty pageant where the parents of the contestants vote on who should win. That sounds like it would work.

Reason two: College football is a purely regional sport
Anyone who follows college football already knows this, but very few schools still play non-conference games out of their region (and if they do, it's usually only one game). The premier SEC schools are notorious for this--it's incredibly rare for them to ever leave the South.

This season was typical. The SEC played 48 non-conference games. There was ONE game played outside the South (Tennessee at California). Even when they play non-Southern opponents, which is rare, almost all of those games are played at home.

Other conferences are almost as bad. The number of teams playing a truly national non-conference schedule on an annual basis? Well, there's USC. I can't think of even one other team who qualifies.

So if college football is regional, how do you tell which teams are best? Well, you can't. It's impossible. So teams wind up playing for the national championship when they have no business being there, because it's assumed that the conferences are close enough to parity that a 12-0 or 11-1 record proves worth. What the current system does, and has always done, is reward a good team playing in a power conference that's having a soft year.

What's really sad is that it would be so easy to fix this.

Conferences have a maximum of ten teams each. There are no divisions. Every year, every team in the conference plays every other team.

The six conference winnners from power conferences (SEC, Pac-10, Big 12, ACC, Big East, Big Ten) get automatic bids into an eight-team playoff. Bids seven and eight go to the highest-rated conference winners that didn't get an automatic bid (or Notre Dame, if they're ranked higher).

Didn't win your conference? You're out. Conference play is an elimination tournament, and you had your chance.

So what you wind up with are regional representatives from the best conferences in the country. Every game in the playoffs is a cross-regional matchup--the best of one region versus the best of another region. And there's even room for Cinderella.

Does that structure provide clarity? Not perfectly, no, but it focuses on the regional nature of college football, it puts meaning back into conference championships, and it ensures that a national champion has to win at least three substantial games.

Scheduling? It's cake. Round one is the weekend that used to have the conference championships. Semi-finals are on New Year's Day, and the championship is one week later. Only two teams wind up playing an extra game beyond the fourteen that teams could potentially play now.

So how in the world does this have anything to do with narratives? Well, that's why people have narratives--to provide clarity. They create order out of disorder, even if they're false. It's a natual human tendency to want order from chaos, and that's what narratives do. And when data intrudes on that order and threatens to restore the chaos, people just ignore the data.

What I didn't realize until now was that for many people (myself included), sports function as a narrative, because they create clarity in a self-contained world. I can tolerate disorder in the world at large, but I watch sports to escape from that disorder. And every team sport I can think of has a championship structure that provides complete clarity--except for college football.

Which is why the "post-season" drives me utterly mad.

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