Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Objectivity and Contrariness

It is indeed such a nice thing to experience online a reasonable, rational debate. Too often when I read political weblogs, or the weblogs of some in the college football community (myself included), differing positions devolve into shouting matches and ad hominem.

Luckily we have T. Kyle King to offer his thoughts in a calm, decent manner, with which I disagree, but I cannot claim him to be incorrect in any manner. This is how online debate should work.

Mayor King's argument speaks for itself, and very clearly and with plenty of supporting evidence. In fact, I don't think I should use this post to point out flaws in his argument, because for one thing, there aren't flaws in his argument. It's just that what he seeks to prove is fundamentally different from my position (though in no way incorrect, or "less correct"). So, really, the best way to continue the discussion, in my opinion, would be to explain my position better.

I have a personal belief that objectivity is a necessity for sport. Finish the race first, knock the other guy out, score more points than the other team. When subjectivity becomes part of sport, I think it becomes less a sport and more an athletic exhibition. Figure skating, diving, gymnastics, snowboarding (halfpipe, not the slalom). These are clearly athletic endeavors, and I have nothing but respect for the athletes who take part. But it is not sport. The subjective viewpoint of a third party as determining factor, I believe, brings these events outside the realm of sport.

[Aside - I've made this argument before and the first response is usually "what about boxing - that goes to the judges all the time?" Yes, but it doesn't have to. The other events require subjectivity to determine winners. Winning (or losing) is first and foremost in the individual pugilists' hands. Judges in boxing are a necessary evil for the protection of the health of the boxers.]

Back to the point. I feel objectivity is a requirement for something to fall within the definition of sport. Normally, what I'm talking about would be the individual games themselves. Football, baseball, track and field, horse racing, even NASCAR, all of these use objective criteria to crown a winner of individual games or events. They're sports. But there's another layer of this. Every sport except college football uses objective criteria to crown its champion over the course of a season. And this is the fundamental distinction between Mayor King's argument and mine, I think.

I believe the fact that crowning college football's "National Champion" requires subjective opinions is a significant flaw in the system. Kyle, and probably most college football fans, don't see that as a flaw, and I think it's a valid position, too. Tradition plays a great role here.

With every sport other than college football, the champion is crowned by means of a regular season champion winning the most games or a playoff at the end of the regular season. These are objective methods. College football has no playoff, and won't for at least the next decade, and does not rely solely on teams winning the most games.

I cannot say that it's definitely possible for college football to use a solely objective system of determining a champion, due to the metrics of the sport. There are just too many teams and they play short schedules that vary too much. The current system in college football relies on subjective opinions to try to solve all the uncertainty. And indeed, college football is all uncertainty.

With 119 teams playing 11-13 game seasons, several teams can play full seasons and win all the games, without having any common opponents. In that situation, there is no objective manner of determining who is better than whom. Further, because no teams have the same schedules, there is no way to know with any bit of certainty that one team would perform better or worse than another had team A been playing team B's schedule. For example, reasonable and intelligent people can think that a 7-5 Michigan team that plays the toughest schedule in the country is better than a hypothetical 10-2 Toledo team that plays the 100th toughest schedule. But, no matter how strong the argument might be, the operative word in that sentence is "think". It's subjectivity. Nobody can know for certain how Michigan would fare under Toledo's schedule, and nobody can no how Toledo would fare under Michigan's schedule.

This is the proper place to bring in my point of view on polls. I honestly do not believe sportswriters, coaches, or an assortment of boosters and former players have any more expertise or knowledge on the subject. They watch no more games than anyone else, and they harbor biases (regional, personal, etc.). If you're like me and you don't feel the need to defer to pollsters, the only thing left to hang your hat on is tradition. And there are a million examples of where something is a tradition, but it isn't right.

So how does one deal with the inherent uncertainty in college football? My take is to rely solely on objective criteria - wins and losses. That's where I get the idea that a team with as good or better a record than anyone else and who has not lost to a team with an identical record has a claim to a title. It relies on the objective things a team can control. Wins and losses mean something, indeed, more than anything else.

Now, I'm OK with the idea of concurrent championships. I'm OK with even allowing for a lower profile team with a better record than anyone else considering itself national champs, even ahead of major conference teams.

