Why I Love College Sports But Hate the NCAA
by Tyler Austin | University of Southern California
Let me be clear right off the bat- I love college sports. I do. I love them with all of my crazy jumping-up-and-down, running and screaming through my apartment when Oregon’s kicker missed the game- tying field goal die-hard fan heart. I terrified my roommate to the point he thought we were being robbed. I love college sports so much that I’ll scream, chant, clap and jump out of my seat for 40 straight minutes in support of my hometown and beloved UNLV Rebels and go out of my mind crazy when they pull off the improbably insane upset of current No. 1 North Carolina. I love March Madness. I love the bands. I love the pride. I love the rivalries. I love the tradition. Simply put, there is a lot to love.
Now that I got that out of the way, I can explain that this is not an all-love relationship. Like any good fan, I reserve the right to make what I feel are helpful suggestions to improve the experience. These suggestions stem from a very dark and very real hatred that burns in my very core for the NCAA and what it repeatedly does to hurt college sports. I am not saying we should abolish the NCAA or sneak into its headquarters in the dead of night, burn it to the ground, and salt the Earth so nothing will ever grow there again, as much as I have wanted to do that at times. I do fully recognize that the NCAA or a governing body like it must exist for college sports to function.
So without further ado, here is my anti-love letter to the NCAA.
First and foremost, I hate the NCAA because of the annual debacle known as bowl season. For the most part I understand the appeal of bowls, where teams that would never usually get to play in the postseason get a chance to win their own exclusive piece of a championship puzzle. Even if that piece happens to be the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl, the Franklin American Mortgage Bowl, or the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. A particularly depressing one this year was the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, which featured two teams that had already fired their head coaches, one of which (UCLA) limped into bowl season with an under .500 record of 6-7. UCLA lost the game to Illinois in an all-around display of plain ugliness.
I can handle these absurdities because, at the end of the day, I love football, and, frankly, the more the better. But the fact that there is no playoff system in place is absolute madness — and not the good kind in March. Every other sport at every other level in the history of the world uses a playoff to determine who is the best team in the land… except for this division of college football. Yes, even the lower divisions of college football use a playoff format. At the end of every season, commentators and experts on ESPN, CBS, and every other sports channel state their cases as to why certain teams should be playing in the championship game over other teams. This is an unfortunate reality of accepting this horrible system.
The conversation isn’t about who has the depth, leadership, and skill to make a playoff run and be crowned a rightful champion but instead what two teams did enough to make it to a single game that determines the one best team in the country. Look at the championship game this year between LSU and Alabama. LSU was clearly the undisputed and undefeated No. 1 team in the country (or the #1 seed in the hypothetical playoffs I wish were happening). They faced the allegedly No. 2 team, Alabama. Alabama, who already lost to LSU this season, didn’t win its conference, didn’t even win its own division of its conference, and had only three wins against teams with winning records and only two against teams in the BCS top 25. This is compared to an Oklahoma State team with one loss, a conference title, a top 10 strength of schedule that included wins against BCS-ranked teams like Texas, Kansas State, Baylor, Oklahoma and, as of the Fiesta Bowl, No. 3 ranked Stanford. So clearly the argument can be made — and that fact alone should be enough to institute a playoff system as soon as humanly possible. Much like in the court of law, if a reasonable doubt exists, how can any champion in the BCS era be considered legitimate?
I understand the reason for the bowl system. I don’t know if you are familiar with the term “money,” but yeah, that’s what all those ridiculous bowl game names mean. The next time you hear the Meineke Car Care Bowl, understand that Meineke shelled out big bucks for those naming rights. So don’t blow up the entire bowl system. You can make money and have playoffs that determine a real champ. Keep the junky bowl games that allow little-seen teams to play under the banner of a crazy company name and then have an eight-team playoff. Even sell the naming rights to the playoff games. Who cares if the semi-final game is called the Discover Orange Bowl? Certainly not me — as long as it means the winner of that game will play against the winner of the Capital One Insight Bowl in the Allstate National Championship game.
Now as if all that isn’t enough, there is another layer to this bowl season that drives me equally crazy. The fact that certain conferences receive an automatic bid to a BCS bowl game over non-BCS schools who not only have better records but literally are ranked higher in the AP and BCS polls is an absolute travesty. Boise State, a team ranked seventh in the country this year, ended up in the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl when teams like No. 23 West Virginia and No. 15 Clemson, both sporting three losses, played in the Orange Bowl. As if automatically trying to keep out mid-major conference teams wasn’t bad enough, there is a clear bias among BCS bowls against these teams. Just take a look at this year’s Sugar Bowl, which took at-large bid No. 11 Virginia Tech that didn’t win its conference and had two losses on its record. Again: “money.” The idea is that a “national power” will bring in the bigger audience- it completely disregards whether one team is more or less deserving than another team. This is all the more frustrating because of the shroud of mystery that surrounds the choosing of these at-large bids. Why and how specific teams end up playing in the games they do over other teams with better records and higher rankings will forever remain a mystery, a la the Bermuda Triangle or Roswell.
