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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Sometime last week a dude got booted from the AP poll. His offense: dropping Oklahoma because he thought they lost. Naturally, as the operator of a similar enterprise a few people asked me my opinion. It's similar to everyone else's -- boy, is that guy dumb! We'd like to introduce him to this interwebs thing! -- with one bonus thought: it's the structure of the poll and these people's lives that's at fault for the regular stupidities.

This case is made for me by the Good Witch in an extensive article on the snafu (from Oklahoma, natch):

As a voter in the Associated Press Top 25 college football poll, John Hoover takes his job seriously. This past week, Hoover, the OU beat writer for the Tulsa World, filled out his ballot at 2 a.m. after getting home from the OU game.

“I watched a couple of games on TiVo. I looked on the Internet for about an hour. I read a couple of school reports; game reports and watched a highlight show. I then spent another hour just moving teams around on my ballot,” Hoover said.
An hour? Filling out a ballot? Hoover's either helplessly OCD or a filthy liar, but at least he manages to pay enough attention to college football to keep Louisville in front of West Virginia. Later in the article Hoover makes some displeased noises about the carelessness of this other guy's ballot, but if you accept WVU-UL as an acid test the AP poll as a whole fails by placing West Virginia behind the Cardinals. That's inane. It can't be explained by anything in either team's schedule or play and requires you to ignore a 10-point UL victory like three weeks ago. It is the product of carelessness. That carelessness is caused by the unholy demands on beat writers' time and newspaper's foolish devotion to having everything as quickly as possible because it's NEWS, dammit.

(Rutgers? Well, Louisville can be placed ahead of them now because they've played a tougher schedule, won by greater margins, and lost narrowly to a good team instead of getting hammered by a meh one. Head to head is important but not so much that it outweighs a team's resume. But when you're ranking teams and you judge that two teams that played each other are basically equal, you'd better rank the head-to-head winner first unless you've got a good reason. Pat White meowing doesn't count.)

I, of course, love this story. I love it for many reasons, but foremost among them is the newspaper man (as archetype) and his state of mind. There's a software saying: "Fast. Cheap. Good. Pick two." Newspapers -- in comparison to the internet -- only get to pick one, since "cheap" is right out the window. They went with fast. The AP poll comes out on Sunday. Game stories hit the wire minutes after the game ends. Columnists rip off 600 words on a game and move on. And the deeply ironic thing is that all this is in service to a flagging print beast that shows up in the morning, hours after anyone who actually cares about speed has already seen the box score, six minutes of highlights, and immediate reaction from internet folks. Nobody picks up the paper to find out the score of the game last night. But along the dilapidated beast rolls, its momentum making it impossible to stop or even divert.

If I ran a poll I would probably back the voting deadline off a couple days so the participants could, you know, find out what happened. Even then, certain people would freak out and rush ballots in at the last moment every week, but by in large everyone would have some time to digest, discuss, and evaluate what happened. Then they would keep Louisville in front of West Virginia.

Newspapers have slowly morphed from the fastest communication medium available to the slowest. They have not adjusted their coverage. They have gone from monopolies on information dissemination to a sea of competition. They have not shed their belief that attention is their birthright. They are beset on all sides by people who have not come out the other end of a sports journalism meat-grinder bitter, twisted, and devoid of all human feeling. The Free Press still employs Drew Sharp.

Circulation dropping, you say? That's strictly dog bites man stuff.