Roundtable: A modest football playoff proposal

Tomorrow morning, a general assembly will gather at Assabet Valley Regional High to vote on a proposal that would radically alter the MIAA football landscape, doing away with the 19 regional Super Bowls and instead going with a statewide, six-division state championship. ESPN Boston high school editors Brendan Hall and Scott Barboza weigh in on the proposal, along with several correspondents.

Scott Barboza

ESPN Boston High Schools Editor

What does a championship mean? Would it change anything if you were just one in nineteen to claim the same title?

One would think that it means whatever constitutes a champion is something exceptional, or beyond the matter of the ordinary, something par excellence.

Yet, what we currently have in MIAA football is something that is rather – well, ordinary.

Across the state each fall, as presently constituted, 19 football teams get to call themselves Super Bowl champions. Undoubtedly, there’s a tremendous amount of hard work and sweat equity that goes with becoming a Super Bowl champion, so my aim here is not to in any way diminish what those teams have/will accomplish. That’s not what this is about.

What we have right now is an unwieldy system that, akin to college football’s BCS, just isn’t working to its intended goal. The football system, as is, in Massachusetts has created another parallel to NCAA football, with some conferences absorbing teams fleeing from others that are ebbing away. Just ask any athletic director in the Old Colony League or the Eastern Athletic Conference what’s happened to them in recent years.

What we have right now is a system that unnecessarily puts student athletes in danger of injury, not mention traumatic injury. The buzz around the media for last year or so in regards to football hasn’t surrounded anything on the gridiron, instead it’s focused on the prevalence of traumatic head injuries. So while every athletic governing body from sea to shining sea trumpets the safety of its athletes as a priority, in Massachusetts, we currently have a football system that allows developing minds to endure a three-game-in-nine-day gauntlet for those in search of a Super Bowl title.

Again, to be one of nineteen.

The issue posed to the MIAA general assembly on Friday morning is whether it should adopt the football playoff realignment and tournament format. The measure, put forward by the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association, has cleared all of its prior hurdles. That is until last spring when the MIAA executive committee balked at the opportunity to adopt the measure, instead choosing to play a game of kick the can down the road; thus setting up Friday’s vote.

The plan is thorough and well-presented. Anybody whose actually bothered to read the lengthy document outlining the proposal should find a solution to many of the said problems associated with the issues (ie. maintaining the integrity of Thanksgiving rivalries, scheduling, revenue, et al). It’s not perfect, but it presents real solutions.

Heck, at the end of the day, if it doesn’t pan out, the whole thing can be scrapped in two years anyway.

Or, maybe we’ll find that winning an actual statewide “Super Bowl” title is better than being just one of nineteen.

Brendan Hall

ESPN Boston High Schools Editor

The state of Florida has a population of nearly 20 million, yet has no problem awarding state champions in seven divisions. Ohio holds close to 11.5 million, and has no issue awarding six state champions. Same with Georgia, populated by close to 10 million and awarding state champs in six divisions.

And so on and so forth.

In Massachusetts, population roughly 6.5 million, we’ve decided it’s more practical to award 19 regional champions than a few true state champs. To the outsider, that seems kind of puzzling, but there’s a two-ton elephant in the way – Thanksgiving football.

(My girlfriend, who knows pretty much nothing about sports, posed this accidentally intriguing question – why not move the games up to Labor Day? But I guess that’s discussion for another day)

There’s no easy way around it, and the mass is divided on this issue. On one side, you’ve got schools like Franklin or Leominster, whose coaches are willing to play their Thanksgiving rival three times a year to push this thing through. On the other side, you’ve got a situation like Malden, which doesn’t stand a puncher’s chance of qualifying for postseason under the current format yet its principal Dana Brown told the Globe this week, “Sure it would be great to get a playoff game, absolutely. But to me there are so many more important things.”

Let’s face it, folks. The product has become too watered-down, and the current system is not financially stable long-term. It’s time to try something new, and while this isn’t a flawless plan, it’s a better, more viable plan with greater long-term stability.

There are so many angles to take with why the current system is bad. It puts players at a major health risk, forcing them to play three games in 10 days. Matchup-wise, using 2011’s results, there are all sorts of issues, from mismatches (Duxbury-Tewksbury, Concord-Carlisle vs. Oliver Ames), to venues that don’t make sense (Dennis-Yarmouth traveling to Lynn), to the premier matches being left in the cold (Everett getting left out of Gillette Stadium), to the just plain absurd number of games (there is absolutely no reason for Central Mass. to award itself six Super Bowl champions within its own region – period).

All of this is in the name of “fairness”, of course. One school’s minor problem always ends up being everyone’s problem.

Listen, this proposal isn’t perfect. If passed, I expect a lot of appeals to be filed on division placement. But you have to look at the bigger picture. Is this current system really that much more efficient? Do you support the current system? Is it the healthiest thing for the long-term future of our state association?

