College Football and the Role of Government

December 9, 2014

by Jon Bingham

Which system do you prefer: college basketball’s March Madness or college football’s bowls-playoff? Your answer may indicate your view of the beneficial role of government. Should the government facilitate competition or predetermine much of the outcome?

March Madness relates to the free market; college football exemplifies government control.

For years, college football has been plagued with debates regarding the legitimacy of its championship declarations. Such questions do not linger in college basketball. Its champion has silenced the critics by earning it on the court for all to see. But the champion of college football has simply been declared by the powers that be. Thus the critics often rage.

When the failures of systems of government control become apparent, the leaders of those systems feign reform. However, attempts at effective and meaningful reform (requiring the loss of control to allow significant competition) are thwarted.

And so it has been in college football. An earlier attempt to appease critics (while essentially maintaining the status quo) was the BCS (Bowl Championship System), but this “fix” merely replaced declaring a single winner with declaring the top two teams that would be allowed to become the winner. The artificial creation of a “championship” game proved to be of little satisfaction to most teams and their fans.

Predictably, this year’s expanded playoff system falls short as well. Yes, a playoff of four is better than a game of two or a declaration of one, but the fundamental problem remains: The powers continue to control access to the championship. They are not open to real competition.

“But how is this any different than what the March Madness selection committee does?” you might ask. “Is not college basketball just another manifestation of the same government control?”

A free market is not within anarchy. A well-functioning economic system is benefited by a properly functioning, limited government that does what is necessary to establish the framework within which competition can flourish. Then, the competitors are allowed to determine the champion.

Yes, college basketball’s selection committee is a governing body. And yes, each year there are a few “bubble teams” that feel unjustly left out of the Big Dance. But the selection of 68 teams is sufficiently large; no one can credibly argue that the true champion was not given its chance to compete for the title.

The College Football Playoff is still not open to this. Apparently the football selection committee thinks it knows best. Tell that to seventh-seeded Connecticut and eighth-seeded Kentucky, however, or to Cinderella teams such as Butler. Explain it to Baylor and Texas Christian University.

The solution for football is a full tournament in addition to bowl games. As they have done for so many years, college football fans can continue to enjoy a bunch of bowl games for teams that win at least half of their games but don’t make the cut for the championship. Now let’s create a fully credible competition for the championship within the bowl structure. Here’s how it could be done.

A large number of teams means true competition. Sixty-four teams won’t be necessary for college football, but four teams or even eight teams are inadequate. Use 32 teams by taking the top 25 and then selecting the remaining seven slots in a way that includes the next-best but also ensures representation by all participating conferences. Once the tournament starts, the losing teams can be paired into an additional, final bowl game scheduled over the holidays (roughly two weeks after the teams lose).

Here’s the schedule that would work:

This solution provides the opportunity for more games and more competition that results in an undisputed champion. So, which system do you prefer?

Jon Bingham is a senior lecturer in economics at Indiana University Southeast.

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