Bissinger v. Leitch

May 1, 2008

Much has been made of the dustup on Bob Costas’s show between Will Leitch of Deadspin and Buzz Bissinger, sportswriter and, most famously, author of Friday Night Lights.

Much has been said already at every other sports blog on the web, so a recap should be easy to find.

The central issue seems to be the meme that the mainstream media (MSM) is dying and that its members lash out at bloggers in fear and anger.

That is certainly what Bissinger did, taking full advantage of the fact that HBO is not censored. He trotted out the standard material we’ve all heard: that bloggers are the rabble of the earth, living in their mother’s basement and “spewing” out invective by the truckload.

There also has been talk of a generation gap effect, and that’s part of it. Leitch isn’t doing much novel work over at Deadspin, though, as his site is basically a sports tabloid with humor articles sprinkled in. It just happens to be online instead of on the newsstand.

The core of the conflict is between those who understand the Internet for what it is, and those who don’t.

A Brief History of the Internet

The Internet grew out of the US military’s reaction to Sputnik. As time grew on, it became more and more academic, and later, social.

By the end of the 1980s, the most popular part of the Internet was Usenet, a distributed system of newsgroups where people exchanged messages. Someone would post something he thought was interesting, and people would discuss the topic by replying to it. Usenet is where a lot of Internet culture was born, including concepts such as FAQs and spam.

Usenet was divided into categories, ranging anywhere from academic discussions of science and math to discussions of nonsense and unspeakable horrors. It was where the things such as the World Wide Web, Linux, and Mosaic (the first graphical web browser) were originally announced to the world. It was the main influence for message boards and chat rooms as we know them today.

For the most part the Internet was a place of libertarian ideals, where there was no censorship, a naturally-occurring etiquette and slang, and in most places, no one to chide you for being profane.

It was its own little world; aside from a few kooks and trolls, no one bothered it and it didn’t bother anyone. Whether you wanted to be rude or civil, there was a place for you.

That still remains true today. Many of the people who have shaped the Internet along its journey through the Endless September and corporatization grew out of that culture.

Many of its most popular destinations, from Something Awful to 4chan to Fark, follow those same veins of discussion without censorship. They are bastions of poor taste and lively discussion, where ideas, regardless of what they are, flow freely. You really have to have a thick skin to get through it all.

Blogs

If you’re unfamiliar, the word “blog” is just a shortening of “weblog.”

The practice predates the term, as it began mainly as people keeping online diaries or routinely updated special-interest sites. I can remember there was a big debate in high school shortly after the turn of the century about whether LiveJournal or Xanga was better.

It was another way for people to communicate, and people have always been communicative creatures.

Blogging began to hit the mainstream around 2001, and mainly in the political category. The first time many mainstream outlets covered their existence was in the reaction to Trent Lott’s infamous statements about Strom Thurmond.

It should not be surprising that politics was where blogging hit its stride, as that arena tends to provoke some of the strongest feelings and most heated debates.

Most of the popular sports blogs (such as Deadspin, EDSBS, and SMQ) began in 2005 and 2006. It was only natural as sporting endeavors also provoke strong debate. Sports also lends itself to satire and poor taste, so that trifecta is right up the Internet’s alley.

The Inflection Point

I don’t have any hard evidence, but I believe the real inflection point in the mainstream media’s reaction to blogs was when Dan Rather got fired.

It’s one thing when people are being immature, trading funny pictures and throwing barbs at each other for dozens of pages. It’s another thing entirely when the anchor of a Big Three network’s evening news is fired over a false story that was exposed mainly by bloggers.

Dan Rather had been a staple of the traditional 6:00 news for decades, but some random person on the Internet brought him down by exposing a story Rather ran as a fraud.

The correct reaction would have been to marvel at the speed of information exchange and try to figure out a way to harness the masses of educated people who now had a voice. The reaction instead has been to periodically attack what they don’t understand.

Sports

The sports media in particular should have seen this coming. I’d argue that a forefather of sports blogging is George Will, a political journalist and commentator who is also a skilled baseball writer.

