Florida State Playoff Snub Could Spark Longshot Legal Challenge

The College Football Playoff selection committee’s decision to select No. 4 Alabama over unbeaten No. 5 Florida State has generated outrage from the Sunshine State, with lawmakers and former (and potentially future) U.S. Presidents claiming crookedness and fraudulence.

Unfortunately for FSU fans, any attempt to legally force the committee to change its mind would likely be a losing effort.

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FSU has valid reasons to be upset. The Seminoles finished the season with a 13-0 record and defeated Louisville in the ACC championship game. Although Alabama defeated Georgia in the SEC championship game, it finished the season a less impressive 12-1, losing to Texas in the second week of the season.

Until now, no Power Five conference champ has missed the CFP field. CFP selection committee chair Boo Corrigan explained that although FSU is undefeated, a recent injury to star QB Jordan Travis downgraded the team in the eyes of the committee.

The fury of FSU’s omission has been palpable.

FSU athletic director Michael Alford said of the omission, “it renders the season up to yesterday irrelevant.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis complained, “What we learned today is that you can go undefeated and win your conference championship game, but the College Football Playoff committee will ignore these results.”

Former U.S. President Donald Trump expressed “Florida State was treated very badly by the ‘Committee.’ They become the first Power Five team to be left out of the College Football Playoffs. Really bad lobbying effort.”

Some lawmakers appear interested in forcing CFP to provide a more thorough explanation.

U.S. Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) sent a letter to Corrigan on Monday suggesting the process to exclude FSU was flawed and “transparency” is needed. Scott noted that of the 13-member CFP body, only five possess “relevant experience in coaching or playing football at the collegiate level or higher.”

Scott also underscored the “financial implications” of the exclusion, including the ACC and FSU being denied $2 million of revenue distribution because the Seminoles aren’t in the playoffs. Scott added that the exclusion also has going-forward impacts since it will deny “future earnings and opportunities for the players,” a point that might extend to a deleterious impact on FSU’s recruiting.

Scott, who has the power to call a Senate hearing and compel testimony and evidence sharing, demands from Corrigan copies of emails, texts, notes and other forms of communication exchanged between selection committee members and other influential figures in college football, including SEC officials. He also wants to review “ethical and conflict of interest standards.”

At least in theory, FSU could sue CFP, arguing its decision is illegal. A legal claim might rest in antitrust law—FSU could correctly assert CFP is led by university and conference leaders from competing schools. Perhaps they joined hands to exclude FSU, thereby depriving the marketplace and college football consumers and fans of the chance to watch the superior team.

CFP’s selection methodology could also be depicted as faulty in that it invites subjective bias, which might make anticompetitive outcomes more likely.

CFP’s website says teams are ranked “based on the members’ evaluation of the teams’ performance on the field, using conference championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head results and comparison of results against common opponents to decide among teams that are comparable.” Much like critics of U.S. News & World Report law school rankings bemoan incorporation of law professors’ perceptions of other schools’ “prestige,” this type of arrangement permits non-empirical and non-analytical judgments to influence objective-sounding “rankings.”

In addition to antitrust law claims, FSU could argue the committee failed to accurately apply its own methodology in excluding the Seminoles. This would be a breach of contract or negligence type of claim. Maybe the system itself is lawful, but how CFP utilized it was problematic.

Bolder still, FSU might assert that CFP is part of a broader, sham conspiracy that connects to ESPN—which, along with ABC, will broadcast bowl games—and TV ratings. Maybe ESPN preferred that Alabama, as an SEC school, play in the Rose Bowl against No. 1 Michigan on Jan. 1, with No. 3 Texas playing No. 2 Washington in the Allstate Sugar Bowl that same day. Following the same (lack of?) logic, ESPN then made sure the fix was in.

While hypothesizing potential legal claims makes for attention-grabbing discussion and perhaps could provide good testing material for a law school final exam, the reality of the situation is more confining.

The fundamental legal problem for FSU is that as a member school of the NCAA, it has agreed to the playoff system it now finds unfair. This is the core weakness of most legal claims brought or considered by colleges who feel aggrieved–rightly so in some instances–by the “system.” Unlike a college athlete suing the NCAA and its members over a rule that limits compensation, a college is one of those members, an insider if you will.

Courts also review membership organizations with a high degree of deference when a member objects to an organizational decision. The basic logic is don’t remain in an organization with which you don’t agree and if you remain, use your energies to spark reform and change.

Attorney Tom Mars—who has represented Jim Harbaugh, Justin Fields, Bret Bielema and other major sports figures in legal controversies and is a former member of the NCAA’s complex case unit—tells Sportico FSU would face long odds in court.

“Like most legal claims that would be viable outside of college sports, FSU’s challenge here is that it’s part of an industry where schools, coaches and players have tacitly agreed that the NCAA, the conferences and the playoff committee are free to make arbitrary and capricious decisions no matter how absurd the results may be,” Mars said.

FSU might have more influence in demanding reform to CFP’s methodology. The school can credibly argue that the current arrangement led to an unjust outcome. That type of advocacy wouldn’t help this year’s FSU team, but might prevent another situation like it.