The declining relevance of the Heisman Trophy is not the sort of thing that can be easily measured. But if college football is among your interests, I’d wager you have noticed that the award doesn’t compel people to argue as often or as stridently as they did just a few years ago.
Dan Wolken of USA Today argued last month that this is an unintended consequence of the College Football Playoff.
But there’s something else going on here. The College Football Playoff, as it has done with basically every other aspect of the sport, effectively has made the Heisman less of a centerpiece and more of a sidebar to the season.
I’m not sure if that’s entirely it, but it seems true enough I won’t dispute it. What I will do is offer five ideas for fixing this problem, ideas which will certainly be adopted by the Heisman Trust posthaste.
5. Stop giving out the award before the season is over
The Heisman people are never going to go for this, because they steadfastly consider the Heisman to be a regular-season award. And that made a lot of sense when there were 11 games, some bowls, and a vote to decide a national champion.
But in a world where the whole season comes down to a four-team playoff, ignoring the results of those games when selecting the sport’s premier individual award makes the Heisman voters look like an old man who has his pie before Christmas dinner and is asleep before the sun goes down.
You can’t continue to ignore the two most important games of the season and think college football fans aren’t going to start ignoring your award.
4. Have some courage
This is an age-old complaint about the Heisman, but it’s been 20 years since anybody other than a quarterback or running back won the award.
To some degree, this is understandable and unavoidable, since quarterbacks are the game’s biggest stars, they play the most important position and they’re the ones most likely (often for good reason) to be credited individually for team success.
This lack of courage and creativity among the Heisman voters is revealed more dramatically when there is no quarterback with a particularly compelling case, so they just toss it so some running back, even when everybody knows that running back isn’t the best player in college football (Mark Ingram, Derrick Henry, Rashaan Salaam).
The most shameful example of this came in 2009, when Nebraska defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh was to college football what the Kool-Aid man was to living room walls, then finished fourth in the Heisman vote behind Ingram, Toby Gerhart and Colt McCoy.
Voters are going to vote for who they want to vote for in the end, but the Heisman Trust might consider sending out a memo anyway.
3. Fix the ceremony itself
The Heisman ceremony show looks like it smells like an estate sale, and it has the pacing of a drunken Maid of Honor speech.
2. Quit caring about suspense
The Heisman has always had a “secret ballot” policy, but as Wolken noted, it wasn’t really enforced until 2013, when the Heisman Trust sent out letters threatening to strip votes from people who talked about their votes.
Because if there’s one thing you never want, it’s free publicity.
The idea was to stop voters from ruining the suspense. But it’s not American Idol. The Heisman, like the MVP awards in other sports, isn’t really about suspense, which brings me to …
1. Embrace debate
All Heisman votes should be made public, because what is this, a jury trial? But it should go beyond that. They should be encouraged to engage with fans about who ought to win the award, what criteria they use, what values they value.
One of the things that makes sports worth talking about is that arguing about them helps people work out their value systems and worldviews in a context where the results don’t actually matter. The Heisman Trophy, given to the “most outstanding” college football each year, is a perfect little ball pit to splash around in for those purposes, and the Heisman Trust should use that to its advantage.
The Heisman Trophy is quickly becoming a relic from Old World college football, and it needs to get out of its own way before it’s too late.