Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Cheating in College Sports

The two most recent newspaper investigations into the Michigan football program revealed something interesting about how college football fans view "cheating" in the sport. With the Michigan athletic department facing questions about its academic advising policies* and excessive football practice time, a majority of Michigan fans had the same response to both allegations--a collective shrug**. Major fansites led vicious attacks on both newspapers, and fans seemed to say that, even if the allegations were true, they weren't a big deal.

Some believed that a simple "but-every-school-does-it" response justified Michigan's actions. As for the excessive practicing allegations, based on message board posts, many believed that college athletes should just suck it up and work harder.*** And, of course, other schools pay players, they say, and that's certainly much worse.****

But isn't exactly the opposite true? Academic policies***** and practice time restrictions are in place to protect players. Restrictions on paying players are in place to protect...well, I'm not sure exactly who******. If you actually care about the well being of players and student athletics, shouldn't you be much more concerned about providing athletes a good education and a good athletics-life balance than about their mother getting some extra money from a booster to pay the rent?

In a very cynical sense, college football fans are being extraordinarily selfish. They care about bribery because they get screwed if there team plays by the rules and misses out on top recruits. On other other hand, when schools provide crappy educations and work players too hard, it's only the players that are hurt. Another new class of freshmen will make the fans forget about the seniors that graduated soon enough.

It's unfortunate fans feel this way. All of these raise very important questions about the future of college athletics, that, as far as I can tell, are occasionally raised in public but never really addressed. Instead of worrying about these problems, fans and media are too busy enforcing absurd rules and wringing their hands over the need for a playoff in college football. Good to know we have our priorities straight.

* I guess this isn't technically "cheating", but the point remains.
** Although I suspect if the Columbus Dispatch had written these stories about the Ohio State football team, the tune of Michigan fans would have been slightly different.
*** Yes, I realize most people objected to the Free Press's reporting methods and interpretation of NCAA rules, but, my general sense was that, even if the allegations were true, people weren't really bothered by them.
**** As I said in **, Michigan fans are obviously quite biased about the situation. That said, the reaction to the Cam Newton allegations seems to suggest fans and the media consider paying players a great blight upon college athletics.
***** As I said in *, the academic policies aren't technically illegal, as far as I know, but the fans' response to the allegations were still illuminating.
****** Different conversation, but can someone point me to anyone that has an even somewhat valid point as to why college football players should not be paid? It's on my long list of things I really can't even begin to understand the vehement objection to. As if it's somehow OK to pay football players to arbitrary amount (tuition+room/board), but nowhere beyond that point.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The "Mythical" National Championship

Let me preface this by saying that this post has nothing to do with whether or not the BCS system is, on the the whole, good for college football. Although I have not read Death to the BCS, I would have no difficulty believing the BCS system--like much of big-time college athletics--is simply a bunch of old men exploiting 20-year-olds for their own financial benefit. Certainly, that problem should be addressed.

That said, I have more difficulty accepting arguments that a playoff system is somehow a more legitimate method of crowning a national champion. For instance, on Spider and the Henchman a few weeks ago, Fox Sports Kevin Hench derided the BCS title as a "mythical" national championship. Like many others, he seems to presuppose that a playoff system would somehow be a much better way to pick a winner.

But a playoff system wouldn't necessarily prove that the team that won was the best team in college football; rather, it would prove that the team that won happened to win two or three games in a row in the middle of December against other teams that had equally good years but may have been unlucky in the match-ups they had those two or three weeks. Perhaps that's the way you prefer to define a national champion, but it's not the only way--and certainly not the way to prove which team is "best," if that's the end goal*.

Many compare the possibilities for a college football playoff to March Madness, one of the most exciting events in sports each year. But, really, the NCAA Basketball tournament is a horrible measure of picking a true champion--it simply picks a tournament winner. By playing only one game each round, it creates more opportunity for random outcomes. Exciting, certainly, but meritocratic, certainly not. If Butler had won last year, would anyone really believe they were the "best" team in college basketball**?

For all the criticism about the length of the NBA playoffs, it really is a much better system for picking a champion. Long series eliminate some of the randomness--if you prefer the best team advancing, changing the opening round to seven games was a great idea. Obviously, because match-up problems still exist, there are some problems, but this is probably as close as you can get to picking a real champion, save European-style soccer leagues--as opposed to cups--where only the regular season counts.

