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Sportswriter B(ull)CS


Keith Gaddie December 11th, 2008

The Oklahoma Sooners made the BCS title game. The path was criticized by sports writers, who think OU going to the Big 12 championship is nothing less than a Red River sellout. Lord knows what they'll...

The Oklahoma Sooners made the BCS title game. The path was criticized by sports writers, who think OU going to the Big 12 championship is nothing less than a Red River sellout. Lord knows what they'll think of OU going to the big dance.

For those who don't know, Oklahoma made the championship game based on having a nano-sized lead over Texas in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) rankings. Now, the sportswriters call attention to the grave injustice of OU, who lost to Texas, going to the championship.

It's just more sportswriter B(ull)CS, and it perpetuates an ignorant attack on science in our culture.

The problem is that the BCS computers " with their algorithms " are objective on all the factors different advocates want to pay attention to. The equations consider the value of past and future actions, home field advantage, strength of schedule and so on. They do not have the subjectivity of humans, who are swayed by emotion and fixate on single factors, cherry-picking the fact to sustain their position, making the exception into the rule. Oklahomans, as well as Texans, do this, to be sure, but that makes it no less erroneous. And, OU is in the habit of benefiting from BCS tiebreakers, ending up on the positive side of three of four BCS controversies involving the Sooners.

The BCS was to end subjective debate about the national football champion, creating a mechanism to pick championship participants. It worked as designed. It often disagreed with the sportswriters, such as when Oklahoma went to the 2004 BCS championship game against Louisiana State University. Then, when conferences started using the BCS to solve other problems and the BCS again disagreed with sportswriters, they predictably freaked out.

The problem for the computers is that they don't have anyone in the media to advocate for them, even in Oklahoma. Unless the computers agree with the subjective element (i.e., the writer polls), the writers declare that computer results lack value. One must ask: What is the use in considering the computer element if it is not allowed to disagree with those subjective human sportswriters? 

Rules exist to guide us through unpleasant situations. To get to the BCS stage, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Texas had to tie on four on-the-field dimensions before going to the BCS ranking. No one " not even the potentates of the Big 12 " thought it would go this far. It was like having Congress pick a president " it might happen, but no one really thinks it will. As my friend and fellow OU colleague Justin Wert pointed out, all of the teams of the Big 12 entered into this Rawlsian contract when they started play this year. They knew the tiebreaker situation, and their institutions were party to the negotiation of the contract " the Big 12 members designed a system of justice having no knowledge of their status in the society to come (the football season).

Sportswriter Ivan Maisel observed a "bad habit of fixing rules after they have wreaked havoc" in college football. The same might be said of America. It is what we do on Wall Street and in electoral politics. And in so doing, we create problems in the name of reform. The BCS is going to get tinkered with (again) because Oklahoma won a tiebreaker over a team it lost to. And the only reason why is because a bunch of sportswriters who can't do math are objecting to the power of objective numbers.

Gaddie is professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma and president of the Southwestern Political Science Association.

 
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