Condoleezza Rice and the Politics of the College Football Playoff

Today is a very important notch on the calendar for college football fans as the first College Football Playoff rankings are to be released.  This year a committee of 12 individuals will meet weekly and rank the best college football teams in the country, college-football-playoff-logoand the top 4 teams in the final week ranking will compete in a playoff.  The system replaces the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) which compiled multiple ranking systems including media outlets, coaches, and computers to determine the top two football teams that would play for the championship.  The 12 members include a mix of individuals including former college coaches, players, athletic administrators, conference administrators and a former United States Secretary of State.  Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State in the Bush Administration, was appointed to serve on the committee which has caused both praise and protest.  Supporters applaud the inclusion of a female and note Rice’s deep affection for the game, while others question how someone that has never played, coached, or held a position close to the sport will fairly judge the quality on the field.  The criticism towards Rice, fairly or unfairly, will likely grow each week.  If Rice thought a liberal media was tough with their criticism, wait until she encounters the wrath of a ‘Bama fan.

The College Football Playoff subcommittee’s rankings will surely be received with far greater criticism than celebration which is simply the nature of the environment that essentially will select 4 winners out of 128 college football teams that compete in the NCAA Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision.  Out of those 128, the fans of about 15 teams are convinced their team is the best and are ready to make their case to anyone that will listen; while approximately 80 of those teams have fans that think their team would be considered if the rest of the world could only see as clearly as them.  This environment will always result in more complaining than cheering.  This may result in Rice becoming a target for those complaints simply because her lack of credentials in the sport, and she may find it difficult to demonstrate competence as a single member of a larger committee.  The two important questions are why would such an accomplished individual participate in the difficult situation, and is the objections to her lack of college football credentials warranted?

First, I think Rice is serving on the committee because she finds the opportunity challenging and interesting, while also believing it is important to create a non-traditional path for inclusion in college football.  In simpler terms, Rice is acting in self-interest that does not conflict with a greater cause.  It is how we as free individuals behave when opportunities arise.  On the surface, it may appear to be a deviation in career for someone that has mostly worked in public policy and politics, but Rice has not been shy about admitting an interest in the role of NFL Commissioner; a role that serving on the subcommittee may advance her towards.  As I stated earlier, the answer to why is likely as simple as the meeting of opportunity and desire.

The more challenging question is centered on her qualifications to serve in the role.  A role that qualifications are important since ability to make proper judgment is TommyBowdencritical when that individual judgment represents 8.3% of the input. The criticism has been tempered, and I suspect that is because of the recognition the optics of high testosterone football males criticizing a slim 5’8” female will not play well in the media.  In a sport where burning couches, “teepeeing” trees, and cow bells are sacred celebratory traditions, we should not expect concern for optics to hold criticism to a respectful tone or approach.  One recent critic was current television analyst and long-time Clemson Coach Tommy Bowden, telling The Knoxville Quarterback Club, “But just because she likes to watch football doesn’t necessarily mean she knows anything about football.”  Bowden went on to claim he is a fan of Rice, saying “I’m Christian Conservative. I’d vote for her for President. I don’t necessarily agree that she should be on the committee.”  In general, I agree with Bowden and think it is solid logic.  We do not search for accountants to design military strategy, or do we seek lawyers to provide information related to public health protocols…..actually the latter may not serve as the strongest example.

I think most of the criticism comes from a feeling that it requires time on the grass, in the athletic training facility, around the locker room, and behind the curtain to truly understand the many elements that result in what fans see on Saturday.  The traditional fan, even serious fan, views the game from a perspective of entertainment; while players and coaches gain a much more complex appreciation which is not broken down into the game or even plays, but series of micro elements that influence the results.  Fans watch “games”, while players and coaches study “film”.  A ranking that is determined without the majority of teams competing against each other, this complex appreciation is critical.  The weakness of targeting Rice from this angle is there are other members that do not meet this standard.  Committee member Mike Tranghese served as Commissioner of the Big East when it was an all-sports conference, and on the surface may appear like a solid appointment on paper.  A better understanding of Tranghese’s career would lead most to recognize Tranghese was never considered a “football guy”.  Tranghese did not play sports at the collegiate level, and his career progressed through the Big East Conference bureaucracy when it was a basketball only conference.  Even when the conference did add football later, Tranghese was always viewed as an expert in the business of college sports.  Also, Steve Weinberg was an accomplished sports journalist, which is sort of a fan with backstage access.  As a former college football player, I am confident sports journalist that did not play the sport on a competitive level have a weak understanding of cause and effect between the goal posts.  Tranghese and Weinberg may be more qualified than Rice to a purest, but it is easy to argue from that perspective that they are not the most qualified.  Even individuals with deep connections to college football as former players and coaches, but have been away from those roles for over a decade cannot deny their feel for the game as it is played currently likely has dulled.  I personally transitioned to viewing a game from purely an entertainment perspective within a few years after college.

It becomes a slippery slope when we take the path of questioning someone’s ability in judgment, and can result in almost disqualifying everyone.  Most of us have never debated an issue on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, but we remain confident we could perform that task better than most elected members of congress.  I think Rice will ultimately decide how well she performs, and if her history is an indicator, she will excel.

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