NCAA big winner in football playoffs

For those who loathe big-time college athletics, and even for those who enjoy the games but feel nothing but disdain for the profiteers who belly-up to the big-money trough, last week’s decision to institute a four-team playoff likely elicited reactions ranging from head-shaking to open yawns.

But the loudest reaction came from fans asking, “What took you so long?”

In the NCAA Football Championship Sub-Division (formerly known as Division I-A), no team has ever actually won a championship, which isn’t to say that there have been no champions. For reasons steeped in historic hypocrisy, the so-called national champions are chosen. The only thing they truly win are the hearts and minds of sportswriters, coaches and other self-appointed experts who participate in voting run by this or that media outlet.

By adopting a four-team playoff, the NCAA can ensure that the current bloated number of bowl games can keep churning money from sponsors ranging from tortilla chip makers to big-box hardware stores. The playoff will simply serve as an even deeper revenue stream.

As for the athletes themselves, the stars who profit via four-year scholarships will continue playing under the guise of student-athletes, while too many of their schools couldn’t care less about any lack of desire to attend classes or earn grades.

Graduation rates at the “football factory” schools have risen – all the way to about 50 percent for those schools who could hardly be more open about why their star wide receiver is on campus. And when he leaves before coming close to having compiled nearly enough graduation credits, coaches have already turned their gaze to the incoming crop of freshmen.

A successful big-time coach can earn millions of dollars annually. The successful big-time player will feel the NCAA’s wrath if he is caught accepting a complete wardrobe from a member of the football team’s booster club.

Occasionally, the NCAA will apply sanctions to a big-time school caught violating its rules on recruiting and player compensation. The capital punishment comes in the form of a ban from bowl game participation for a few years.

For the most part, schools conjure ways of sneaking around the rules, and the NCAA happily finds ways of turning a blind eye when it suits its financial needs.

Like the Bowl Championship Series that will be abandoned, the idea of a four-team playoff represents a compromise designed to quell an endless public debate while protecting everyone’s financial interests.

The best top-division teams in basketball determine their yearly champs in a blockbuster playoff system that has become part of American culture, known as March Madness. With the selection of 69 teams, it is difficult to argue that a true potential champion has been snubbed.

The best top division in football will continue being ruled by January Insanity. The legitimacy of a champion will remain suspect.

One of the most controversial decisions in the history of The Associated Press poll came in 1978, when the University of Alabama was selected as the national champions over the University of Southern California. Alabama was 11-1 that season while USC was 12-1.

If that wasn’t just cause for withering criticism, it should be noted that USC defeated Alabama during the regular season. And USC did it in Alabama’s home stadium.

Now the debate shifts ever so lightly. The arguments will focus on whatever logic is used to separate the fourth-ranked and fifth-ranked teams.

Most importantly to the NCAA big-time football programs, the money spigot remains protected – and left wide open.