Let's look at a few of Kyle's examples to see how we differ on this.

1984: BYU is undefeated and wins the title over 11-1 Washington while BYU plays an easier schedule. I'm 100% fine with this result. I value wins and losses more than anything else. When BYU and Washington started the season, their goals were to win every game. BYU accomplished that, Washington did not. The players (and often the coaches) have nothing to do with setting the schedules, many games in which are set years before the players even think about going to the school. Further, I do not want to presume either that BYU would've lost a game had it played Washington's schedule or that Washington wouldn't have lost a game had it played BYU's schedule. We're stuck with the limited data upon which to go. In this instance, I think the objective result is the best. BYU might not have been the best team in an individual's opinion, and everyone on earth might think Washington would trounce BYU head-to-head. But we don't have that to go on. In my opinion, the proper result is the objective one. BYU deserved a title.

1990: It pains me to say it, but Georgia Tech has a better claim than Colorado. Again, I don't doubt that Colorado's schedule was tougher than Georgia Tech's, but I also don't want to impute a loss on Tech had they played a tougher schedule, or assume an unbeaten stretch by Colorado had they played an easier schedule. We're stuck with the limited data we have. Colorado's record isn't as good as Georgia Tech's.

1993: This is a harder one to work with, because Notre Dame and FSU didn't play the exact same number of games. First off, I have no problem with eliminating Auburn because of their probation. You have to take your medicine for cheating. I'm torn on the debate between the Irish and the Seminoles. Normally, I'd prefer to give credit towards a team that plays an additional game, considering that that extra game would be normally a conference championship game against a quality opponent. But inevitably, an extra game is an extra chance to lose. Today, most teams play the same number of games except for those conference title games (or road games against Hawaii). Then it was a kickoff classic for FSU, a 42-0 win over Kansas. Because of the circumstances, I'm almost more inclined to think Notre Dame's claim is better. Here, I think there's a real dispute.

The legendary 1966 season I think is less difficult to determine. I think Alabama has the best claim. Who can say how Michigan State or Notre Dame would've performed through the Tide's slate? Who knows if Alabama would've lost to both the Spartans and the Irish? All we know is that Alabama won every game they played. Michigan State and Notre Dame didn't. As for San Diego State, there's another facet to the debate here. Obviously, if Grambling or Southern, who choose not to participate in the Division 1-AA playoffs in lieu of the Bayou Classic, were to go undefeated, and play a few 1-A opponents mixed in with the 1-AA schedule, I do not believe either would have a claim on the National Title over a one-loss team that plays a full Division 1-A schedule. Looking at SDSU in 1966, it appears that their schedule did not feature mostly top-flight opponents. Indeed, the College Football Database terms them "College Division National Champions". I'm not entirely sure what the organization of college football was in the 1960s, but I get the feeling that SDSU can claim a title, but it's not the same level as Alabama.

So in each of the examples you give, I prefer to use the objective wins and losses to determine titles. It very well may be the prevailing opinion that teams without the best record are "the best teams". But I prefer not to rely on opinion. When we drift from objectivity, we get into that area where people say things like Matt Leinart's classy comments after the Rose Bowl. That's the thing about opinions. Everyone can have one, and nobody is duty bound to rely on reality and facts in formulating them. I prefer to take subjectivity out of the equation entirely. It might force me into taking some mockable positions (like, Tulane as deserving of a title in 1998), but it doesn't force me into having any personal stake in the matter. I don't have to "think" Tulane was national champs then, because the numbers determine it for me.

Anyway, I completely understand and admire Kyle's argument. Opinion has a longstanding tradition in college football, and for may people it is one of the things that makes college football so great. I find opinion frustrating. And I know that this is not a mainstream opinion, and that it's contrary to what 99% of the people who follow college football probably think. But honestly, I actually believe this. I have no interest in contrariness for contrariness' sake. I don't think I can dispute Kyle's position, since it's a reasonable opinion and clearly supported by evidence. But I also think my position is reasonable, since I suppose it's opinion that sets up the framework through which I don't have to have an opinion (does that make sense?).