During many years of flying during my youth, I remember an advertisement being placed in the US Airways in-flight magazines I would often read to drive boredom away, that was clearly not directed to me personally at the time. It was one of those glib business advice people (the name of the speaker or the company escapes me) who stated: “You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.” While I have long forgot the person who said that, the quote stuck with me as I have reflected on the political nature of much of life, which depends not on merit but on other issues, among which is political skill, something I do not possess in any great quantity.
I bring up this somewhat random story from my youth flying between Pittsburgh and Tampa on airplanes because this evening I had the opportunity to see a lot of kvetching from people on ESPN (who are hardly unbiased observers here) about how unjust it was that #15 Northern Illinois got a BCS invitation and left either a)a supposedly deserving SEC team or b)a two-loss Oklahoma team that lost to a team that got stomped by Baylor at some vastly less lucrative bowl. Well, guess what, football conferences don’t get what they deserve, they get what they negotiate. As much as people on ESPN, or SEC homers, might want to moan and complain about how unjust it is that Georgia or Texas A&M or South Carolina doesn’t get to go to a BCS bowl and collect some fat cash of more than ten million dollars for their overrated conference, the BCS is about socialism and not about fair play. The only reason that Northern Illinois got a BCS at all is because the little conferences that were completely getting the shaft from ESPN and the corrupt bowl lobby (some of the bowls being owned by ESPN) started making waves about Congressional hearings for antitrust violations, which prompted the BCS to make a rule that stated that the highest ranking non-automatic qualifying school, if it made the top 16 and was ranked ahead of the conference champion from an automatic qualifying conference, would get an automatic invite to the bowl that would normally go to a second place team from a BCS conference.
Obviously, the assumption was that the schools which would profit by this rule would be schools like Boise State or TCU with one or no losses and a consistent reputation of being solid schools. TCU joined the Big 12 and had an off year, and Boise State similarly was not as excellent this year as they usually are (though they only had two losses), but a couple of BCS conferences (the Big 10 and Big East) did not fulfill their end of the bargain by producing qualify champions (the Big East has a notoriously bad reputation with this; one year a 7-5 Pitt team won the Big East, and this year four teams, including a 7-5 Syracuse team, tied for the Big East title, while this year a five-loss Wisconsin team that was the third best team in its division completely bulldozed Nebraska to win a spot in the Rose Bowl). And because the underdogs, the have-nots of conferences like the Mountain West, or the poor and soon-to-be-departed WAC, or the Sunbelt, or the Mid-American Conference (of which Northern Illinois is the newly minted champion), negotiated themselves a reasonable standard to meet, the talking heads and bloviators at ESPN are left to cursing the voters of polls for voting Northern Illinois higher than schools like Michigan, UCLA (after it lost two weeks in a row to Stanford), or Northwestern because rules are rules, and you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.
Why are conferences limited to two schools in the big-money BCS bowls? Because no one likes a bully who hogs all of the money for themselves. Without that rule, only the SEC, Pac-12, and Big 12 (along with Notre Dame) would have received spots at all, and only the Pac-12 apart from the SEC would have fielded multiple winners (which happened anyway thanks to the party crashing by Northern Illinois, which probably tripled or quadrupled the amount of money its conference will be getting from bowls this year). And why are people complaining about a 12-1 Northern Illinois team going to Miami to play an 11-2 Florida State team that lost to 6-5 North Carolina State (who, ironically enough, replaced their coach with the successful coach from Northern Illinois)? Because it gives the MAC, a conference normally known best for being the September doormat of the Big East and Big 10, except when they win, like they did against co-Big East champion Rutgers and Sanduskied 8-4 Penn State, a lot of money that would otherwise have gone to another “big” conference. College football is about money, and not about fairness, as only schools that are particularly marketable (not even successful) are given the access to the big money and the big bowls, and as ESPN only wants schools that bring the viewers in big markets to be in their marquee bowls that make ten times (or more) what the lesser bowls give to almost every school that has a .500 record or better (and even some schools like 6-7 Georgia Tech that don’t quite meet that lofty standard and that receive a waiver from the NCAA for losing their conference championship), that means they have to badmouth the teams that gain success in the corrupt system that college football now has.
So, what do you want to do about it? The price of having corrupt bowls (often run, as the Fiesta Bowl once was, by very corrupt people) that give a lot of money to ever more irrationally organized “major” conferences and that increase the distance between haves and have-nots in college football is throwing the occasional jackpot to a team like Boise State (which has been trying furiously to be part of the cartel, only to be endlessly denied), or Hawaii, or Northern Illinois. Setting up the BCS cartel required a majority of the schools of the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division 1-A) to go along with it, which is the only thing that got the Big East an automatic bowl spot. The rules agreed upon were designed to provide a rough equality for for the big conferences, along with the chance for smaller conferences to occasionally get one bowl slot (where they have done well, with a 5-2 record), along with a more generous opportunity for any halfway decent Notre Dame team to get a spot at the big table to get squashed by teams from the Big 10 and SEC thanks to its position of traditional greatness in the remote past. The rules were not fair, but they were negotiated because no conference would agree to let the top ten BCS teams go, leaving Notre Dame, Oregon, Stanford, and Kansas State and six (!) SEC teams, most of whom feast on the dregs of the FCS in their non-conference schedules and claim their strong conference should be enough to give them respect to play in the BCS. That option wasn’t going to fly, and so what was negotiated gave Northern Illinois the chance to crash the party and take some loot home with it back to the Mid-American Conference. They didn’t get what they deserved, they got what they negotiated with at the barrel of Congressional investigations in the corruption and anti-trust violations of the BCS. And if you want to do something about it, you have to do it on the field, not whining about it on ESPN about how Oklahoma has to go to the Cotton Bowl *sniff* instead of making the big money in the BCS. The rules are the rules, and that’s what you have to deal with as a consequence of running a very lucrative and highly corrupt cartel. Deal with it.