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Technology in Sports: The Death of Innocence

This is the third of a three-part series sponsored by Samsung that covers the evolution of technology and sports.  In this final installment (part three of only three parts!), I will look how technology, in its attempt to enhance our sports-enjoying experience, has allowed us to see the man behind the curtain.

There is an overblown war of words between bloggers and mainstream journalists.  From the blogger front, you often hear about the arrogance and dinosaurish ways of the media and how they're surviving on an obsolete business model.  From the media side, you hear about how bloggers are untrained, uncouth, and generally without the access needed to get to the information first-hand.  It's become quieter recently, a bit more like the Korean DMZ where there occasional incidents but nothing to get significantly worked up about, but it was a contest long coming since the budding age of the BBS and theme-based forum discussion.  Things got interactive, and then we all got pretty involved.

The seminal moment in the shift in technology happened to be a major, major win for bloggers.  It's not that the bloggers won that round that was important, though; it was that the new technology blitzkrieged the old business model to the point where one of the most respected figures in the business lost his job.  Most of you remember the Texas Air National Guard (TANG) memo fiasco during the 2004 presidential elections, where Killian Kinko'd a hastily-written memo that was supposed to portray Bush as a Vietnam war dodger thanks to daddy's influence.  Dan Rather ran the breaking news, complete with revelation of the documents.  CBS, attempting to use the internet to stay out on the leading edge of the story, released pdf versions of the documents during the broadcast.  While the broadcast was still airing, a blog called Little Green Footballs not only figured out that the memo was a fake, but what program was used to create the memo and how it was distorted.  (It didn't hurt that Killian was too lazy to switch from Times New Roman.)  The entire story is here and is a fascinating read for the purposes of technological evolutionary history.

Now, we're not a political site and the politics behind that story aren't the purpose of this post at all.  But LGF's end-around proved one thing: the old media no longer had exclusivity on the narrative of a story.  In fact, it appears that nobody rightly controls the narrative any more.  Moving back to sports...

For the longest time in college football, national championships were an abstract concept designed mostly to provide newspapers a way to discuss the merits of particular teams.  A newspaper could post its rankings of teams in its sports section and use that ranking as a jumping-off point to help readers understand which teams were strong and which weren't.  Deep down, we all knew that these 'championships' were hollow, but they were a great way to bring order to a sport where the average team played about 9 games and we just didn't have access to other teams except through box scores.

The more local a paper was, the more likely those rankings would show some bias toward local teams.  That's just smart business; the rankings were fabrications anyhow, so why not use them to draw interest and sell papers?  It's the reason some years seem to have about a dozen different national champions.  But over time, we got used to those rankings, and the ones from national services (particularly the AP) became the favored listing and eventually interpreted to have validity.

As technology and football popularity progressed, accessibility to the games increased.  Over time, and without fully realizing it, we were beginning to watch those opposite-coast games and really able to tell if that team from way over there was actually on par with our local favorite.  The rankings became less of a launching point for newspaper narrative and more of a ground zero for debates.  This was a good thing for college football in particular; as awareness of the sport grew, interest developed and people were eager for more.

Fast-forwarding a bit, we're now at a point where the average person can go to their TV or go online (or, in some cases, both are the same thing) and get more information on games than they can possibly handle.  The explosion of information accessibility is a prime reason we now have the BCS.  Those innocent little paper rankings suddenly didn't carry enough merit; we just knew that one team was the best in the country, darn it, and we needed a way to prove it.  It's an entirely different topic to discuss how rankings and bowl bids evolved, but suffice to say that the shift in process laid bare the system of rankings for us all.  We know how the computers work, even if we don't know the proprietary algorithms (e.g. we know that margin of victory is not included).  We know the voters and how they vote.  We know the numbers and the math well enough that several sites are dedicated to predicting the BCS rankings before the rankings come out - and they do a pretty good job of it.

And behind it all, the mountain of information that has been dropped in our lap has revealed one truth: that our assumption that a bunch of sports writers somehow have enough information to tell us who's the best is just a veil.  We've seen beyond that curtain, and we can poke and prod the various levers and dials just as fast as that reporter who suddenly seems just as human as us.

If anything is going to bring a playoff system, it's not that we 'hate the bowl system'.  The bowl system still continues to make enough money to justify its existence, and even if Boise State gets left out for Pittsburgh this year, everybody's still going to tune into the games and no 'boycott for bowl justice' will happen.  The turning point is going to be that moment where we all admit that there is no national champion and there never was.  We've been trying to define the 'best' team, though we know that no other sport does this.  (Instead, they have playoffs where the 'best' teams simply get some home field/court advantage.)

Subjective championships of abstract merit have been the one unique thing about college football, and they may very well be on their way out.  While most are very much in favor of playoffs and awarding the team who plays the best in December, I'm going to be a little bit sad so see our old system go.  We always knew it was a mirage, but to be honest, I rather liked it.  I liked the discussion, and I liked the progression of bowl games that slowly led to the top few teams playing for a shot at one last resume item to potentially sway votes in their direction.

But I'll be okay; after this weekend's games, I'll fire up my computer on Sunday and crank out our computer rankings.  After all, they take into account far more information than the human voters could dream of, right?