Inherent in the newness of the College Football Playoff is the uncertainty of just how the selection committee will choose the four teams for the playoff. Although the computerized impartiality of the BCS clearly had its flaws, the selection committee members' ties to various schools and conferences creates room for accusations of bias, despite the committee's recusal policy when the members' specific schools are up for discussion.
It only took two weeks for the first controversy to strike as Pat Haden, USC's athletic director and one of five ADs on the selection committee, went down to the sideline during the Trojans' matchup against Stanford to argue with officials. The Pac-12 fined Haden $25,000 for "inappropriate" conduct, but he received no punishment related to his role on the selection committee.
"Emotional outbursts at games are not a matter for the playoff committee to deal with," the playoff's executive director Bill Hancock said in a statement. "This does not affect Pat Haden's capability as a committee member. We recognize that athletic directors cannot be dispassionate about their own teams, and that's why we have the recusal policy."
Still, Haden's sideline behavior and the controversy it sparked raise the question of what should be expected from members of the selection committee. Even if Haden recuses himself when the committee discusses USC, is the appearance of bias created by his public cheerleading enough to shake confidence in the committee's decision? SI.com's Martin Rickman, Andy Staples and Brian Hamilton discuss Haden's behavior and how the committee can best avoid accusations of bias.
Martin Rickman: Pat Haden has been taking a lot of heat (and a hit to his wallet) for his antics Saturday. Obviously as an athletic director his first priority is to the school he is representing, but going down to the field after a text message is strange even as football goes. This has a whole other layer thrown on top like chives on a taco dip with Haden being on the College Football Playoff selection committee.
Andy, are we holding these guys to too high of a standard because of their role in an otherwise foggy organization that's still relatively new? Was Haden out of line? Or are we just angry because none of the other committee members have done something wacky like post on a message board or call into Finebaum?
Andy Staples: Judging by what readers have asked on Twitter about the playoff committee, the only person most people would consider unbiased enough to serve on the committee is Jesus. But I'm guessing he's a little busy. Haden was out of line, but just as someone can be -- medically speaking -- too full of Bama, maybe Haden was so full of Fight On that he had no choice but to come down from the press box. For future reference, the correct response from an AD when a coach's flunky texts and asks him to come to the sideline to handle an issue with the officials is to text back: "Please tell coach Sark that's what I pay him for. I'm not coming down. They have nachos here."
Should current ADs be on the committee? Sure. Everyone is from somewhere. Everyone worked somewhere. There are enough people on the committee that biases should cancel out. These particular five ADs (Haden, West Virginia's Oliver Luck, Arkansas' Jeff Long, Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez and Clemson's Dan Radakovich) all played college football. What's interesting about this situation is that Haden seemed the least likely to do something unusual. Basically, that means we can look forward to an outburst from Luck or Alvarez or a Twitter rant from Long before this season is over. Then we can have this discussion again. Personally, I think this makes the process a lot more fun than the BCS standings.
The folks who seem determined to root out any bias fail to understand that the least biased people in this situation are those who don't care about college football. They would make terrible committee members because they wouldn't know anything about college football. The other option for removing bias is to allow a bunch of computers to rank the teams. We all remember how that worked out.
Rickman: Computers also don't make for very good television -- and we have to remember that the committee is going to be ranking teams in primetime on ESPN. Brian, how do you see this show playing out? Is it a good idea?
Brian Hamilton: This show, in reality, should be the shortest show in television history:
"Welcome to the College Football Playoff show on ESPN. Here are the current rankings."
[shows graphic with rankings]
"Now stay tuned for Winter X Games: Gdansk! Goodnight!"
No one wants to hear committee members drone on about their initial internal poll. The committee members probably don't want to hear themselves drone on. (Well, maybe they do a little.) There's no need for an explanation until they choose the actual final four teams in the playoff. Then drone away because of transparency and accountability and all that.
But speaking of accountability: There is a bit of common sense and administrative decorum that these people have to exhibit during the season. You're on the selection committee. Sorry, you can't go on rants or harass officials from the sideline. Haden's bank account is emptier not precisely because of that on-the-committee context, but it's part of the lesson. Being supportive and energetic is fine. If you didn't want to corral your more contentious impulses, then you shouldn't have accepted a position on the committee.