As for the Thanksgiving, it’s not an easy thing to discuss without getting heated, but there are several things to consider.

First, if a rivalry like Malden-Medford is so strong despite not having playoff implications in this lifetime or the next, what’s the big deal? That playing twice a year would water down the product? Ask Nick Saban if playing LSU twice last year took away from the allure of the rivalry.

Second, while I don’t see a lot of actual projections of gate being thrown around, I do think the concern about revenue is somewhat legitimate. However, you don’t need playoff implications to assure 5-10,000 people are going to show up at Fitchburg-Leominster (even though in most years, there is postseason at stake). If town/border bragging rights and social gathering are the primary engines driving interest for a game, then I don’t think the financial concern is as big as it’s being made out to be. Build it and they will come.

Third, there comes the dilemma of what to do when one team is still in the playoffs. This comes up in other states that practice both Thanksgiving games and a true state championship, such as Maryland or Missouri, and the simple answer is to field a JV team for the game. It’s obviously a tough pill to swallow, but you have to throw the economics aside. You ask high school kids if they’d rather play for a state title at Gillette Stadium or play their Thanksgiving rival, you’d be surprised at the answers.

My final point I’ll make here is this. Yes it all sounds like wholesale change on paper, but it’s really not. It’s just a two-year pilot. If it doesn’t work out, we can go right back to our current system of poaching leagues for new members, awarding A’s for effort and shoehorning one’s way into Gillette Stadium.

Adam Kurkjian

ESPN Boston correspondent

The way Massachusetts crowns its football champions right now simply does not cut it.

A lot of times, deserving teams get left out of the postseason picture and overall the product is watered down. There are far too many classifications, and despite the presence of Thanksgiving football, there are ways around this tradition to get to a statewide playoff where more teams are included.

This current proposal gets accomplished what many have thought impossible in this state for a long time.

The number of overall champions would be reduced from 19 to six. That alone is a great reason to support it, but there are others.

At no time in this state's long history of playing high school football has a state champion ever been determined on the field. Nearly every state in the union does this already. This proposal would accomplish that, too, and it is long overdue.

It eliminates a lot of these silly tiebreaker scenarios where deserving teams get left out of the playoffs. If there's a three-way tie, would you like to see all three teams battle it out on the field or have one go based on first-half point differential or whatever arbitrary, nonsensical formula is used for that conference?

Finally, there would be a palpable excitement around the final weeks of the season for the sport that you frankly just don't see currently. Right now, the product is so watered down that the most meaningful games are often mismatches. This proposal would change that. And think of the crowds for a state quarterfinal or semifinal game and compare them to what you see in Week 8 of a game where two teams have little to no chance of making the postseason.

Look, this plan is not flawless, but no plan is. And when you compare what we could have with this plan and what we currently have, there is no comparison.

The last two statewide playoff proposals failed, and this one looks to have the best chance of the three of making it. Whether or not it does, it should. Here's hoping the rest of the state feels the same way.

Bruce Lerch

ESPN Boston correspondent

Let's just be honest and boil this down to its simplest level. Massachusetts is either going to have Thanksgiving Day games or it's going to have a real playoff system. And in saying that, I mean to say that Thanksgiving is the one thing that is always going to prevent a quality playoff system from happening. Ever.

You have to hand it to the Football Committee. No matter how many times they get kicked to the curb, they keep getting off the mat and try to find something to satisfy all parties. The problem is, they just can't.

On the plus side, the current proposal dramatically increases the number of teams who would be eligible for a playoff game. It's criminal to watch football be so far behind every other sport in this state in terms of how many kids to get to experience the thrill of the postseason.

On the negative side, asking schools to wait until after week seven to determine their final 2-3 opponents before Turkey Day is a bit much to ask and I have zero issue with those who are uncomfortable with such a scenario.

But as I said in the open, the real issue revolves around Thanksgiving and tradition. People in this state are grounded in tradition and history. It's where we come from. And it seems to be enough to override the fact that an increasing number of these traditional games are so far from competitive that under different circumstances, a lot of these programs wouldn't bother scheduling one another any more.

Thanksgiving or no Thanksgiving, 19 Super Bowl champions in this state is far too many and playing three games in 9-10 days is a dangerous health risk to our children and frankly, a joke. In an ideal world, we would have a true playoff system that mixes the entire state together across six divisions and the last two standing in each would get to play for the trophy at Gillette Stadium.

Unfortunately for those in favor of a real playoff system,. Thanksgiving is still king and it's more than likely we'll watch as this proposal goes the way of its predecessors and fails to pass. And honestly, I wouldn't blame the Football Committee if they finally decide to give up. You can only bang your head against a brick wall so many times before you finally start avoiding it.