What came first, the sports or the hype? Who knows?! What I do know is that both exist and both need each other to maintain. Hype is perfectly legitimate and necessary to set viewer expectations (pay attention to hype for next Monday’s NFL game on ESPN – is it possible to “sell” the value of Baltimore and Cleveland?) and set the stage for the appearance of drama… even if the whole charade only lasts for half of a quarter. Hype drives sports, and sports rely on hype.
The catchall “sports media” is responsible for creating hype, and therefore value. The Sports Debates is guilty of it as well. Each week the writers here contribute what we believe will be the best game of the coming weekend, and present our arguments backing up that presumption. It is less overt hype, but hype nonetheless.
I have no problem with hype. However, there is value to the comment in the argument from Bleacher Fan that the hype machine tends to overinflate value. That is, rather than excite for a coming reality (the upcoming New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts game will be excellent, for example), hype has been twisted into a warped tool designed to create false value, driven by inherent bias. While Loyal Homer is correct that eyeballs see the details – the eyeball test evaluates teams based on intangibles like hustle and headiness that a computer may never grasp – they also come with bags of unavoidable bias. Therefore the best method for evaluating a college football team involves computers, and a debate win from Bleacher Fan.
In theory the eyeballs seem to be the best method to judge a college football team. The polls seem to get more right than they get wrong, regardless of Bleacher Fan’s astute observations about recent poll missteps. However, it is really not just eyeballs being used to judge a team, who those eyeballs belong to matters as well. A lot. One expert is better at evaluating teams than another. For example, I trust Sports Illustrated writer Stewart Mandel much more than I trust ESPN’s Lou Holtz. Duh. The voting and polling system is fraught with errors from voters who do not deserve the vote (many of the voters on this list of the original voting cast from the 2005 Harris Poll do not deserve a vote because they do not watch and follow college football), do nothing to retain the vote, are not screened for football knowledge to evaluate if they deserve a vote, and in some cases still get a ballot sent to them after they have died, as was the case with the Heisman trophy.
It is not that college football is just wedded to an antiquated approach to things – hence the reason eyeballs are still thought of as a legitimate way to judge the best teams in college football. It is that the entire organization seems immune to criticism when making blatantly obvious mistakes.
Bleacher Fan makes an excellent point, too, about the various types of bias that ultimately obscure the vision of voters. Size matters. Er, rather, MARKET size matters. The more mediums, locations, and distribution channels content can be bought, sold, and distributed, the better for the sports media organizations. Eyeballs exist in this paradigm as well… as in, “how many eyeballs are watching the game, reading the story, or telling their friends to tune in?” And, the more money a sports media organization has, the more biased nimrods they can include on college football hype shows. It is a vicious cycle.
Loyal Homer’s basic argument – that humans are able to be more objective than computers – does not hold water with me. While it is true that eyes can perceive hustle plays that demonstrate why a team goes from good to great, human eyes are never alone. They are unquestionably accompanied by history, bias, geography, allegiance, friendships, appreciation for that coach that always returns your calls or gives you the soundbyte you need, etc. I remember covering a high school baseball team one rainy Spring. After making an in-person visit to practice to grab some quotes and get the low down on the team, my car got stuck in the mud trying to escape the rainy baseball facility. The head coach, coaching staff, and a number of players ran over to push my car out of the mud. I will never forget it. Their kindness was the focus of my next column. While I am not communicating that their kindness bought them long term favor in my eyes, that team got the benefit of the doubt when rumors floated past my ears.
While I do not agree that numbers “cannot be influenced by bias or self-serving interests” as Bleacher Fan stated, computers do offer a certain level of objectivity that lends itself to a better overall product. Sure, people program computers… and computers often reflect the human bias. But, that is why the world has committees!
Weirdly, I personally still believe in the bowl system as being a good thing for college football. I also believe it is a legacy that started small, but has compounded and is – short of an act of Congress – a permanent part of our sports culture. But, when it comes to determining the national championship contenders, perhaps some things ARE better left to machines.