WASHINGTON, D.C. – Across a stage stood the men of college football revolution, clad in gray suits and conservative ties, their words harkening to a time when sports were a simpler place and 21st- century money didn't demand a pro sports solution to the quandary of determining a champion.
"What took you so long?" the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee was asked on the day it approved a college football playoff.
"We're presidents," one finally said.
That is why no one should view Tuesday's approval of a four-team playoff as an the entrance to something more. Getting the presidents to four teams took enough work. Getting them to eight or 16 or 24 probably is impossible. At least for the 12 years this current contract lasts. Four is four.
Asked what broke his resolve to keep football forever locked in a bowl system, Virginia Tech President Charles Steger said the sport "needed to be more energized."
This is not an endorsement for wild change. The men who made the playoffs happen will not step further into an abyss they do not want. Their world is one of professors and academics. They don't watch sports with the same zeal as the fans who live for Saturdays in autumn. They see December exam schedules and second semesters that start in January. They don't want football to become a two-semester sport.
And they live in terror of concussions.
It was clear Tuesday the presidents see football's looming concussion crisis in a different way than their athletic people. Conference commissioners at the Dupont Circle Hotel expressed the same requisite concern over player safety as their NFL counterparts, quickly brushing off the topic with suggestions that more study is needed. Several presidents in the room sounded far more alarmed.
"For me, [the concussion issue] is major," Oregon State President Ed Ray told Yahoo! Sports after the announcement. "To say it's easy to add games, I don't think so."
Football fans might not care much about the concussion issue that is raging in the NFL now, but college presidents still read newspapers. Many of them oversee departments that study concussions. Their social circles include scientists whose primary pursuit is the brain. Extra playoff games mean extra chances to get hurt. Extra chances to get hurt mean lawsuits and a lifetime of guilt that perhaps they signed off on something that extended the danger farther than it should have gone.
"I think that's the biggest worry we all have in making this decision," Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman told Yahoo! Sports. "That's a deal-killer for many presidents, I think."
Several times in recent years, when the talk turned to a football playoff, the presidents said they raised concern about head trauma, also asking about other conditions such as serious knee and neck injuries that could lead to complications later in life. The data about former players suffering early-onset dementia and Alzheimer's bothered them in ways it might not have disturbed others.
They said questions were raised when they agreed to add a 12th game to the regular season, and those worries only increased when suggestions of eight- and 16-team playoffs came up. The idea of players risking injury in as many as four extra games was too much, and so the playoff conversations stopped until something more manageable could be found.
"I don't think there was much enthusiasm to go beyond four teams," Perlman said.
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"That was one of the things I was worried about," Steger said when asked about concussions, adding that he was only comfortable with a four-team playoff.
In many ways college football has dodged the NFL's concussion debate. Lawsuits generally have focused on professional team's responsibilities even though most NFL teams rarely run heavy contact practices during the season while college teams take advantage of huge rosters and encourage their players to tackle as if they were playing in games.
More playoff games mean more practices. More practices mean more chances for players to bang their helmets into each other or on the ground. And more helmet hits means more concussions. That is basic math few of the presidents are ready to consider.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to say this is a different sport than many of the others," Ray said. "This isn't like baseball where you can play lots of games."
He stopped and looked around the room at the other presidents and conference commissioners who were discussing the details of a playoff that probably will not grow any bigger anytime soon.
"You know," he said. "It's not all about the money."
That was something to understand about the men who agreed to change the game Tuesday. They're never going to go as far as everybody else wants.
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