For years, many fans, coaches and sportswriters have rallied for a playoff system to pick a national champion in big-time college football. Many college presidents have opposed such a system, arguing that an extended season would hurt players' academic standing. It now appears that playoff advocates have won the day, with the men who run the 12 biggest conferences in college sports -- those in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Football Bowl Subdivision -- finally agreeing that college football needs a playoff.
But that doesn't mean academics lost out so much as that money won out. As with so many discussions about college sports, the rhetoric and reality have often been at odds in the playoff debate. And while many details remain unclear about the structure of the burgeoning playoff system, most of the questions revolve not around academic issues but around the sharing of revenue and power.
The shift will have philosophical and practical implications for revenue distribution, athlete welfare, and the body who will ultimately make the decision: the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee, a dozen presidents representing the 120 football programs in the FBS (formally Division I-A).
The NCAA, meanwhile, has barely factored into the discussion at all. Its leadership has maintained that the association has no role to play until its member institutions formally request an NCAA-run playoff (though the odds of that happening are slim to none).
Presidents who opposed a playoff in the past have cited concerns about extending the season either by starting earlier or ending later, requiring even more of athletes’ time for a season that already runs from August through (for teams that make it to the postseason) early January. But advocates maintain that it’s possible to conduct one without extending the season by too much, thereby limiting whatever damage might be made to athletes’ academic pursuits. But there’s also a clear incentive at play.
“I do think people see an opportunity to generate more revenue and it’s kind of hard to walk away from that in this day and age,” said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics , which advocates athletic and academic balance in college sports. “Potential for increased revenue, I suspect, is the dominant factor. But I do think there is some response to the public interest for a playoff.”
But Jon Steinbrecher, commissioner of the Mid-American Conference, says a playoff does not have to come at the expense of athletes’ well-being.
“At every meeting I’ve been at ... front and center has been a discussion of, ‘O.K., what does this mean to the academic calendar and how do we deal with these things and minimize any disruption?' ” Steinbrecher said. “I think what’s going to come out of it will probably keep us in a calendar that’s very similar to what we’ve had.”
With exams and conference championships already taking place during the last three weeks of the semester, the semifinal will likely be “somewhere between Christmas and the 30th,” and the national championship game will likely be played at the same time or earlier than it is now. (The 2013 championship, the last to be determined with the current system, is scheduled for Jan. 7.)
The move to a playoff does represent “a little bit of bowing” to pressure from fans and sports media who are dissatisfied with the system currently used to pick a Division I champion, Kansas State University President Kirk Schulz said. That system uses a combination of mathematical formulas and sportswriter and coaches’ polls to select the teams that will compete in the Bowl Championship Series title game – and it has come to questionable results more than once.
This year, for instance, the system bypassed Big 12 Conference champion Oklahoma State University to pit Southeastern Conference champion Louisiana State University against that same conference’s runner-up, the University of Alabama (a repeat, furthermore, of a ridiculously hyped match-up earlier in the season dubbed the “game of the century”).
But there's far more at stake than just who gets into the national championship. The fate of the other four prized BCS bowl games -- the Fiesta, Orange, Rose and Sugar Bowls -- hangs in the balance.
While all 12 conference commissioners have sat in on the meetings that are shaping the playoff, those who run the six BCS conferences make the most money and carry the most weight. And before the BCS did away with the “automatic qualifier” designation last month, which automatically placed the champion of each BCS conference into one of the four top bowls, they also had direct, lucrative ties to one of those five widely watched games. (It also likely played a role in the frenzy of conference realignment in recent years.)
So while commissioners like Larry Scott of the Pacific-12 Conference and Jim Delany of the Big 10 Conference have cited the tradition and sentimentality of the bowls as reason to keep them intact moving forward, there are also financial benefits to doing so. That's why talk of a tournament has revolved around keeping the bowls intact in some form, and tacking a four-team playoff onto that.
The BCS currently doles out more than $150 million annually from sponsorship and television contracts for the series' five bowl games -- a guaranteed chunk of which would make for a pretty decent payday. While economists have estimated the value of a playoff system at anywhere from $600 million to $1.5 billion, reports say, the lack of certainty surrounding who would get the money, and how much, is cause for hesitation among those conferences that are already profiting.
Harvey Perlman, a member of the Presidential Oversight Committee and chancellor of Big 10-newcomer the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, acknowledged that his and the Pac-12's ties to the Rose Bowl are a “very important element” in considering a playoff. But Perlman, who has opposed a playoff from the beginning and continues to do so, played down the significance of a potential revenue increase from the creation of a playoff. It comes down to two questions, he says: how much money would an institution be giving up from the eliminated or modified bowl games, as well as a diminished regular season; and how much revenue will an institution actually end up with after it goes through the conference and is then divided among the universities?
"I don't think any of us are indifferent to revenue, but realistically, I think people are overstating the consequences of potential revenue impacts," Perlman said.
Rather, Perlman says, it's the playoff's potential to interfere with the academic calendar that's got him worried. The playoff at this point is expected to include only four teams -- small enough to unfold, if the commissioners would have it, without additional disruption at institutions that run on semester schedules. But, citing as an example the basketball tournament -- which has grown from eight teams in 1938 to 68 today -- Perlman posited that this could be "the start of a slippery slope."
"I don't think anybody is naive enough to think that if we go to a four-team playoff that there's no pressure to go to a broader set of playoff games," he said.