If a political columnist could be a good sportswriter, why couldn’t a lawyer be one too? Or an English major? Or an IT worker? Or anyone else? Heck, Warren Buffett is one of the most highly regarded writers in America today, and he’s a full-time investor and financier.

Whether he realizes it or not, Leitch is simply following in the 30-year-old tradition of the Internet. In pseudo-Usenet terms, he’s running the “rec.sports.deadspin” newsgroup where only a small number of people can post news but anyone can reply. There is no censorship, a naturally-occurring etiquette and slang, and no one complains about profanity.

The big change of course is the scale. More people read Deadspin in a month than were probably even on the Internet for much of the 1980s.

Sometimes blogs break news; that fact shouldn’t be too surprising since traditional media outlets have only so many eyes and ears out there. Some major sports sites, such as Fox Sports and the Sporting News, have even integrated blogging by fans as a part of their sites.

Conclusion

As I said at the beginning, I think core conflict is between those who understand the Internet for what it is, and those who don’t.

I don’t know if Leitch consciously knows the history he’s perpetuating, but he certainly feels it intuitively. Bissinger, Costas, and a bewildered Braylon Edwards all clearly did not.

The Internet is truly a libertarian’s dream. Everyone has a voice, and the marketplace of ideas lets the cream rise to the top. Bissinger and Costas lamented the large volume of bad writing on the Internet, but those who understand the Internet for what it is know how to use search engines, social networks, and link aggregators to find that cream.

Leitch runs a well-written supermarket checkout tabloid for the sports world. He provides gossip, paparazzi-style photos (usually from Facebook or MySpace), humor, and some real analysis.

It’s not Pulitzer material, but it never claims to be. It has its place in the world and it occupies it with glee.

I wish though that the majority of the sports bloggers out there would get over themselves and this mythical battle with the mainstream media for The Future that they keep talking about. They are not the Future, but today’s embodiment of the Internet’s past. Plus, there’s no Future that can realistically exist without professional journalists anyway.

Besides, worrying about the future is for business analysts and actuaries. The greatest cultural achievements that people make usually are those that come naturally as a result of people scratching an itch to satisfy themselves and their inner drive, not those looking to cement something for future generations.

Just keep reading and writing. Just keep exchanging your ideas. If you’re worth it, your message will be heard. If not, then at least you tried.


BCS Plus One Proposal Fails, but Why?

May 1, 2008

Unsurprisingly, there will be no plus one system added to the BCS for the 2010 season. It always was a non-issue since the Rose Bowl contract with ABC goes through 2014. Any big changes like a plus one system will have to come when all of the TV rights expire in the same year.

Beyond that though, the Big Ten and Pac 10 were never going to allow it to happen. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney loves being the playoff villain. He has stated on the record that a playoff could be good for college football as a whole, but adds, “I don’t work for college football at large.” His goal is to advance the Big Ten brand, and he sees tradition, the Rose Bowl, and a TV network as the way to do that.

Pac 10 Commissioner Tom Hansen has also said that the Pac 10 would rather secede from the BCS than have a plus one system. The ACC, Big 12, Big East, and SEC were willing to discuss the matter at the BCS meetings this week, but the Big Ten and Pac 10 had no plans for giving it a fair chance. Only the SEC and ACC were fully committed to the plan.

I keep hearing the same arguments over and over about why there shouldn’t be a plus one system. I will now address them one by one.

A Plus One system will inevitably grow

Not necessarily. Major League Baseball, having had playoffs since 1903, kept a four team playoff up until 1994. The only reason it expanded was because of expansion of the league. It stands at 8 teams currently, and there are no plans for the foreseeable future to change that.

Compare that with the hallowed bowl system, which has now expanded to 34 in total. That means 68 teams, or about 57%, of the 120 Division I-A teams will be going bowling. In the two years that wins over I-AA teams have counted towards being bowl eligible, 73 and 71 teams have made the 6-6 threshold. That’s cutting it awfully close.

