6 Ways to Fix What People Hate About the Heisman Trophy Voting Process
The Heisman Trophy finalists were announced on Monday, and the players invited to the ceremony in New York on Saturday are a star-studded list of college football's best, including Jameis Winston of Florida State and five other guys who have no chance to win.
For weeks, the trophy seemed to be Winston's to lose, and the only way he could have possibly lost it was if his recent legal issues kept him off the field. Morality—sorry, they use the word integrity—is apparently a big part of the Heisman Trophy process. (More on that in a bit.)
Winston was publicly cleared of all impropriety before torching ACC foe Duke in the conference title game, making the road to the Downtown Athletic Club an expectedly fruitful one.
The other finalists—Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois, Tre Mason of Auburn, AJ McCarron of Alabama, Andre Williams of Boston College and defending champion Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M—will take the trip to New York City for ostensibly nothing but a few handshakes, bus tours and a free dinner or two.
Winston will win the Heisman because his play on the field deserves the recognition. The result of the Heisman voting will be correct, even if the process is incredibly flawed.
Now, it is worth acknowledging that any process of deciding an award for the best player in a sport where the governing rules of amateurism implore us to view all players—at least those on scholarship—as equals is inherently flawed. Still, the Heisman Trophy process seems, in many ways, more flawed than most.
In honor of the six finalists being sent to New York for an award presentation that seems locked up for one of them already, here are six ways to fix what we hate about the Heisman Trophy voting process.
The "Integrity" Issue
Integrity has been a bit of a hot-button topic leading up to the Heisman voting deadline. Jameis Winston's legal troubles led some national scribes to suggest that if he were to be formally charged in the looming sexual assault case in Tallahassee and Florida State opted to suspend him for the ACC title game, Winston would not (read: should not) win the award.
The issue is what defines integrity, specifically how it's used by the Heisman trust in two of the first three sentences of its mission statement:
The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work. The Heisman Trophy Trust ensures the continuation and integrity of this award.
Christine Brennan of USA Today used the Heisman trustees' own words against them in an article she wrote before news broke that no charges would be filed against Winston. Her November 28 column, which tabbed AJ McCarron as her then-Heisman favorite, said neither Winston nor Johnny Manziel showed enough integrity to deserve the award this season:
Never before had a freshman won the Heisman. Perhaps now we know why. Manziel has given us an opportunity to see exactly what that looks like – autographs, arrogance and all.
He's a fabulously entertaining athlete. But has he pursued excellence with integrity? Not exactly.
The same goes for Winston.
Brennan then ran down a litany of legal issues Winston and his teammates at Florida States have been involved in, most notably the allegation of rape for which the redshirt freshman will not be charged.
Brennan also looked at the confusing list of Heisman winners with questionable integrity, both before and after they won the award. Cam Newton was embroiled in his own scandal when he won three years ago. Reggie Bush was found to have violated NCAA rules and was asked to give his trophy back. O.J. Simpson, Brennan points out, was not.
The problem with Brennan's logic—and that of the mission statement from the Heisman trust—is that integrity is left to be defined by the voters based on what little information we have about those up for the award.
Sure, Manziel had his issues before last season. It was well documented that he was nearly suspended before the year even began, but that didn't stop him from having one of the greatest single seasons in the history of college football. If news broke that he got paid to sign a few (hundred) autographs during the season, would that have made his season on the field any less spectacular?
If the NCAA investigation this offseason found that Manziel did more wrongdoing than it was able to find and he was suspended for a full game instead of just one half of the team's opening game, would he be invited to New York this year as a finalist?
Integrity is a strange qualification for a football award.
Think about the logic that Winston—who, again, is a shoo-in for the trophy this week—would not have received nearly the same number of votes had he been charged with a crime for an incident that took place a year ago.
Forget, if possible, your thoughts on whether or not there was no crime committed or merely not enough evidence of a crime to convict, and focus on the fact that it's written into the mission statement of the Heisman trust that voters need to factor what may or may not have happened during last season (when Winston was redshirting) because the Tallahassee police dragged their feet on the investigation for as long as they did.