Appearance matters, whether we like it or not, at least to a degree. We know that as journalists. I went to Northwestern. I've covered tons of Northwestern events. I can do that objectively because I don't really care what happens to Northwestern athletically -- good, bad or indifferent. If I bought a ticket to Ryan Field or Welsh-Ryan Arena and shouted down officials from the cheap seats, I'd expect people to wonder about my biases. So I understand these ADs care intensely about their schools, but they have to realize there's a limit to their expression of those emotions now. It's the first year any of us have dealt with this dynamic. This stuff happens.
So now I'm backtracking on my own thoughts at the top about the television show. Would hearing more from these guys help? I thought the poll was a bad idea because who needs more polls? But do we think that the more committee members shine a light on their process, the more the doubt fades away?
Rickman: No matter what these guys do there's going to be controversy. So if they use computers and metrics or they let a live tiger and octopus pick teams for them, they're going to be so far under the microscope that the process won't particularly matter. People are going to find something to gripe about. That being said, I do think a little bit of explanation each week won't hurt. This isn't going to be a five-minute long show. There has to be drama. There has to be a reason to keep tuning in each week. Otherwise we could have this thing rolled out the same way the AP or Coaches poll are dropped with a tweet and a link.
Andy, do you have a solution here? What's the best approach for this rankings show? We already know there's going to be a heavy dose of Fall Out Boy, so we're behind the 8-ball from the get-go.
Staples: I agree that the weekly poll is a bad idea, but it exists for the same reason SI does weekly Power Rankings. (Sorry about dumping them on you, Martin. Wait. Nope. Not sorry at all.) People are obsessed with ordered lists. They guarantee viewership/readership. Some guy at Buzzfeed just bought his second yacht for this very reason. People love to see how high their team is ranked. And guess what they love even more than that? Complaining about where their team is ranked.
For ESPN, that weekly rankings show is the kind of makes-its-own-gravy programming the network does so well. I don't think Jeff Long knows how big a TV star he's about to become. We'll see how transparent he can really be without ticking off every one of his colleagues and their fan bases. My guess is "not very," but for this to work, committee members will have to explain -- on the record and in public -- why one team is better than the other.
Hamilton: Somewhere, a Buzzfeed writer just worked up a "43 Best Second Yachts" post.
To the point about explaining why one team is better than the other, they could hold a 24-hour telethon to describe the process of slotting one team at No. 4 and another at No. 5, and it wouldn't be enough for the fans of Team Five. That means the decisions the people on this committee make could follow them for the rest of their careers, particularly if those decisions prove controversial. This will not affect their gainful employment in 99 percent of the country, but you bet it would be a tagline to any of their Wikipedia entries. I find that an interesting burden to sign up for, though I'm sure the pluses outweigh that one nagging minus. Either way, it's all the more reason to take care to seem as even-keeled as they can throughout the fall.
Rickman: Andy, would Long be better off if he had a panel or at least a couple other committee members with him? It seems to me flying solo puts an awful big target on his back for every scorned fan base's disdain and "Why r u bias?" comments.
Staples: It would absolutely be better if they spread the wealth because Jeff Long might be the most hated man in America come November. I like the panel idea. Who knows? Maybe Alvarez and Luck will get into a fistfight on live television while arguing the relative merits of Florida State versus Oregon. That would be a ratings bonanza. (ESPN execs, feel free to send my commission, care of me, to 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.) Having a different committee member explain the rankings each week would spread the vitriol around and also would give us, the viewers, a better idea of where each committee member is coming from. That might engender more trust in the process. At the moment, skepticism reigns supreme.
As Martin is learning every Tuesday, when you post a set of rankings, you suddenly earn degrees from universities you never attended. Your dedication to to School A and hatred of School B is the only reason you could have possibly ranked A two spots ahead of B. Trot a different committee member out each week, and it should become clear that B is ranked below A because people have watched the games, looked at the data, argued the pros and cons and have determined that A just might be better than B.
That won't stop all the "Hey, @JeffLongUA. Your bias toward the SEC!!!" tweets, but it might reduce the volume.