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By Martin Liptrot

By Martin Liptrot

A week in America | 8 December 2023

College football in the US has just had its biggest scandal since the last one. Martin looks at what is going on off the pitch in the billion dollar business in America's Universities.

As an expat Evertonian living in Florida, I have had a right proper strop on this last week.

Walking the dog, swimming in the pool, sat at the bar, any ear worth bending learned of the injustice. Oh, the humanity of it all.

Then the news of Florida State’s exclusion from the Championship playoffs broke and American sport told Everton to ‘hold my beer’.

Now, understandably, many of you won’t be well versed in the world of college sports, especially college football of the American variety.

Fair to say, college sports are huge. And bonkers.

College Basketball and their March Madness tournament dominates the month, attracting hundreds of billions in sports book betting, while New Year’s Day will see the two College Football Championship semi-finals – the Rose Bowl and The Sugar Bowl – take pride of place on the sports schedules with blanket TV coverage.

While there are billions of dollars swimming around the game, there are some anachronistic elements too, like forbidding college players to make money. The NCAA – National College Athletics Association – prevents players of college sports from receiving outside payments to preserve the illusion of amateurism. The reality is the college football stars of today are the NFL stars of tomorrow and the future promise of hundreds of millions is made pretty early in their career with work arounds like Moms getting new houses and Dads getting sports cars.

New laws allowing NIL – Naming, Image and Likeness – payments have passed and that seems to herald the end of the Corinthian spirit charade.

But how better to show your sport isn’t in anyway professional than to have it run by a committee who make up the rules on a seemingly ad hoc basis.

Step forward the College Football Playoff Selection Committee.

This is where it gets weirder. College football is organised into four tiers – ranging from title contenders to community colleges. But within those tiers are dozens and dozens of leagues. The most prominent tier – the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) – has 124 colleges divided into 11 conferences, of which 6 – SEC, Big XII, Big 10, PAC 12, Big East and Atlantic Coast Conference are the ones which count. Make note of that last one.

If you think the Premier League’s ‘super league six’ have the whip hand in English football and the UEFA Champions League is on lock down, how about this – since it was created in 1978, no team outside of the FBS has ever won a championship, many are excluded from even being considered.

All those leagues have games in their regular seasons, and after everyone has played everyone else in their conferences, Champions are identified.

But not all leagues are equal, not in the eyes of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee, who then meet to decide who is a better champion than the others and select the four teams who will contest the semi-finals to decide the Championship game.

This year, Florida State University went undefeated. They played 13 and won 13. This wasn’t in one of the lower tiers, this was one of the SEC’s power conferences – The Atlantic Coast Conference.

Michigan and Washington also went undefeated in their conferences and the Committee ranked them number one and two, securing playoff spots.

Never has a side from one of the big leagues with a perfect record not been ranked for a championship playoff berth, but you guessed it, this year Florida State were dropped to fifth and missed out.

Florida – or at least the FSU supporting part – went nuts. They’d won every game and now they were being denied a shot at the title. Remember, this is big business, you probably only get one chance to win this thing in your four-year college career, and the outcome can determine whether the New York Giants come and sign you after graduation or not.

It is also an election year, and Florida Governor Ron De Santis fancies his chances so wasn’t slow in writing to everyone and condemning the decision. While Ron is pretty quick to hop on any potential vote winning bandwagon, most people felt he had a reasonable case this time and FSU, rather like Everton, had been harshly treated.

The 13-person College Football Playoff Selection Committee were called forward, and Ron and others demanded to know why FSU and their perfect season hadn’t made the cut.

Now sit back because this is where it goes even crazier.

The committee – consisting of 12 men and one woman – announced its reason for passing over Florida State and their perfect season.

The splendidly-named Committee Chairman Boo Corrigan, shared that the loss of starting Quarter Back Jordan Travis to a season ending injury a month or so ago was the key factor in passing over Florida State in favour of Alabama. Never mind they had won both games in his absence.

What? Imagine if an undefeated Man City got to the semi-finals of the Champions League but when Erling Haarland was ruled out for the rest of the season after breaking a toe in a 50-50 challenge, the suits in Nyon, Switzerland chose Aston Villa, Chelsea or Man Utd to take their place because of their lighter injured list.

Preposterous.

A view shared by Florida State University coach Mike Norvell who issued a furious statement.

“I am disgusted and infuriated with the committee’s decision today to have what was earned on the field taken away because a small group of people decided they knew better than the results of the games,” Norvell said. “What is the point of playing games?”

Fair point, sir.

But there are deeper arguments being raised about the whole business of amateur college sport.

The money earned from lucrative TV deals with the likes of CBS and the $300m a season Disney-owned ESPN have just signed, make college sports, football in particular, a lucrative business.

Last year, college sports raised $19 billion in revenues from tickets, merchandise, sponsorship and media deals, and while the athletes can’t be paid, top college football coaches earn salaries in excess of $100million a season – making them by far the highest paid public sector employees in every state in the country. To compound the feeling it’s all a bit queer, over the past decade, universities have shelled out more than half a billion dollars in settlements to get rid of coaches who, for one reason or another, weren’t very good at their jobs. That’s public money, tax payer dollars which could house, feed or educate thousands of citizens.

And when the choice of who contests these biggest prizes is as arbitrary as the subjective whims of a committee – it is easy to understand why some are questioning the sport’s integrity.

While there is plenty of shouting, it is sadly unlikely Florida will be reinstated.

But serious questions are now being asked about college football, the money trail, how the proposed changes to the Bowls, the playoff places, and championship games will be delivered next year.

But more importantly, there must be some change to the way executives and leaders are held accountable for the multi-billion-dollar business they run.

The goings on in college football make Richard Masters and his Merry Men at the EPL seem positively professional.

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Martin Liptrot

Martin Liptrot is a Public Affairs, PR and Marketing consultant working with UK, US and Global clients to try and ‘make good ideas happen’.

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