It’s not just athletes’ academic well-being that could be affected. There are also physical and mental effects to consider. An extended season would of course mean more games -- and more opportunities for hard hits to the head.
“In light of the commentaries on concussions in football, it seems like less playing in football is probably better for the players than more playing,” said Michael McCann, director of the Sports Law Institute at the Vermont Law School. (That’s why, earlier this year, the Ivy League limited the frequency  with which teams may hold full-contact practices.)
“If you look at college football, there’s a lot of injuries that can occur,” Schulz said. “You start in August, now we’re going all the way to January -- that’s a lot of wear and tear on student-athletes.”
While widespread dissatisfaction with the BCS system did influence the move toward a playoff, Schulz said, it won’t dictate everything.
“There’s always something to be said for winning it on the field,” he said. “Now, I do know from my conversations with college presidents that while all that is certainly out there, we have no desire to relinquish our ability to exert control and be in charge of how this thing looks.”
Once the commissioners put forward a proposal for a playoff format as soon as next month or as late as summer's end, it will be subject to approval by the 12-member Presidential Oversight Committee . Those members, from universities across the Division I conferences, represent the presidents of all FBS institutions. So, while the commissioners will come up with the system and move it forward, the ultimate decision of whether to adopt a playoff lies with university presidents.
Kirwan says the extension of the season that has occurred in recent years, with the addition of conference championships and more bowl games than ever, indicates that presidential and commissioner “rhetoric” about academic concerns “has been shown up for what it was.”
The presidents have not given enough direction in helping to shape the BCS and distribute its revenue, Kirwan says -- but that can change.
“This really is a moment of opportunity for moving back in the direction of the priorities we all claim we hold when it comes to intercollegiate athletics,” he said. “If we miss this opportunity, it really falls on the presidents. The commissioners may be driving a lot of this, but they’re not individual agents. They all report to the presidents of our institutions. And it’s high time for the presidents to move the NCAA and our athletics programs back in the direction of the values they all espouse.”
Perlman agreed that the "vast majority" of presidents have not spoken out about a playoff -- but that doesn't mean they've dropped the ball. "I think there's considerable conversation within the conferences," he said, "it's just not in the public domain at this point."
A Role for the NCAA?
One voice in particular has been notably absent from the discussion: that of the association itself. The only comments NCAA President Mark Emmert has offered came in the wake of claims that the BCS could violate antitrust laws  by restricting access to the best bowls and the championship game to institutions in those six top-tier conferences. Asked by the U.S. Justice Department why the NCAA had not created a playoff as an alternative, Emmert said he would help create a championship only if FBS members asked for one -- as was the case with the men’s and women’s “March Madness” basketball tournaments. The FBS institutions have opted for a postseason independent of the NCAA, Emmert says, and thus the association has no role to play in -- nor a stance to take on -- the creation of a playoff. (The NCAA declined to comment for this article.)
“Inasmuch as the BCS system does not fall under the purview of the NCAA, it is not appropriate for me to provide views on the system,” Emmert wrote in a letter  responding to the Justice Department last year. “Unless the membership decides to discontinue the existing BCS system and formally proposes creation of a championship for FBS institutions, there is no directive for the Association to establish a playoff.”
Yet besides a tournament’s effects on athletes’ academic experience (which the NCAA prides itself on protecting), it could also have implications for the bottom line of the NCAA and its member institutions -- if the commissioners want it to. A playoff run by the NCAA -- like the men’s basketball tournament -- would mean more revenue for the association and potentially more even revenue distribution to institutions outside the BCS. But that would occur only if the BCS institutions decided it was in their interests to bring a football championship under the umbrella of the NCAA, and they seem unlikely to want to share that wealth.
Without saying whether the NCAA should run the playoff completely, Schulz agrees that the association does have a role to play. But Emmert’s immediate priorities lie elsewhere at the moment, Schulz said: with an effort to streamline the NCAA via a series of reform packages  he’s pushing.
“I think part of it is the NCAA is kind of like the U.S. tax code: it always gets bigger, it never gets smaller.... In my opinion, there’s a role for the NCAA in all these kinds of things,” Schulz said. “I just don’t see in the long term how we can make these critical decisions ... without their intimate involvement and assistance as we move forward.”
But, McCann notes, even though the NCAA could run a playoff if enough members wanted to, “it’s really going to come down to whether there’s enough movement” within the association to compete with the BCS."
“There’s no question that some conferences benefit by having the bowl system instead of a playoff system,” McCann said. “Although the BCS is not popular, and although it has certainly, clearly anti-competitive aspects to it, it also has pro-competitive aspects.” For instance, the system is financially efficient, and is thought to increase regular-season attendance because each game affects the BCS rankings. It's significant that even after years of discussion, federal inquiry and threats of litigation, McCann said, nobody has filed a lawsuit.
Kirwan favors an NCAA-run playoff, arguing that the association could redirect the television contract revenue in the way it does for basketball for “the possibility” of wider distribution, and even of distribution based on academic, rather than athletic, success.
“I think it really is a threat to the long-term viability of the NCAA that so much money and so many decisions are made outside the control of the organization,” Kirwan said. “At the very least, I hope that the presidents and the commissioners of the BCS conferences will do the right thing here ... to make some sort of statement that yes, these are students, and that the money ought to be going into the institutions to support academics, to reward institutions that have high graduation rates. It’s really going to push us further toward the precipice if we just do business as usual.”