Monday, December 15, 2014
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.