|The treatment of athletes like Dominique Ferguson is the biggest problem in college athletics. (US Presswire)|
Nothing is more invigorating than a new story about the Bowl Championship Series considering a new format that looks more like a playoff and less like what it is.
That is, nothing except everything else in the world, down to a kick in the hinder.
The playoff story has been flogged by hundreds of writers, both well-meaning and hopelessly drunk, for years now, and frankly, we couldn't care less what format they use. If they put all 120 FBS coaches on one gigantic plain and let them fight it out until there was one left standing, I'd be fine with that format, too. Or just a pixie with a wand declaring a national champion on no criteria at all.
What should be of far more concern is what happens if/when a playoff is devised, because it won't happen until the people who run college athletics can pencil out a way for it to make more money than the current system. That's the only thing that's held it up so far, and the only thing that will keep it from happening in the future. Not congressmen. Not books. Not bad bowl ratings.
OK, fine. That's Economics 1A.
But here's the next question, and the one that really must be answered:
When more money is distributed to fewer schools, as a playoff system would essentially ensure, who benefits from that power surge? The same people who have most of it already. And who will keep that power in check? Who will ensure players get more freedom and a greater chance to pursue whatever academic dreams they might in fact have? Who will be in charge of transfer policies that of late have reminded us just how restrictive and unfair the current system is?
That's the stuff we ought to be chasing first. The stuff that matters not to our viewing enjoyment, but to the betterment of the young people who provide it.
You see, the BCS isn't the worst thing to come down the pike in the history of college athletics. The NCAA rulebook is worse. So are coaches who run their programs with their own needs in mind rather than the needs and desires of their players. Not to mention the players who leave college no more prepared for an outside world than they were when they got in.
The BCS is about entertainment, and it neither deserves nor doesn't deserve any special consideration or special hatred. It's just a thing, and all things change when the money changes. It'll fall when it falls.
But it's the players who get hosed by the system just because the system can hose them that are the greater outrage. Like Dominique Ferguson, the FIU basketball player who had to declare for the NBA Draft because the school wouldn't allow him to transfer to another Division I school (story courtesy Comrade Goodman).
There are dozens of others, but you get the point. Player goes to school, situation changes, he wishes to find a new one, and the old school says he can't without damaging his athletic dream. That's a rotten system, one that should not be allowed to benefit from new sources of income until it can first show that it can more fairly treat those who generate its current source of income.
That for me is the BCS debate. Not whether a playoff is preferable to a non-playoff -- that's your standard no-brainer -- but who gets paid and who gets more powerful as a result, and what happens to that money and that power. The law of unintended consequences with a gut-punch chaser.
Frankly, for me, until the college athletics industry can more justly deal with its athletes, student or otherwise, it should not only not find new revenue streams but lose the old ones. The BCS may stink on ice, but the devil of the playoff system is in the details, and until the details include how players get a better shake than they're getting now, I'm not all that fascinated by when or how it happens.
Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast Sports Bay Area (CSNBayArea.com).