Monday, December 15, 2014

Conflicts of Interest on the College Football Playoff Committee

Many people have been talking about the four teams chosen for the inaugural college football playoff. I, good business law blogger that I am, have been thinking about conflicts of interest on the selection committee.

If you’re a football fan, you know that this year, for the first time, the national champion in NCAA major college football will be chosen through a four-team playoff. The four teams selected—Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, and Ohio State—will participate in two semifinal games, with the two winners to play for the championship. (Yes, Art Briles, Baylor should be one of the four, but, no, Ohio State is not the team that shouldn’t be there.)

The four participating schools are chosen by a thirteen-person selection committee, although one of the members, Archie Manning, has taken a leave of absence this year for health reasons. The committee includes several people with current relationships to schools that play major college football, including the following athletic directors:  Jeff Long, Arkansas; Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin; Pat Haden, USC; Oliver Luck, West Virginia; and Dan Radakovich, Clemson.

The selection committee adopted a recusal policy that requires committee members to recuse themselves if the committee member or an immediate family member “(a) is compensated by a school, (b) provides professional services for a school, or (c) is on the coaching staff or administrative staff at a school or is a football student-athlete at a school.” A recused committee member may not participate in any votes involving that team or be present during any deliberations involving that team’s selection or seeding.

Under this policy, all of the athletic directors recused themselves from voting involving their schools. Others connected to particular schools also recused themselves: Condoleeza Rice, because she’s a professor at Stanford; Tom Osborne, because he’s still receiving payments as a former coach and athletic director at Nebraska; Mike Gould because he’s the Superintendent at Air Force.

As it turned out, none of the committee members were recused as to the six schools seriously considered for the final four—the four chosen, plus Baylor and TCU. But should they have been?

Consider Barry Alvarez, the athletic director at Wisconsin, a member of the Big Ten. The Big Ten schools share bowl revenues with other members of the conference. Thus, when Ohio State was chosen for the fourth spot over Baylor and TCU, Wisconsin became entitled to part of the $6 million paid to participants in the semifinal game (and additional money if Ohio State wins the semifinal and plays in the championship game). A vote for Ohio State directly benefitted the Wisconsin athletic department Alvarez heads.

The problem is not unique to Coach Alvarez. Other conferences also share bowl revenue, so Pat Haden (PAC-12), Jeff Long (SEC), and Dan Radakovich (ACC) also benefited when the representatives from their respective conferences were chosen. But those choices, unlike the choice of Ohio State over Baylor or TCU, were relatively uncontroversial. (The choice of Florida State over any of those schools should have been controversial, in my opinion, but it wasn’t.) Oliver Luck (Big 12) also had a financial incentive to vote for either Baylor or TCU, but, unfortunately for him and for his athletic department, neither of them was selected.

This conflict of interest may have been intentional. The committee appointments were carefully apportioned among the Power 5 conferences, and the expectation may have been that each of these athletic directors would vote for representatives of their respective conferences. (We don’t know if they actually did.) But no one is even talking about this clear conflict of interest, not even Art Briles, and that’s a little surprising.

C. Steven Bradford, Corporate Governance, Sports | Permalink


Interesting post, but I'd like to hear your argument against Florida State. Under the old system, FSU would almost certainly have been one of the two teams to play in the BCS Championship game. I admit that FSU played like the least impressive team among the top-6. But they were also the only team in a power-5 conference to go undefeated, which should be of great importance. Also, if FSU got excluded, teams would be even more focused on "style points" in the future, which I think would harm the game.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Dec 15, 2014 6:33:09 AM


I agree that Florida State would have been one of the two teams under the old system, but we're not under the old system. We're supposed to be choosing the four best teams, and I don't think Florida State is one of them. I don't buy the argument that a team should be in the championship just because they're undefeated or just because they're a power-5 conference champion--although I concede that a conference championship matters under the selection criteria. And this is not just a matter of not getting "style points" by running up the score or not putting in subs at the end. Florida State almost lost several games.

Having said that, no more responses from me on this issue, since it's not the main point of the article.

Posted by: Steve Bradford | Dec 15, 2014 6:43:33 AM

I understand that argument - but it is very difficult to pick the four best teams when most of the teams under consideration play in different conferences. Personally, I doubt if TCU or Baylor would have escaped undefeated if they played FSU's schedule this year, but maybe that is my east coast bias. Given this difficulty, using the old criteria, at least in part, seems to make some sense.

On the main point of your post, I think the apportionment you mention is the key. That said, I am surprised that more people are not talking about the conflicts. Maybe you will get mentioned on ESPN soon.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Dec 15, 2014 7:15:54 AM

You call that a playoff system? This is a playoff system:

Posted by: Stefan Padfield | Dec 15, 2014 8:37:23 AM


I am 100% in agreement with you. At a minimum, I think there should be 8 teams in the playoff.

Posted by: Steve Bradford | Dec 15, 2014 8:45:05 AM

We knew the end of the BCS was coming when two SEC teams faced each other in the national championship game. There will always be questions about "strength of non-conference schedule," top to bottom conferences and “head to head” value. Quite frankly, I think that this purported “improvement on a flawed system” is only a step in refinement – none which I believe will ever really suit the majority with an investment. That is evidenced by the comments to this blog. I watched the History Channel this weekend catching “You Don’t Know Dixie.” One aspect was the religious fervor for football in the Southeastern Conference. Another special I caught on ESPN encapsulated the “Rust Bowl” rivalry (Alabama-Auburn). It reached such a fever pitch several years ago that. in retaliation for hanging a Cam Newton jersey on the bronze of Bear Bryant, an irate fan poisoned a 100+ year old tree on the Auburn campus resulting in serious prison time for the actor.

To address the selection committee in terms of conflict or the appearance thereof is an interesting take. Dealing with firms that have fully staffed “conflict of interest” departments vetting engagements, can you imagine having to receive a conflicts opinion before each vote? I’ve had colleagues who have left firms because of the need for spider-web navigation of conflicts and waivers in length longer than the pleadings.

All said, we’re better off than the Coaches, UPI, ESPN and panoply of polls aggregated. If you know enough about football to comment, you going to have “a dog in the hunt.” That said, for many of us, the conference schedule is an eight team playoff. LOL.

Posted by: Tom N. | Dec 15, 2014 9:37:29 AM

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