Coronation by Computer

On January 3, I searched LexisNexis for Bam, Iran. My parameters were major U.S. media over the previous seven days. A list of 503 citations appeared. Then I typed “BCS” and got 934.

There wasn’t an ounce of genuine importance to the Bowl Championship Series, but it challenged writers with cosmic themes: man versus machine, observation versus calculation, intuition versus science, free will versus obedience. “Egg, meet face,” wrote the Orlando Sentinel’s David Whitley, urging President Bush to declare the American Football Coaches Association “the next front in the battle to spread democracy around the globe.” Jay Mariotti declared “sport’s first Orwellian nightmare, humans continuing to clash with computers and confirming the [BCS] as the most diabolical invention since e-mail spam.” Melissa Isaacson, in her front-page analysis in the January 3 Tribune, asserted that “the system has choked on its own complexity.”

Systems often do. They evolve from simple and efficient to complex and inefficient and eventually collapse in disorder. The scientific word for this is entropy, and it happens because people can’t leave well enough alone. Half a century ago the system of ranking collegiate football teams was simple. At the end of the regular season the Associated Press would poll sportswriters and broadcasters, and United Press would poll coaches. Whoever finished at the top of those polls would be the national champion–champions, if the polls disagreed–even if they went on to lose the bowl games they played in, which sometimes happened.

By 1974 the AP and UPI (as the UP had become) were waiting until after the bowl games to name their champion. This reform made sense, but because the two top-ranked teams often played in separate bowls, supremacy remained open to argument.

So in 1998 the fathers of football came up with a plan. The six strongest conferences, in collusion with the four most important bowls, invented the Bowl Alliance–today the Bowl Championship Series. The coaches’ and sportswriters’ polls would be tossed into a hopper with various computerized ranking systems and something called “strength of schedule.” The hopper would spit out eight top teams guaranteed berths in the major bowls, and the top two would play for the national championship. Several bowls and awards and trophies by now existed to bless the champion, and the snazziest was the handsome Sears Trophy–a crystal football–given to the champion in the coaches’ poll. In 1998 the American Football Coaches Association agreed to give the Sears Trophy to whatever team came out on top in the BCS championship game. A ton of money was on the table–most of it from ABC, which cornered rights to the BCS bowl games–but the creators emphasized justice and clarity.

These virtues went by the boards in 2001. A heretofore undefeated Nebraska team lost the final game of its regular season 62-36 and, despite not winning or even qualifying to play in its conference championship game, was designated by the BCS’s computers as the second-best team in the land.

But in 2001 at least human and cyber intelligence agreed on Miami. When Miami routed Nebraska in the Rose Bowl, it won both the Sears Trophy and the AP trophy, which sportswriters and broadcasters were still free to give to whomever they pleased.

The coaches had made a Faustian bargain. They’d turned themselves into automatons. Undefeated Oklahoma was pummeled by Kansas State in the 2003 Big 12 championship game, and in their next weekly polls the sportswriters and the coaches both voted Southern Cal the top team in the land. But thanks to the computers, Oklahoma and LSU were named to play in the Sugar Bowl for the BCS crown. The coaches–a handful of renegades notwithstanding–had no choice when LSU won but to name it the national champion, even though their hearts clearly weren’t in their duty. Southern Cal, the team preferred by sentient voters, took the AP trophy after pounding Michigan in the Rose Bowl–a contest the Sun-Times’s Rick Telander dismissed as “but a satellite in the BCS disco ball of confusion.”

I’m not sure what Telander meant by that, and I bet he wasn’t either the morning after, but many a sportswriter got carried away. The whole idea of the BCS system was to enlist the computer to help choose teams for a title game that we humans would be most comfortable with. Instead, humans be damned, BCS spit out names that made sense only to the computer. HAL had taken over the spaceship. How often do sportswriters get to write jeremiads on the state of civilization?

The position of journalists and coaches in all this deserves a moment’s reflection. Sportswriters got to condemn the BCS system. They also got to name their own national champion, which they could then point to as evidence that if justice were to be done they were the ones to do it. Yet the sportswriters’ poll remains an integral part of the BCS calculations that produced the absurd results the sportswriters were lamenting. Sportswriters simultaneously stood inside a discredited system abetting it and outside the system providing an alternative–while passing judgment on the system as if they were disinterested bystanders.

Instead of considering their own conduct, most sportswriters preferred to dwell on the humiliation of the friendless coaches. Even Mike Tranghese, commissioner of the Big East conference and coordinator of the BCS, disowned them. He said the BCS had nothing to do with the coaches’ guarantee to vote for the winner of the BCS championship game. He said that was strictly between the American Football Coaches Association and the coaches’ poll, which is now conducted by USA Today and ESPN. “There’s no rational explanation for that, but we didn’t make the deal,” Tranghese was quoted as saying by the AP, which of course runs the competing poll. “The coaches need to look in the mirror.”

USA Today wasn’t going to let itself be tarred by that brush. It promptly quoted its own deputy managing editor for sports, Jim Welch, who swore that USA Today had nothing to do with the fiasco: “The deal requiring coaches to name the championship game winner the No. 1 team on their ballots is between the AFCA and the BCS, including Tranghese and his TV partners.”

