College Football and the NFL: Dictatorship Envy

Doug Pensinger - Getty Images

The NFL has butchered the beginning of its season with its hard line against its referees, but I still find myself wanting the reassurance of an all-powerful ruler in college football.

I have a love/hate relationship with the NFL. I love watching football. I can respect football played at its highest level, even if there is a degree of crushing sameness with the way that NFL teams approach the question of how to move the ball from here to there. I enjoy the playoffs, if if they are too expansive and allow a 9-7 team to get hot and become World Champions over teams that were far better over the course of the season (leaving aside the fact that it's grandiose to call oneself World Champions of a sport that has teams in exactly one country). I like following the Falcons, even when they are busy extorting the city for a new stadium to replace the perfectly good and not especially old Georgia Dome.

On the other hand, I don't like the way that the NFL is covered in a joyless fashion. With limited examples, I find the excitement surrounding the NFL to be manufactured into a carefully managed product that tells its fans when to cheer, when to boo, and when to get on the phone to order a Big Dinner Box from Pizza Hut. The teams run the same offenses, the announcers have no idea what a zone read play is, and the game is structured in such a way as to maximize commercial breaks and squeeze out actual football. Most of all, I am a college football fan first and I resent the NFL's influence on my favorite game, from the fact that ESPN outsources much of its analysis to Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, thereby creating the impression that Saturdays are just a layover on the way to Sundays and Monday, to the fact that the SEC is starting to make a conscious effort to look like the NFL with clueless blowhards like Gary Danielson cheering along as Auburn commits seppuku by going away from the offense that on them their first national title in over five decades.

With that context in mind, you would think that I would be excited about the embarrassment created by the NFL referee debacle. After all, the NFL, which ostentatiously prattles on about "protecting the shield," is doing significant damage to its own product for pennies on the dollar by taking the aggressive position that its referees have to accept reduced benefits in return for the privilege of being yelled at by 60,000 fans every Sunday. This story captures everything I don't like about the NFL: the egotism of the owners who think that they are the reason why consumers buy the product, the embarrassing efforts to milk every nickel out of an already rich enterprise, and the sense that viewers will tune in no matter what you do to the product (such as skewing the commercial-to-action ratio beyond all reason).

Instead, I feel myself strangely jealous of a product that is run as an oligarchy. The combination of Roger Goodell and the 31 team owners run the NFL with an iron fist. Ben Roethlisberger has not been charged with a crime? Who cares! Let's suspend him for the tawdry act of having sex in the bathroom of a bar. The Saints have been accused of running a bounty system? Let's hand out a raft of suspensions without ever disclosing to the suspended individuals or the public at large what the evidence is regarding the bounty program. (Note: as a Falcons fan, I just assume that the worst of the allegations against the Saints are true. As a critic of the NFL, the star chamber nature of the process is distasteful.)

Still, when you are a college football fan, you can understand the feeling of Americans in the 1930s wondering whether dictatorships were the wave of the future. At that time, the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression while Nazi Germany was recovering (especially later in the decade when they rearmed; the fact that their recovery was ultimately dependent on mugging their neighbors and taking their proverbial wallets was not especially apparent at the time) and the Soviet Union was seemingly unaffected (perhaps because Stalin was too busy starving the Ukraine). The concept of a benevolent dictator imposing order must have been appealing to people living through a great crisis of the American system.

So it is to be a college football fan in 2012. College football most resembles the United States under the Articles of Confederation in that there is a weak central authority and then the regional entities do whatever is in their interests. This is what we are missing as college football fans by the lack of a Goodell-style dictatorship (or at least a central government that can tax effectively and conduct a centralized foreign policy, which was the downfall of the Articles of Confederation):

1. Rivalry Extinction - This week brought the news that we are losing Michigan-Notre Dame as a mostly regular September fixture. This adds another casualty to the following list of rivalries killed by conference realignment: Pitt-West Virginia, Nebraska-Oklahoma, Texas-Texas A&M, Kansas-Missouri, not to mention Penn State's rivalries with all of its eastern cohorts and Arkansas's rivalries with everyone in Texas. We were close to losing two jewels of the SEC in Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia this spring and it still seems plausible that we will lose those games as annual events. A rational dictator would look at this situation and say "college football sells tradition, so we need these games (to distract the citizens from their friends who have disappeared)."

2. The Dumbing Down of Non-Conference Schedules - I am surely not the only one who felt underwhelmed by the menu of non-conference games this September. Among the worst major power offenders were Texas, LSU, West Virginia, Ohio State, and Oregon. With most teams playing no more than one credible non-conference game, college football fans were left with slim pickings for whole time slots. Any ruler with power over scheduling would be able to trump the race to the bottom that has emerged among athletic directors who want home games and coaches who want to minimize instances in which their acumen can be judged. It would be in everyone's interest to have regular intersectional games between big programs, but we don't get them because of an example of the tragedy of the commons. Who wants some centralized planning? Instead, we have to rely on...

3. The Postseason Disaster - Despite the ongoing cries from college football fans for a postseason structure that will avoid debacles like a 13-0 SEC team not getting a shot at the crown, we remain stuck with a two-team playoff. We finally have a four-team playoff over the horizon, but after all of the horse-trading, we are left with no agreed-upon way to determine the participants, no use of campus sites, and major questions as to whether strength of schedule will get any more weight than the record-obsessed human polls currently give. College football's refusal to follow the dollars for decades has prevented it from going down the road of playoff over-expansion, which is a good thing, but it's hard to look at the ramshackle way in which a four-team p[layoff has been cobbled together and have any confidence that it will be run in a rational fashion.

Like Bonasera the Undertaker, I believe in America. I like a sport that is run by competing conferences, as it is a reflection of the way the American political system is structured, as opposed to the NFL's homage to Putin's Russia. However, when I watch the streamlined way in which the NFL is run, the teams that play uniform schedules, the predictable postseason, and the games in great TV time slots (as opposed to putting the best product on Saturday nights when people tend to be away from their TVs), I feel a Russian attraction to a strongman ruler. This is not a feeling that I want to acknowledge in election season when I should be celebrating our republican form of government, but after a steady diet of Ohio State-UAB and Texas-Wyoming, that's where I am.

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