Florida State Attorney William Meggs ultimately decided who would win the 2013 Heisman Trophy this year. By announcing that Winston would not be charged before voting was finalized, Meggs gave voters all the ambiguity they needed to vote for Winston. No charges, no suspension, no reason not to vote for the game's best player.
Integrity is a relative term.
Brennan wasn't the only national scribe to write about the issue, nor was she the only one to compare Winston to a candidate with more perceived integrity. Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports compared Winston's season on and off the field to Jordan Lynch, the "aw shucks" all-star from middle America:
The Heisman was never meant to be an examination of one's conscience but here we are. In one sense, winning the trophy isn't a right. But fairness must be considered before privilege is bestowed.
At what point is the Heisman ballot going to become a confessional?
There may be voters who feel they're putting their reputations on the line. Writing a mere feature these days subjects the author to ridicule at a future date. Who really knows these guys these days?
What if we find out a year from now that Lynch and McCarron have been working together in the offseason cooking meth in the New Mexico desert? What will integrity mean then?
Dodd suggested the Heisman trustees rework the mission statement to amend (or perhaps remove) the word integrity, as it only serves to confuse voters and muddle the process.
While I totally agree, methinks the trustees will do nothing of the sort. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if they double down on the idea of their award being given to a player with great integrity moving forward.
At some point, it's their own integrity that's at stake.
The "Best" Players
The six Heisman Trophy candidates invited to New York are four quarterbacks and two running backs. Maybe we need to stop looking at removing the word "integrity" from the mission statement and start focusing on removing the word "best."
Look, I'm not suggesting the six guys asked to the ceremony haven't had great years, but I wonder if they're actually the six best players in football. There are no defensive players you would put in your top six? No receivers or linemen?
The Heisman Trophy has always been an offensive-minded award, so maybe they should just embrace that. Call it the Heisman Memorial Trophy for the Best Player Who Lines Up in the Offensive Backfield in College Football.
In the last 25 years, the Heisman has gone to 16 quarterbacks, seven running backs and one wide receiver who returned kicks and one defensive back who, well, did everything on the field.
Since 1988, there have been 75 quarterbacks who finished in the top five of Heisman voting, out of a possible 125 spots. The next-highest position is running back, with 36 top-five votes.
Just seven wide receivers over the last 25 years have finished in the top five in Heisman voting, which is one more than the total number of defensive players over that span; two defensive backs, two linebackers and two defensive linemen have finished in the top five in the last 25 years, combined. The only other top-five vote over the last 25 years went to an offensive lineman, when Orlando Pace finished fourth in 1996.
The overabundance of quarterbacks and running backs wouldn't be that big of an issue if it wasn't glaringly obvious that the voters ostensibly ignore all other positions on the field. There is no way to truly assess line play without watching every game, so the nearly 1,000 Heisman voters can cherry-pick "the best" skill position players in America by totaling up their stats and watching a few highlight packages of games they missed.
Tre Mason had a stellar season for Auburn, but would a running back with just over 1,600 yards and 22 touchdowns get invited to New York City as a Heisman finalist? Mason got enough votes to get invited because of two games—his 164-yard performance against Alabama and, mostly, his record-setting day in the SEC title game win over Missouri, rushing for 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries.
A Heisman finalist doesn't have to be one of the best players the entire year, as long as he was the best player in the games everybody watched.
This suggestion, by the way, is not for the Heisman to change to rules so the voting becomes open up to more players. Manti T'eo finished second in the voting last season. Before a down season by his standards, Jadeveon Clowney was a preseason favorite for the award this season.
It's just that if we're already rewriting the mission statement to make it easier on voters, maybe just qualify what you mean by "best." Or, you know, make sure the voters look at all 22 players on the field, not just the guys who touch the ball the most.
The Ridiculous Voter Selection Process
Let me start with full disclosure: I do not vote for the Heisman, but I immensely respect the opinions of many of the voters. That said, if anyone is looking to get rid of their vote, I'd happily take the responsibility on for next year and beyond.