As a closing note, this also raises the question of why we as fans need to have ONE champion. Isn't it simply enough to say we had at least three teams that had excellent seasons? Granted, sports is all about competition, but it's still sort of odd that people demand that only one team receives recognition for being the best in any year. Especially as more styles of play develop, it is becoming less likely that there really is one team better than every other--there are always going to be some styles of play that don't match-up well. The "everyone-is-winner" mentality is a bit of overkill, but, on the other hand, so is the other extreme.

* Which, admittedly, is very difficult to do. Do we consider a team "better" for getting hot at the end of the year, or playing consistent throughout the season? If a star player gets hurt, should we take that into account? Obviously, many of these distinctions are completely subjective--it all depends what qualities you believe demonstrate excellent. But it also shows why the idea a playoff is somehow objectively better is a bit absurd.
** Again, assuming this is what we believe a national championship should measure.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Greatest TV Seasons Ever*

*Well, more like Greatest TV Seasons of the Past 10 Years*
** Actually, more like Greatest TV Seasons of My Favorite TV Shows From the Past 10 Years***
*** Limit one season per show

As promised, I hope to blog more in the upcoming weeks. Given my recent declaration that the first season of the cancelled-too-soon Terriers was one of my favorite TV seasons ever, I decided to start things off with an actual list. Despite thinking about it a bit, I've probably left some shows off, so feel free to mention your own favorite in the comments. I've limited it to 10 seasons total and one season per show, which means some of my own favorites didn't make the cut.

In no particular order:

30 Rock Season 2: Unfair as it may be, I tend to view the NBC comedies relative to each other-And I don't remember enjoying any of them more than I enjoyed Season 2 of  30 Rock. I once thought this might be because it was so funny we would communicate almost exclusively through quotes from it each week, but I rewatched it somewhat recently and it held up (I had even forgotten some great lines, like Kenneth calling bagels "Jewish doughnuts"). They also managed to integrate NBC gimmicks (such as Green week) while also skewering them. Greenzo Out. (Honorable Mention for the NBC comedy slot: Office S2, Parks & Rec S2, Community S1.)

Sopranos Season 6, Part II: A bit of a cop-out, I know (I'll take Season 1, I think, if you don't accept this), but David Chase put together a terrific set of episodes to end the show-nearly every one was a classic. One episode after the next, Chase portrays Tony at his most petty and reprehensible as his world closes around him-forcing Bobby to commit his first hit after losing a fight to him, running up his gambling debts with Hesh, etc. The directors also did a tremendous job creating tension in scenes such as Bobby's death at the train store and, of course, the final shot at Holsten's. The entire Season 6 probably could have been perfect had the renewal of the show not meant Chase had to draw out part one longer than originally anticipated.

Wire Season 3: If only for this scene.

Arrested Development Season 2: Possible I've made a huge mistake, but really hard to go wrong with any of them.

Terriers Season 1: Still depressed this got cancelled. Really struck a great balance between episodes that could both standalone while advancing the season-long story arc. Watch it if you haven't already.

Freaks and Geeks Season 1: I wonder if F&G would have lasted any longer than it did if it were on today.  Networks seem to be at least somewhat more receptive to critical support today (even if that didn't help Terriers). Plus, a Judd Apatow  production now is worth a lot more than it was then. Somewhat extraordinary how many stars this show produced for an 18-episode season about high school outcasts. In addition, much like Terriers, it had a perfect ending.

Seinfeld, Season 5: You kind of forget when you only watch it in syndication that Seinfeld actually had season-long story arcs. That said, this selection has nothing to do with that, and more to do with the solid collection of episodes (e.g. The Cigar Store Indian, The Marine Biologist, and, of course, The Opposite).

Friday Night Lights, Season 3: First season was a bit too long. And the second season never happened.

Da Ali G Show, Season 1: When I saw this commercials for this, I thought it looked awful. Then I watched it. I'm still laughing.

West Wing S2: I always thought it was funny that Sorkin originally imagined President Bartlet would be a minor character on the show. Probably a good thing Sorkin expanded his role.

I'm certainly wrong about some of these, so feel free to tell me so in the comments.

(EDIT: Seinfeld technically breaks the 10-year rule I set out above, but you get the point.)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Coming Soon...

It has been far too long since I last blogged. I promise to rectify that soon. You can expect many new posts in the upcoming weeks--with potential rewards for a lucky reader if I don't follow through. Anticipate less finance and more random thoughts. Please e-mail/comment with any ideas. Also, if anyone would be up to join for a guest blogger debate or conversation, that'd be terrific, too.