Sportswriters have a long tradition of making news and then reporting it, and any sign that they’re thinking twice about this self-serving behavior is good news. The other day the members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America took a very modest step they’d love to have the rest of us construe as reform. They voted 41-21 to stop giving awards to players who have incentive contracts that line their pockets if they win those awards. Sometimes these incentives involve a lot of money—for instance, the $1.5 million bonus the Yankees gave Alex Rodriguez when the baseball writers named him his league’s most valuable player this year.
Whenever money’s on the line, questions come up about favoritism and influence peddling—it’s one thing to shower glory on the athletes you cover, but it’s another to make them richer. To avoid that tar brush, the baseball writers righteously pledged not to vote for any players whose contracts contain such bonuses. The change wouldn’t go into effect until 2013, and the BWAA’s board promptly voted unanimously to table it indefinitely, but as thoughts go it was a nice one.
Now that I’ve established where I stand on the general principle, let’s move the conversation along to the exception. An action will soon be taken by a group of sportswriters and sports broadcasters that deserves to be covered by the media with all the fervor and bulging headlines that—well, that proclaim the annual crowning of the Bowl Championship Series champion of college football. I’m speaking of the far less heralded crowning of the AP champion of college football.
The BCS is a system that the AP pulled out of a couple of years ago because the process was so tainted—and good for the AP. As you may know, this season’s BCS calculations are giving us a national championship Sugar Bowl next month between once-beaten Ohio State and twice-beaten LSU, while other once-beaten, twice-beaten, and even unbeaten teams (Hawaii) meet in so-called lesser bowls and wonder why they’re not playing for the title.
Let’s examine the BCS calculations, which make sausage look pristine by comparison. The three components of the BCS standings are the USA Today coaches poll, which finds the press up to its usual tricks, meddling in matters that should be none of its business; something called the Harris Interactive College Football Poll, which replaced the AP poll and is basically an old-timers committee consisting of a lot of retired players, coaches, administrators, and journalists whose names carried a lot more weight 20 years ago; and the average of six computer rankings. Computers have not yet been programmed to play a decent game of bridge, and they don’t know how to rank football teams either.
Consider this: Virginia Tech, which finished its season 11-2, was ranked fifth by the coaches and sixth by Harris, yet first by the computers. That’s why Virginia Tech wound up third in the BCS, one place ahead of Oklahoma, which was ranked third by both the coaches and Harris but only in a sixth-place tie by the computers. Fourth in the computer rankings was 11-2 Missouri, which lost twice to Oklahoma.
The problem with the BCS this year isn’t so much these spot anomalies, which happen every year, as the fact that there’s no particular reason to believe Ohio State and LSU are any better than, say, Oklahoma and Southern Cal, or Hawaii and Georgia. Or even Missouri. If Missouri beats Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl it will have beaten a team that beat LSU, and it’s already beaten Illinois, the team that beat Ohio State.
Ohio State and LSU deserve to be in the so-called title game as much as anyone else but no more than a half-dozen other teams. But because it’s the title game, the BCS trophy will have to go to the winner, even if, after all the top teams have played their bowl games and the dust has cleared, nobody believes either team deserves it. That’s what has most football writers mourning the absence of a playoff, while an amused minority celebrates the confusion. “You’ve heard of a perfect storm,” wrote the Tribune‘s Rick Morrissey, ending a column saying absolutely not to a playoff. “This is a perfect mess. Isn’t it beautiful?”
But when the sportswriters and broadcasters polled by AP vote after the bowls are over, they’ll be able to vote for anybody. They’ll be responding to reality—always a good thing. AP sports columnist Jim Litke tells me the AP redesigned its trophy in the last year because “it was starting to look a little skimpy next to the one the BCS gives.” Not that the Associated Press should be in the business of giving any trophy at all, mind you, but as it is in that business, the trophy it hands out next month should look like what it is—respectable by comparison. The BCS is a joke. Coverage of the postseason award giving should proceed accordingly.
Religion is embarrassing us all. Mitt Romney did what he had to do the other day—give a speech reassuring Christian fundamentalists that he’s with them in spirit if not in doctrine. As a New York Times headline put it beforehand, “Mitt Romney Is No Jack Kennedy.” When JFK spoke to the Southern Baptists in 1960 he didn’t try to insinuate himself with the Baptists. He didn’t have to. He simply promised them (and the country) that if he became president the pope wouldn’t call the shots from behind the scenes.
On December 7 the Times published an editorial on Romney’s speech. This editorial, “The Crisis of Faith,” was reasonable enough when it objected to the ingratiating nature of the speech, and to the idea that Christian piety is a prerequisite for the Oval Office. But then the Times lost its bearings. The editorial continued:
“CNN, shockingly, required the candidates at the recent Republican debate to answer a videotaped question from a voter holding a Christian edition of the Bible, who said: ‘How you answer this question will tell us everything we need to know about you. Do you believe every word of this book? Specifically, this book that I am holding in my hand, do you believe this book?’ The nation’s founders knew the answer to that question says nothing about a candidate’s fitness for office.”
Earth to Times: Joseph in Dallas, who asked the question, might have been thinking that a smarmy, Book-licking response would tell him all he needed to know about the character of the candidate making it. Or he might have been a fundamentalist. Whatever. I was watching and I thought it was a terrific question, a put-up-or-shut-up question that few big-league commentators would have the guts to ask a candidate on national TV. Rudy Giuliani’s answer boiled down to “no.” Romney’s boiled down to “yes.” Mike Huckabee finessed the question, calling the Bible a “revelation of an infinite God,” which is why “no finite person is ever going to fully understand it.”
Though the comparisons with Kennedy were inevitable, the coverage of Romney’s religious dilemma has been a little shy on historical context. Kennedy gave a much more secular speech in a much more secular era. Just 15 years had passed since World War II had come to a close with the double revelation of Auschwitz and the atom bomb. Deference to the Almighty wasn’t so easily demanded. “With a good conscience our only sure reward,” said Kennedy at his inauguration, “with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” To some ears, that sounded a lot like healthy skepticism.
The point that most of the coverage has missed is that JFK’s 1960 campaign isn’t the most revealing antecedent to Romney’s 2008 campaign. Romney’s late father, George, was every bit as serious a presidential candidate in 1968 as Mitt is today. America knew George Romney as a business genius who took over American Motors in the mid-50s, quadrupling sales, and then served six years as the popular, progressive Republican governor of Michigan. He was a Mormon who was serious about his faith and active in his church, but his faith was never an issue. Vietnam was what ended his campaign; asked in a radio interview why he’d strongly supported the war in 1965 after visiting Vietnam, Romney—by now an opponent of the war—said, “I had just had the greatest brainwashing that anyone can get.” Presidents weren’t supposed to be brainwashable.
They’re not supposed to be brainwashable now either, and yet these days candidates feel a need to present their credentials as zealous, unskeptical soldiers for Christ.v
For more see Michael Miner’s blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.
If Missouri beats Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl it will have beaten a team that beat LSU, and it’s already beaten Illinois, the team that beat Ohio State.
When will the sports press get out of the sports business?