College football is stupid.
Everybody knows it. Even President-elect Barack Obama, who would seem to have more than an adequate number of crises to occupy his attention, addressed the matter in his first major post-election interview. In the November 60 Minutes sit-down, Obama decried the frustratingly ill-conceived and muddled method that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the sport's governing body, uses to determine its Division I-A college-football champion. (That method will be showcased this week, as Florida and Oklahoma square off for the title on January 8.)
Obama called for an eight-team playoff to replace the existing and controversial Bowl Championship Series (BCS), noting, "I don't know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me on this. So I'm going to throw my weight around a little bit. I think it's the right thing to do." (So, basically, the guy who has vowed to have a respectful dialogue with any crumbum Third World dictator is now threatening to steamroll over tweedy American college presidents — but that's another story.)
Truth is, no matter how compellingly awful the news from the outside world (a cratering economy, environmental decay, a completely fucked Middle East), the steroid-aided sports universe keeps injecting itself into the national political discourse, and stealing thunder from seemingly more important stories. Another example: as the financial markets continued to plunge to 77-year lows, the buzz epicenter moved 180-odd streets north of Wall Street to the Bronx, where the New York Yankees were setting spending records to acquire new talent. The Evil Empire lay out $423.5 million to put just three players in pinstripes. (The Yankees now have under contract the four highest-paid players in baseball, whose combined salaries total $805 million — which is $205 million more than the construction costs of Citi Field, the new ballpark of the Mets, the Yankees' cross-town rivals.)
Thus, in an effort to free up the incoming president so he can concentrate on the most pressing concerns of the day, we offer 20 ways to improve sports — not a single one of which will require bailout money.
1) Institute a damn salary cap already Why bother even having 30 teams in Major League Baseball if one of those teams spends more in the off-season than the other 29 teams combined? That's what happened when the Bronx Bombers signed pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira this past month. Mind you, some of that money is available thanks to the cash the Yankees saved when they got a publicly funded sweetheart deal on their brand-spanking-new stadium.
Some salary-cap foes will argue that the wage-challenged Tampa Bay Rays reached the World Series this past year while competing in the same division as the rich Yankees and Boston Red Sox, both of which are First World teams compared with Tampa's Tajikistan. But remember that in the 2008 campaign Tampa Bay had just its first winning season in its 11-year history, and only through years of sacrifice and patient drafting — and much luck — did it finally put together a winning squad. The Yankees, meanwhile, didn't reach the playoffs for just the first time in 14 seasons, and decided to make a market correction by busting out the monopoly money, a luxury that most other teams don't enjoy.
This should further extend to baseball's drafting of foreign players. If a National Basketball Association team wants to draft a foreign player, it has to acquire the player's draft rights, where weaker teams get first preference. But in baseball, any team can approach any foreign player and wave greenbacks in his face. Most end up wanting to sign with the Yankees (or, let's be honest, the Red Sox). Make foreign players available only through the draft.
2) Abolish the rain out How many other sports begin play, watch action unfold for as long as two hours, then completely cancel competition and scrap all record of it having taken place, just because of a few namby-pamby raindrops? Baseball is alone in calling for a complete "do-over" simply because of some foul weather. But for a sport that treasures every recorded ball, strike, home run, balk, and invocation of the infield-fly rule, it seems downright Stalin-like to white out hundreds of innings worth of play and decree that they never happened. (Uncle Sam, meet Uncle Joe.) Whenever play stops for weather (or earthquake), pick it up from there and resume the game at the next available date.
3) Forbid runners from taking leads off bases One of baseball's primary problems, other than the fact that it is governed by a Milwaukee used-car-salesman with a terrible toupee, is that its games can be too long. One way to shorten the game, and eliminate one of the more irritating components of play, is to ban runners from taking leads off any base. How many exciting moments have been doused by the wet-blanket move of a pitcher repeatedly throwing the ball to the first baseman to check a runner?