Secret coaches' poll to lead to a football playoff?

American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Executive Director Grant Teaff announced that beginning in 2010, the final votes by coaches in the USA Today coaches' poll - which accounts for one-third of the Bowl Championship formula - will be secret and no longer disclosed to the public. According to an article in USA Today, "The adjustments were made based on the results of a three-month independent study by Gallup World Poll of the voter selection process and voting procedures. Gallup recommended the change because confidentiality leads to a better poll, according to Teaff. 'Why do you have booths for people to vote in?' he said."

As a general rule of thumb in polling, confidentiality can enhance honesty. For example, if polling about personal use of alcohol or drugs, views on gay marriage, or workplace satisfaction, the likelihood of honest disclosure is enhanced by confidentiality. Respondents are able to express views or disclose information that may cast a poor light on themselves, may not be popular due to political correctness or may subject them to retribution with a confidential poll.

However, there are significant differences between these situations and those that are presented in the football coaches' poll. Transparency is not only preferable to secrecy, it's necessary.

The greatest difference is that voters in the coaches' poll are likely to find themselves in situations where they have significant conflicts of interest and stand to personally benefit from their vote. Unlike judges who will recuse themselves from situations with conflict of interest, football coaches do not do the same. Below are some plausible examples of situations where transparency is preferable to secrecy:

  • A coach voting in a situation where their own team is in position to play in the national championship game.

  • A coach voting on a hated rival lowers the rival's rank a few notches in order to keep the rival out of a national championship game which will impact his own team's recruiting.

  • A coach under-ranking a non-BCS conference school (e.g. Boise State) in order prevent that school from going to a lucrative BCS bowl so that they or another conference member can receive a more desirable bowl bid and the associated financial benefits.

  • A coach's contract has incentive clauses based on their final BCS ranking or for playing in a BCS bowl.
Secrecy in the poll increases the possibility of manipulation by significantly over-rating one's own team or by under-rating a key competitor thus increasing the value of their own vote while neutralizing the decisions of other voters.

Further, the idea that coaches shouldn't be subjected to public scrutiny or pressure is specious. Coaches are already used to second guessing, partisan fans and media scrutiny and can certainly handle questions about why they viewed one team better than another. Any coach who is legitimately concerned about this issue should simply decline to participate, except none will because it's in their best interest to be a voter.

Football coaches are by nature a paranoid lot (see former coach Bill Curry's comments) and most probably love a good conspiracy theory. The AFCA's decision to embrace secrecy over transparency will promote such theories among their members and fans by making it easier for politics and self interest (or at a minimum, the perception of them) to play a role in the selection process. With a bill in Congress attempting to ban use of the phrase "national championship" unless the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) champion is determined via a playoff, perhaps this ill-conceived idea will move the sport one step closer to that possibility. Now that's a conspiracy theory worth discussing.


Anonymous said…
The current state of big-time college football is a disaster. For the NCAA not to have stepped in years ago to clean it up and bring it under its umbrella is insane. It's done all in the name of money and power and nothing else. In many ways, it mirrors the federal government, where lobbyists (in this case the bowls) have a disproportionate influence over what happens, when often simple changes (such as a playoff) are obvious.