Also, thanks to 6-6 teams losing bowls, we now have bowl teams finishing under .500 for the year. Is that really what people want? And what if there aren’t 68 bowl eligible teams in a season?

The arrangement only encourages more I-A teams playing I-AA teams, which weakens the regular season. I thought that’s what we were preserving…

A playoff dilutes the regular season

No, extra-long regular seasons dilute a regular season. Let’s go back to baseball. When only 4 teams made the playoffs every year, did anyone care about May baseball games? Of course not. There were a million other ones leading up to October. I also hear about how March Madness killed the college basketball regular season. It didn’t; everyone playing 30+ games before March killed the college basketball regular season.

Before there was a national title game in college football and teams just played to get to bowls, college football had a great regular season. Once a national title game was established, it made it even better because the competition suddenly expanded beyond conference borders.

Somehow, these BCS proponents think that everyone competing for 4 spots instead of 2 will instantly kill the regular season. That it will make Florida and FSU fans suddenly get along because who needs a rivalry now that four teams have a shot at winning it all at the end of the year instead of two? That Sooners and Longhorns will do the same, or that a September match up of USC and Ohio State will be not be as exciting.

You know how much a difference there is between two teams and four playing for the national title at the end of the year? It’s 1.67% of all I-A teams, or 3% of all BCS conference teams. No, giving four teams a chance to win it all doesn’t devalue the regular season because the scarcity of regular season games will still be there, and an very small percentage of teams will actually be playing for the title.

A playoff devalues the Rose Bowl

Here’s a hint: when the Rose Bowl joined the BCS, it gave up all claims to tradition. The only thing that makes it special over the other BCS bowls anymore is that it’s older than them. That’s it and that’s all.

The final ship to sail in this argument shoved off when Texas beat USC in the 2005 Rose Bowl to win the national championship. It should have become clear right then and there that the Rose Bowl is a great site to hold a game, but it’s the meeting of two great teams that make the game great.

This year’s Rose Bowl just further illustrates the point. We had a Big Ten/Pac 10 meeting, and it was a horrible game. Ohio State’s performance against LSU indicated that had OSU met USC instead of Illinois playing the Trojans, it wouldn’t have been much different. Great games are made by great teams, not stadiums. What happens on the field is what matters, not what occurs on Colorado Boulevard.

Ratings and revenues are up; the BCS must be what fans want

People like college football. That is what people want. They will pay to watch it in person regardless of the postseason format. They will watch it on TV regardless of the postseason format.

Let me tell you a story. The iPod mini was once the best-selling iPod of all time. It was even the best-selling portable audio device in the world in its day. In September 2005, Apple made a bold move and replaced it with the iPod nano. It was a risk because of the enormous popularity and revenue stream the mini had. The nano ended up being even more popular, selling a million units in just 17 days.

In short, this argument is a non sequitur. Correlation does not equal causation, and the BCS format isn’t driving the rise in ratings and revenues. The popularity of football as a whole is.

A playoff would make football a two semester sport

With spring practice, football already is a two semester sport.

Ignoring that for a moment, I don’t see how a plus one makes the postseason any longer. The 1-4 and 2-3 games would happen on New Years, and the title game would happen a week later. That’s the same timing that we have with the current BCS bowl arrangement, so this one is nothing but hot air.

It kills the tradition of the bowls

Too late. By segmenting off the BCS games, we already have tiers in the postseason. Besides, once we got bowls in Shreveport, Detroit, and especially Toronto, they no longer were about giving teams a reward for a good season by getting to play a game in nice locale.

Besides, not one playoff proposal I’ve seen, Mike Slive’s included, has proposed killing off all of the bowl games in favor of keeping only a playoff. No one is suggesting that, and having a plus one system will not diminish the prestige of the Papajohns.com bowl. It never had any in the first place.

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I welcome any comments/discussions on the topic. If there are any other objections about a having a plus one system in college football, I’d love to hear them. It just infuriates me to no end to know that the people in charge of the system are getting rich off of fan dollars while not delivering what the fans want.


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