MORGAN CITY, LOUISIANA–As Americans began the 2004 election year, a vigorous debate raged across the fruited plains. But it wasn’t Iraq or the presidential primaries that were splashed across the front pages of newspapers from coast-to-coast. Something more important was at stake–the national championship of college football.
A word of explanation to those who, inexplicably (!), have ignored the whole controversy. College football is, in many states, followed by legions of fans with something akin to religious fervor. There being dozens of top-quality college-football programs, it is not possible to have one league and one playoff system through which to crown a champion. Hence there are polls–the two most important being that of coaches and of sportswriters–who rank the teams. At the end of the season, the top teams play each other in such marquee events as the Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Fiesta Bowl or Sugar Bowl. After it’s all over, the No. 1 ranked team in the polls is the national champion.
Five years ago, it was decided that the poll rankings were too subjective, and a new system would be devised, called the Bowl Championship Series. Now a sophisticated computer program ranks all the teams and the top two meet in one of the designated bowl games for the national championship. This year the championship game was the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, played a week ago Sunday night.
All was fine and dandy until this year, when the team that the sportswriters voted as No. 1, the University of Southern California, didn’t make the top two in the computer rankings. So on New Year’s Day in the Rose Bowl, USC beat the University of Michigan, in what pundits took to calling the “human championship.” Meanwhile on the first Sunday of the year, in New Orleans’s Superdome, the “computer championship” had the Louisiana State University Tigers defeat the Oklahoma University Sooners.
So the controversy rages. Who is the true national champion? USC or LSU?
It isn’t really fair to LSU to label them derisively “computer” champions, when everybody agrees that they belonged in the Sugar (that’s “sugah” here) Bowl championship game; the dispute was over whether they should be playing USC or OU. Yet the controversy is refreshing, for it does the soul good to see a culture take its recreations so seriously–a culture in which only politics and business dominate the news is confusing the means for the ends of common life. And given that American entertainment culture is a rather toxic mix of the superficial and the degrading, it has been altogether a good thing to have passions engaged by the local patriotism and school spirit brought to the fore by college football.
And here in Morgan City, amidst the bayous of the Mississippi River delta, LSU’s victory is just as sweet as if they were on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge itself. There were no Monday-morning arguments in Louisiana about the controversy, where LSU’s first national championship since 1958 made the whole state delirious. In fact, there was likely not much of anything going on last Monday morning, as it was already midnight here when Lionel Turner’s delayed blitz finally buried the Sooners’s chance of making a comeback on Sunday night. The partying, on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and throughout the state, from Shreveport to Grand Isle, continued long after.
Southern Louisiana is something of a distinct society. Shrimp is a staple food, the politics are more than colorful and the Acadian (“cajun”) roots of the culture are still evident in such common expressions as mais-yeah, which is the local rendering of the French mais oui. If there was a place in the country least suited to the cold binary calculus of computers, the bayou culture of Louisiana would be it. The Sugar Bowl participants may have been determined by computers, but the intense fever which gripped the 79,000 fans in the Superdome and millions more across Louisiana was straight from the heart.
Down here in Morgan City the annual civic festival is called “Shrimp and Petroleum” days in deference to the engines of the local economy. But the people here do not live to work, and the frenzy over LSU is a healthy indication that this culture is not too mired in the business of making a living to forget the business of living itself.
There is much talk now in college football about the need to refine the Bowl Championship Series’s system to prevent a repetition of this year’s controversy. I am not convinced that would be an improvement. The world is too much with us too much of the time, and a good argument about something important like college football is healthy. Flying into New Orleans, having survived the inconveniences and indignities of the Code Orange antiterrorism measures, it was encouraging to hear passengers chatting amiably about the Sugar Bowl and the sweetness of life.
The national championship this year was not marred by controversy as much as enlivened by it. Could it the system be fixed? Mais-yeah, but I doubt it would be an improvement.
–Father Raymond J. de Souza is a chaplain at Queen’s University in Ontario.