This lack of disclosure leads me into my next reason for hating the NCAA. The NCAA had (has) free reign to punish any team without due process, as well as free reign to pick and rank the teams in the NCAA tournament in basketball. The punishing and tournament selection of colleges seems as random as a blind man’s hits on a dartboard. Year after year, teams are left on the bubble, while other teams not only make the tournament but also are seeded well above their record, AP ranking, and RPI ranking without an explanation of any kind. The selection committee is made up of ten random athletic directors and conference commissioners throughout college sports. However, these closed-door meetings, more reminiscent of dirty politics than anything, offer zero accountability. This isn’t as truly upsetting as the football debacle because, well, at least there exists a playoff system.
Now on to one of the most infuriating parts of the NCAA’s jurisdiction — the punishments they hand down to schools on a regular basis. Just this past year, the Ohio State University was one of these teams to be punished. What were they punished for? First, players took improper benefits from a local tattoo parlor owner in exchange for memorabilia, star quarterback Terrelle Pryor reportedly made over $40,000 for selling autographs, a football booster overpaid players for summer jobs, and, to top it all off, head coach Jim Tressel knew of these infractions and lied on four occasions to keep his players on the field. The punishment? A one-year bowl ban, the loss of nine scholarships, and probation (whatever that means).
Compare that to the punishment of USC just a few seasons before. The “crime?” A single player, Reggie Bush, received very expensive gifts, including limos and suits, from two sports marketers who had no affiliation whatsoever with the school. The punishment? A two-year bowl ban, a loss of 30 scholarships, the vacating of wins, and, again, “probation.” This seems a little bit lopsided — and that’s not just my Trojan blood talking.
What’s the difference? Just look at the facts. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith is the chair of the NCAA basketball committee and was involved with numerous other NCAA councils and committees. Ohio State just hired superstar college football coach Urban Meyer, while superstar coach Pete Carroll had already abandoned ship for the NFL. USC is in the PAC-12, a west coast program, whose late night games could be meaningless for a year or two. Ohio State is in the Big 10 with huge 100-plus year rivalries against Michigan and Penn State that bring in millions of dollars every year. Also, the NCAA already threw the book at USC a couple seasons ago — why stick with that precedent?
However, I do think the NCAA finally did something right with the Ohio State ruling, something that has been ignored in many other cases. They punished the coach, Jim Tressel, for five years by putting a “show-cause” ban on him, meaning any team willing to hire him must show cause for why it is not to be punished. While it’s not perfect, it does address the problem I call Calipari syndrome. John Calipari is the current basketball coach at Kentucky University. He has been to the Final Four and the championship game and has been a proven winner over the course of his career. Coach Calipari didn’t start his career at Kentucky, though. He worked his way up from UMass to Memphis, turning both of those programs into perennial contenders. The problem, though, is that both of those schools have since had their Final Four appearances and other wins vacated and were fined the tournament revenue they made (Memphis was also placed on probation three years). While I believe in innocent until proven guilty, I also believe in the old adage “where there is smoke, there is fire,” and the only smoke I see is coming from the smoldering programs Calipari left in ashes before moving onto bigger and better work.
The NCAA punishment process wasn’t always so fair and balanced (I know how shocking that is). If it weren’t for the lawsuit of former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, who faced the NCAA’s wrath beginning the day he published a column pointing out their willingness to punish smaller schools as opposed to big-time programs, things would have been much worse. The investigation as a result of the lawsuit revealed that the NCAA Infractions Committee would consistently build cases on hearsay and wouldn’t share evidence with the school under suspicion. There also was no appeal process in place for punishments. Tarkanian sued the NCAA for harassment, and while the association admitted no wrong doing, it settled out of court for $2.5 million. And as previously shown, money talks… and, well, you know the rest. This leads to my final reason for hating the NCAA. Jerry Tarkanian has never been enshrined in the NCAA basketball Hall of Fame. Even when his resume includes four Final Fours, coaching three schools to 20-win seasons, the fifth highest college coaching winning percentage of 78.4 and a career 729 wins putting him 21st on the all-time win list. (Of the 20 coaches ahead of him, only four are not inducted).
This is a pretty long and detailed examination of my ever-growing hatred for the hypocritical, biased, and shadow-government style NCAA. But again, let me reassure you that I love college sports. It gives a meaningful and interesting alternative to sports filled to the brim with overpaid athletes and their “storylines.” It’s just that, at the end of the day, the system is egregiously flawed, more than most, and needs serious repairing. Until then, I’ll still be tuning in for college football Saturdays, the bowl season, and basketball with unpaid players, especially the March of madness every spring.Tyler Austin is a student at the University of Southern California majoring in Political Science with a minor in Cinema. He has loved film, television, and stand up comedy since he was young and now decided to share his opinions about them.