Time to Stop Playing Ball

We spilled quite a bit of virtual ink last year over how news organizations promote their own political polls and call it journalism. There’s another polling issue in the news lately that has fewer implications for federal policy, but still riles the passions of Americans across the country: the Bowl Championship Series.

This one has garnered our attention for a simple reason: The two big national college football polls, used by the BCS in part to determine who gets to play in the biggest bowl games, are conducted by two news organizations. The Associated Press polls 65 members of the media, while USA Today, which collaborates with the American Football Coaches Association, polls Division I-A coaches (the paper also has a broadcast partner on the poll, ESPN).

What sparked this was an a article in yesterday’s USA Today, headlined “BCS debate expected to rage,” which opened, “Southern California’s 55-19 drubbing of Oklahoma in the FedEx Orange Bowl made the Trojans a definitive No. 1 in the final USA Today/ESPN football coaches’ rankings and Associated Press media voting.” Technically, what USA Today said is true. But what it left out is a rather pregnant fact: The coaches participating in the USA Today-sponsored poll are obligated to give their votes for the top spot to the team that wins the BCS title game — certainly a fact worth including.

(According to the AFCA, that arrangement comes out of an agreement with the BCS that allows the AFCA national championship trophy to be presented on-field to the winner of the game, which makes the designation of the top team a fait accompli before the coaches have cast their final votes. Jim Welch, who runs the poll for USA Today, told CJR Daily that the paper simply records the votes of the coaches as they come in, and that it does not hold coaches to that requirement, pointing to the fact that last year three declined to give the winner of the national championship game their top vote.)

Further down, that same article suggests that “Controversy peaked after this regular season because, for the first time since the BCS began in 1998, the top three teams were undefeated.” But the controversy went far deeper than that, raising questions about the integrity of the poll that the paper is putting its name on.

Here’s what happened:

The BCS picks eight teams for the four biggest bowl games. The conference champions from the Pac-10, ACC, SEC, Big 10, Big 12, and Big East automatically get a spot. The final two teams are determined by the BCS ranking formula, which this year was comprised of the USA Today/ESPN poll, the AP poll, and computer-based rankings, each of which make up one-third of the final BCS rating. If a team not from one of those conferences manages to finish in the top six in the BCS standings (as Utah did this year) it gets a spot; any other openings are filled by the remaining team(s) with the highest BCS ratings.

In the second-to-last BCS rankings of the regular season, Cal held a slight advantage over Texas for the final BCS spot. In the last week of the season, Texas sat idle, while Cal defeated a pesky (but low-ranked) Southern Mississippi team 26-16. Cal had been favored to beat the Golden Eagles by 24 points, so its resulting performance was less than impressive.

When the final BCS standings came out, the computer rankings stayed the same as the previous week. But the human polls narrowed the gap between Texas and Cal enough that the Longhorns got the nod, a trip to the Rose Bowl, and $14.5 million, while Cal ended up playing (and losing) in the Holiday Bowl and earning themselves $2 million. In the final Associated Press poll, nine writers moved Texas ahead of Cal; in the final USA Today-backed poll, four coaches moved the Longhorns ahead of the Golden Bears and others dropped Cal down by a spot or two.

All of this gave rise to the concern that voters might have picked their final rankings in such a way as to favor Texas. And because the coaches have refused to make their ballots public (unlike the AP voters, who do disclose their votes), the coach’s poll in particular has come in for tough questions about the integrity of the votes.

Those questions are exactly why the Associated Press sent a cease-and-desist letter in December to the BCS demanding that its poll no longer be used in calculating BCS rankings.

But the USA Today story in question doesn’t deal with these issues. And in fact the paper has a pattern of moving away from discussing the issue in depth: a December 9 article delved into the controversy, but a December 16 piece mentioned it only in passing, and the latest piece ignored it altogether.

USA Today’s Welch told CJR Daily that the paper’s position on the use of its poll is that “it’s there for the BCS to make use of” — very similar to the AP’s position before it pulled out.

As for reporting on its own poll, Welch says he tells his reporters to “be as aggressive as you can covering issues around the BCS, including our own poll.” Concerning the Thursday story, he cited space constraints as limiting the discussion of the issues around the poll.

The AFCA meets Monday to discuss the future of the poll and its use by the BCS. We’ll be looking forward to what USA Today has to say about it.

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.