PASADENA, Calif. — This is what we wanted.
A full-blown college football playoff, a system for determining a national football champion that comes as close as possible to basketball’s March Madness model. No computers, no polls. Just four perennial powerhouses, who will square off in two semifinal games.
In New Orleans, Ohio State meets Alabama in one semifinal. Here in Pasadena, an Oregon team led by the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner, Marcus Mariota, plays the defending national champion, Florida State. The Seminoles are led by last year’s Heisman winner, quarterback Jameis Winston, and have won a phenomenal 29 consecutive games.
Thanks to the new playoff, New Year’s Day has once again become the holy day of college football.
The new system has also instantly raised the stakes in the multibillion-dollar industry the college game has become. Those who clamored for playoffs will get what they wanted — excitement, pageantry and top-notch competition. And those of us who have covered intercollegiate athletics for decades know where this is going — greater commercialism, more ruthless recruiting battles, higher salaries for coaches and an increased sense of entitlement among impressionable athletes who will become more important than ever.
In other words, all those elements of the sport that so many critics have complained about are only going to intensify.
During a news conference here on Wednesday I asked Jimbo Fisher, the Florida State coach, if he thought the new playoff system would put even more pressure on coaching staffs to recruit.
In his response, Fisher said that because of the impact of social media, recruiting had already become “crazy.”
“It’s an amazing thing how recruiting to me has taken a life — it’s its own season,” he said.
In fact, next season is already here. Jim Harbaugh, who became the former coach of the San Francisco 49ers after their season ended, was immediately hired by the University of Michigan at a base salary of $5 million. Two other coaches — Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Texas’ Charlie Strong — also make $5 million annually. Still, those three men are tied for only fourth place on the coaches’ compensation list. And the way things are going, others will also end up making more than they do.
Alabama’s Nick Saban, the highest-paid college football coach, with an annual compensation of over $7 million, gave an interesting answer this week when asked about the money that Harbaugh will be getting. Saban said an institution like Michigan must ask what kind of value it creates for itself by paying one individual millions of dollars a year.
“If you create value for the university, and you look at it from that standpoint,” Saban said, “then I think that there’s a relative amount that someone’s worth based on that.”
Saban is no doubt aware that each of the four teams taking part in the semifinal games will earn $6 million for their respective conferences. That’s pretty good payback for those huge salaries.
But what about the value of the student-athletes who play for these universities? As the playoff expands — and expand it will — here is a question colleges will be forced to answer and to deal with in tangible ways: Just what are the athletes getting out of all this?
After all, for all of the talk about colleges beginning to resemble the N.F.L., one of the most significant differences between these two mammoth enterprises is that the N.F.L. has embraced the sharing of revenue as a means of collective survival in a way that colleges have not.
In this respect, college football — where the big universities get richer while the others struggle to keep up, and where coaches grow wealthy but athletes certainly do not — simply reflects a disturbing trend in the United States, where the income gap continues to widen. The new playoff may only enhance these inequities.
Actually, the inherent tension between athletics and schoolwork, and the question of whether the marriage of the two is good or evil, is hardly a new one.
Way back in February 1894 an audience gathered at an event sponsored by the Contemporary Club in Philadelphia to hear two scholars debate the vexing question: “Ought the game of foot ball be encouraged.”
Woodrow Wilson, who would become the 28th President of the United States, was a Princeton professor. Burt G. Wilder taught at Cornell. Wilder argued that colleges should not partake in organized athletics. Wilson, who had coached the Wesleyan football team before accepting a position at Princeton, argued that athletic competition built character.
Both men, of course, would be amazed by what intercollegiate athletics looks like more than a century later. Still, the fundamental question — just what benefits college sports bestow on athletes who are supposed to be students — remains.
I am an advocate of intercollegiate athletics and agree with Wilson that competition, in its purest form, builds character and can facilitate education. There are of course, exceptions.
A front-page New York Times article this week that addressed the new playoff cited a Twitter post in which the Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones questioned why college athletes had to go to class in the first place.
But the reality is that each year thousands of student-athletes — including a lot of football players — do in fact go to class. For every Cardale Jones, there are many more who have used athletic scholarships as launching pads for successful careers in an array of professions.
Intercollegiate athletics, in and of itself, is not the problem. The issue, as always, is the adults who administer and coach the programs or who loom over them in countless other ways.
In pursuit of wealth, power and prestige, they have combined to distort a system that, at its essence, helps create opportunities for many who might not attend college otherwise.
So while the new playoff will inevitably create even more interest in college football and make the big universities work even harder to get to the top, for those very reasons it will probably make all the distortions even worse.
Critics of past methods of determining a national champion have clamored for a playoff. Now we have one. But as we celebrate a new year and watch the dawn of a new era of college football, we also have to brace for all the baggage that may come with it.