Still two weeks remain before the winner of the Heisman Memorial Trophy is announced (explained below). Each year, about 900 members of the media and former Heisman winners cast ballots for their top three picks. Awarded since 1935 to the best player in college football, the Heisman traditionally has gone to upperclassmen, usually running backs or quarterbacks. Only three sophomores have ever won, the first in 2007. And no freshman has ever won, with just three freshmen since 1980 as finalists.
But this year, most of the would-be candidates have either had bad games, bad luck or both. So the remaining field is an unconventional one: it is led by a freshmen quarterback and a senior linebacker. No pure defender has ever won the Heisman, either, in case you were wondering. In distant third and fourth place, respectively, are a sophomore wide receiver and a senior quarterback.
So with two weeks to go, it’s either Texas A&M’s freshman quarterback nicknamed Johnny Football, or Notre Dame’s Samoan-descent linebacker, Manti Te’o. Both suit up this Saturday night against their final regular season opponents on national television. And both are likely to prevail. In other words, at the risk of upsetting many traditionalists, this year the circumstances seem ripe for bringing political change to the Heisman Trophy.
In the book, Wayne and I model political change as a battle of new ideas versus two sets of status quo forces, namely powerfully vested interests and widely shared beliefs. At certain political moments, vested interests and shared beliefs begin to weaken, creating an opportunity for political entrepreneurs to change institutional arrangements.
In the book we also make frequent use of examples from sports. For example, in the 1980’s the 24-second shot clock transformed college basketball from a boring spectacle to a fun and lucrative one, yet coaches and fans at the time were against the idea. It just wasn’t right, they believed.
This year’s Heisman campaign illustrates both sorts of status quo bias. To give a vivid sense of this point, let me simply reveal the confession of one thoughtful sports writer, Cory McCartney
I’ve been as guilty as anyone in making the mere thought of those archetypes and the Heisman seems farcical. In six years as a voter and covering the award and a lifetime being obsessed with the Heisman Trophy and its history, I bought into the myths surrounding the award and helped to perpetuate them, never once putting a defensive player on my ballot or considering a freshman a viable candidate.
This weekend can change everything, and not just by solidifying two players the likes of which have never won as the leaders. It can set up a vote that defies further conventions.
There are good reasons for such a conservative stance against freshmen (defenders may be another story…). As this first-rate story by Chris Huston illustrates,
The natural impulse of the majority of the Heisman electorate is to not vote for a freshman. Sometimes it is a conscious decision — the idea being that upperclassmen have proven themselves over time and that one can always vote for the freshman on another occasion in the future. Often times, though, it is an unconcscious bias, borne of the reality that freshmen just don’t have the same level of familiarity and name recognition that upperclassmen have. There is also a resistance to change among a good portion of the electorate, particularly the former winners. They see the Heisman as a venerable institution and they worry that to vote for a freshman is to succumb to the latest fad rather than a player who has sustained his excellence and reputation over time. An early-career Heisman win also creates the potential for overly-high expectations in the years to come, setting up a possible crash and burn situation.
Notice the twofold point being made. In the first place, media writers have sets of beliefs that lure them into voting in certain ways over others. And in the second, past winners want to preserve the exclusivity of the award by keeping freshmen out. The status quo consists of widely shared beliefs and vested interests. In sports, and in politics, change happens when political entrepreneurs notice areas of weakness in the status quo, and then implement alternative institutions.
The past three times when freshmen have been finalists, the status quo has always defeated the forces of change. But 2012 could be when the idea of a freshmen Heisman’s time has come. After all, it was just five years ago a sophomore first won — and two more have won since.
Note: Explaining The Heisman Trophy: The Heisman website is very informative and easy to use. Essentially, it is awarded each year to the most outstanding college football player. Each year, about 900 members of the media and former winners vote. No candidates appear on the ballot. Instead, each voter simply writes in three names in rank order. The top pick counts for three points, the second pick for two, and the third pick counts for three points. The candidate with the most points wins. This method of voting, known as a Borda count, is regarded as efficient but suspect to strategic voting (e.g., west coast voters could align forces and omit an east-coast front-runner from their ballots, as has been alleged in the past). The Academy Awards (movies) also uses a Borda count. In recent years, it has become expected that universities will engage in some form of public relations campaign. I don’t know of a study that estimates the marginal value of winning the Heisman, but this work by Robert Brown says premium college football players are worth about $1 million in revenue to the university.