The end of the bowl games produced a final spasm of verbiage. Last Monday the New York Times’s William Rhoden grimly pronounced Division 1-A football’s “the most embarrassing coronation process in sports.” He wants to clean house. “The first step toward a new construction is for the news media to pull out of the voting process,” he wrote. “Get the computers, including The New York Times’s, out as well.”

Even Tranghese turned against science. “Get rid of the computers,” he said. “I hate those things.”

But Rick Morrissey wrote a Sunday column in the Tribune reminding those of us who snicker at computers not to take the human factor seriously either. “The coaches’ poll is a coaches’ poll in name only,” he wrote. “Many of the coaches don’t vote; their sports information directors do it for them. But even if the coaches were to vote, they would have absolutely no way of knowing about all the other worthy teams. Coaches are obsessives, who can’t see anything other than their next opponent….The AP poll is better, but not even close to perfect. There is no way a sportswriter, if he is doing his job correctly and devoting enough time to being angry at his sports editor, can watch enough games and do enough research to rank college teams fairly.”

Morrissey concluded, “You can’t apply science to what, in the end, is opinion.” His solution was the same as Rhoden’s–a playoff–but he was wise enough not to take the situation seriously. Ditto the Sun-Times’s Ron Rapoport, who noted Monday an eight-team playoff would merely shift the screaming from the team that finished third to the team that finished ninth. “Frankly, I like things the way they are now,” he wrote. “The more claims to the national championship, the merrier. So what if it doesn’t solve the problem, as long as it makes for great entertainment.” And another round of columns next year that write themselves.

A million ideas have been floated about how to set up a playoff. Rhoden’s is for the six BCS conferences to each play a title game, with the champions plus a couple of at-large teams moving into a tournament. It’s a plan that would allow NCAA football to catch up with NCAA basketball as it was conducted in about 1960, when top teams frequently didn’t even reach the national tournament because they’d been upset in conference tourneys. Little by little the NCAA let the belt out until today 65 teams qualify for March Madness. This joyful event is famous for its many astonishing upsets and the occasional national champion–an N.C. State, a Villanova–that everyone knows prevailed only because God wanted a laugh.

News Bites

“Worst Funeral Stunt–Democrats attempted to use a memorial service for Sen. Paul Wellstone [as] a campaign rally for Walter Mondale. Not only was it tacky, but the Republican won Wellstone’s seat anyway.” From “2003’s stupid (and sometimes splendid) human tricks,” a New Year’s Eve feature in the Tribune.

How about this? “Worst Use of Calendar”–lame Tribune feature on 2003 lowlights cites event that missed target year by more than two months.

An important difference between the Sun-Times and Red Streak surfaced in a study of how Paige Wiser’s column last Monday was edited by each of the sister papers.

The Sun-Times carried Wiser’s original lead: “You can’t say that I didn’t try to take a good high school senior portrait. The problem was probably that I tried too hard.”

The Red Streak version was leaner and meaner: “You can’t say I didn’t try to take a good high school senior portrait. The problem was I probably tried too hard.”

In all, nine “that”s in Wiser’s column, whose subject was yearbook photos, were eliminated from the edgy Red Streak.

Wiser, who’s settled down in recent years and is now a mother, told me she likes the word “that.” (She also likes commas.) Red Streak editor Deborah Douglas does not. “That’s a me thing,” she says. “I made it a rule you should cut out superfluous ‘that’s. It’s my own personal style.”

Christina Hansen, a former Reader ad rep, studied cooking and business, then launched her own newspaper in 2001. Local Palate, a free bimonthly tabloid, was quirky, unpredictable, and written by freelancers with the affection good food and drink deserve. It was distributed at high-end groceries and food shops, and Hansen eventually claimed 40,000 readers.

But restaurateurs are a tough crowd to sell advertising to. Local Palate made money, but only because Hansen did almost everything herself: she handled distribution, she sold the ads, and she collected from the advertisers–not always an easy thing to do. Her editor, Alice Van Housen, resigned after the November/December 2003 issue, and soon after, Hansen decided to pack it in. Local Palate won’t appear again.

The last contract between the Chicago Newspaper Guild and Hollinger International’s Pioneer Press expired in May 2002, but both sides agreed to extend its terms while fitful negotiations on a new contract continued. But two months ago management canceled the contract and advertised for replacement workers, raising the fear among guild employees that Pioneer intended to lock them out and bring in a new staff. On January 4 guild members voted by about a two-to-one margin to reject management’s latest contract offer and to authorize their negotiating committee to call a strike whenever it chooses.

From the January 5 New York Times: “Lynn Truss was on her way to deliver a lecture at the British Library recently when she was reminded yet again that a tremendous gap exists between her natural obsessions and those of other people.

“‘Punctuation,’ Ms. Truss replied, when her taxi driver asked what she planned to talk about. But the word didn’t compute; he heard something less weird in his head. ‘Ooh, in that case,’ he replied, ‘I better get you there on time.'”

It is, of course, unthinkable that a taxi driver would have been making a play on words.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/William L. Brown.