Thursday, December 11, 2014

What do Affirmative Action and the Recent College Football Playoff Selection Have in Common?

Three days ago, the college football selection committee finalized its final four choices to take part in the first annual playoff to determine the sports national champion.  The University of Oregon and and the University of Alabama were certain to make it, but the other two choices were a bit more controversial.  Critics of Florida State University argued that, though undefeated, FSU played a soft schedule and escaped from defeat myriad times this season.  The fourth choice, Ohio State University, was even more surprising.  Never in the time I have watched college football do I remember a time when a team jumps those above it in any type of ranking, whether traditional polls or BCS rankings, after all the relevant teams win their final games.  Ohio State destroyed Wisconsin, to be sure, but Baylor and TCU similarly won their games.  And yet Ohio State made it into the playoffs.  And the debates began.

I watched these developments with great amusement.  I wondered whether anybody else could see the connection between this so very public debate and the use of race in employment, college admissions, and elsewhere.

The similarities are astounding. And it makes clear that the affirmative action debate should be more like the college football selection process.  But there is no chance of that.  When it comes to race, reason and judgment leave us, and stupid sets in.

Consider first the college football debate.  At root, this is a debate about the allotment of a scarce resource -- slots in a college football playoff -- for which myriad applicants stake a reasonable claim.  How do we decide which of the deserving teams deserves to be included?  Do we focus on won-loss record, or when the losses occurred -- whether early in the season or later on -- or conference affiliation?  Do we focus on strength of schedule, common opponents, or style points -- that is, the way in which the particular teams beat their opponents?  How do we do it?  How should we do it?

As you think about these questions, think about how hard the Bowl Championship Series tried to bring objectivity to the process in years past.  They even used computers and fancy formulae.  But controversy reigned, then and now.  Note that we are past computers.  It is all judgment: a group of highly credentialed, mostly white men (thank you Condoleezza Rice and Tyrone Willingham) get together and decide the tough questions.  Also, take a look at the bio page for the selection committee, and how hard it tries to establish the credentials of each particular member.  As if that makes any difference.

And note also what, for me, is the kicker: once the selection committee made its decisions, did we think that the schools left out -- Baylor and TCU in this case, though other schools could also have good arguments made on their behalf -- had been discriminated against?  Put a different way: "do Baylor and TCU fans believe they lost a playoff berth to Ohio State because they are small, private schools without the tradition or TV attractiveness that belongs to one of the nation's largest universities?"

They didn't.  Instead, every school made its best case to the committee, and judgment reigned.  Of course, everybody cannot agree and will not agree with the final result.  But it is also true that nobody could possibly look at the process and argue that the final four schools don't deserve to be there, or that the process was unfair to the schools left out. And that's a good thing.

Compare this process with the admissions or employment process.  Scarce resources.  Too many applicants of diverse backgrounds.  A committee makes tough decisions.  Controversy ensues over the selection process.

At the end of that process, however, aggrieved applicants go to court and complain about being left out.  They argue that they were left out because one factor trumped all others.  But for that one factor -- race -- they would be granted the job, a seat in the freshman class, or the promotion.

That's nonsensical on many levels.  Our constitutional history surely doesn't get us there.  Arguments about justice prove inconclusive, as do judgments about costs and benefits.  No matter.  The self-assurance lacking in the college football arena is found in spades in the affirmative action context.

I don't pretend to know what merit looks like, and whether we know it when we see it.  But I do know that a good claim can be made for the four teams that were included in the playoff, and that the teams left out cannot claim to be discriminated against.

What makes the use of race in admissions and employment different?  That's the only question.  How is this for an answer:
When a man has emerged from slavery, and, by the aid of beneficent legislation, has shaken off the inseparable concomitants of that state, there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws, and when his rights as a citizen or a man are to be protected in the ordinary modes by which other men's rights are protected.
The Supreme Court wrote this in 1883, in the Civil Rights Cases.

Can't make sense of crazy.  Or of racism.

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