“If You’re Not First, You’re Last”
In the comedy “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” Bobby was a pit crew worker for a NASCAR team who just wanted to go fast. His dad told him at the tender age of 10 that “if you’re not first, you’re last” — and he lived his whole life by that. When he finally got his chance to shine, he took the racing world by storm, taking his father’s words to heart and either earned the checkered flag or left his car on the racetrack in a twisted heap of rubber, metal and dangerous advertising.
Bobby began his career as the definitive underdog: After his father chose drugs over his infant son, Bobby was raised in poverty by his single mother and propelled only by a distant dream. He had a long way to go, but in sports, at the beginning of a season, a game or a race, the dream of victory is alive for everyone. Unless, of course, you play NCAA Bowl Championship Subdivision football, where champions are decided not by performance on the gridiron, but by the preferences of the BCS computer formula. If the computer doesn’t like your schedule, then your season — like the Wonder Bread car Bobby made famous — is up in invisible flames. Because as far as the BCS is concerned, “if you’re not first, you’re last.”
Every year there is controversy over the two teams selected to compete in the National championship game because there is almost always an undefeated team that is denied a chance to play for the title.
This year, that controversy could erupt into a frenzy. With two games left, there are five teams with a legitimate shot to go undefeated. Following the logic of Cal Naughton Jr., Bobby’s best friend in the film, you can’t have five No. 1’s because that would be 11,111.
So what does the BCS tell the undefeated teams that are denied their chance at a championship? And what do they tell the No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Alabama game, the loser of which will be forced out of championship contention? Assuming everyone else wins out, the championship game will likely be between the winner of Florida-Alabama and current the BCS No. 3 Texas. That leaves behind Boise State, TCU and Cincinatti, all unbeaten but their championship dreams defeated.
It’s as though these teams had sons — handsome, beautiful, articulate sons who are talented star athletes — and they had their legs taken away. They have done everything the BCS system has asked of them, only for the rug to be swept out from underneath them.
I simply don’t understand how the NCAA continues to stand by this system when every year there is upheaval over the championship selection process. They need only remove their nose from its skyward postition and look to the Football Championship Series to find a replicable playoff model. The football division the University of Maine calls home features a 16-team, single-elimination tournament among the eight conference champions and eight at-large berths awarded by a committee of athletic directors from across the country. Next year, that number will increase to 20 to give four more teams a shot to compete for a national title.
This system, applied to the FBS, would give small conference teams a chance to overcome their weaker schedules and give teams that had just a minor slip-up or two a chance to redeem themselves. If the powerhouses of the league want to have a real championship, then they should be given the opportunity to look at all of their opponents and say, “I will battle you with the entirety of my heart, and you will probably lose. But maybe, just maybe, you might challenge me. The Beatles needed the Rolling Stones. Even Diane Sawyer needed Katie Couric. Will you be my Katie Couric?”
There is a communication concept known as the “marketplace of ideas.” It is a First Amendment principle conceived by Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said, “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” Right now, FBS teams enjoy no such democratic luxury. These teams should, like ideas, have the power to be tested in the competition of a marketplace of their peers to find the most genuine and universal truth — or champion in this case. The BCS would have you take Bobby’s father’s words as sermon — “If you’re not first, you’re last.” Ricky spent his entire life thinking anything less than victory was pointless only to find, after a disastrous family meal at Applebee’s, that his father was high the day he said those words. “You can be second, third, fourth, hell, you can even be fifth,” Reese said.
Well, not with the BCS you can’t. Ricky Bobby lived his whole life thinking if he wasn’t first, he was last because his father was under the influence of drugs. What is the BCS’s excuse?