That sentence, by the way, may be enough for me to warrant a vote. The process of procuring a Heisman vote is, shall we say, ridiculous. From Heisman.com:
While the task of designating the most outstanding college football player was daunting, a crucial decision was designating the group of individuals to select him. It was determined that a logical choice was sports journalists from all across the country who, as informed, competent and impartial, would comprise the group of electors.
Seriously, that paragraph is on their site without any semblance of sarcasm. Informed, competent and, especially, impartial are three words I've never seen used together to describe the media before. But I digress.
The Heisman Trophy Trust governs the policies and procedures by which the balloting process is conducted. Specifically, six persons are chosen as Sectional Representatives.
The Sectional Representatives are responsible for the appointment of the State Representatives. State Representatives are given the responsibility of selecting the voters within their particular state.
The amount of votes that a particular state is allotted depends on the size of the state and the amount of media outlets within that state. Larger states such as California and Texas will naturally have more votes than smaller states such as Vermont and Delaware.
The states are divided into the six sections accordingly:
Far West: AZ, CA, HI, ID, MT, ND, NV, OR, SD, UT, WA, WY
Mid Atlantic: DC, DE, MD, NC, NJ, PA, SC, VA, WV
Mid West: IA, IL, IN, MI, MN, OH, WI
North East: CT, MA, ME, NH, NYC, NY, RI, VT
South: AL, FL, GA, KY, LA, MS, TN
Southwest: AR, CO, KS, MO, NE, NM, OK, TX
Each Section within the United States has 145 media votes, totaling 870 media votes across the country.
If you want to talk about East Coast bias, it's laid out clearly on the Heisman website. The Mid-Atlantic section is a joke. Trust me, I live in it. It makes no sense why that section isn't split between the South, North East or even Midwest, especially given that next season, many of the major teams in that region will be in the Big 12 or Big Ten.
I have nothing against writers in Delaware, New Jersey or Washington, D.C.—I am one, again—but shouldn't the voting count be based more on the proximity to major programs and not just the size of the state and the number of media outlets?
There is one major college football program in the state of New Jersey, for example (and some might make the joke of questioning how major), and there are really no major programs other than Rutgers within an hour or two of New York City, but because there are a lot of media outlets stationed there, they'd get more votes than, say, writers in South Carolina?
Conversely, those who cover big-time college football are often in the press boxes of their local games while the other candidates are playing. Voters who cover a specific beat have no choice but to watch games on tape or rely on highlights of other games to determine the most important college football honor in the country.
How informed or impartial can that be? And who else, by the way, gets to vote?
Additionally every former Heisman winner, 57 presently, has a vote as well. In 1999, The Heisman Trophy agreed to develop a special program to allow the public at large to become part of the balloting process by permitting one (1) fan vote eligible in the overall tabulation. This program once again continues this year through a partnership with Nissan North America, bringing the total number of voters for the 2013 Heisman race to 928.
Each voter then picks a player for first, second and third with three, two and one points given to each place. Those points are totaled up, and there's your Heisman winner.
Informed, competent and impartial.
Except it's not. Six people picked 50 others who were then responsible for picking the 870 voters who, very rarely unless they change jobs, ever relinquish their votes. Being a Heisman voter is not about who you know in college football, but who you know in college football. You know?
Is there a way to fix this? It's pretty simple, really.
Let every accredited organization or member of the media who covers the sport apply directly to the Heisman Trust to receive a vote. The trust can lean on schools and conferences to help determine which organizations are actively covering their teams. Organizations that have multiple writers who cover the sport can apply for multiple votes, and the votes are given out on an annual basis.
If the trophy already has nearly 1,000 voters, what's a few thousand more if it means getting a better assessment of who the best player in the country really is?
Make the Vote Public
The website StiffArmTrophy.com is one of a few Heisman-related (but unaffiliated) sites that try to find all public comments about voting results before the winner is announced on Saturday. As of Tuesday morning at the time of this post, the site had collected 78 ballots.
That's a pretty small sample size. And it may not get too much bigger, what with the Heisman trust making voters promise in writing they would not disclose their votes before the announcement was made.
Again, from Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports (via StiffArmTrophy.com), who decided in April to resign his Heisman vote:
I respectfully resign my Heisman vote effective immediately.
This is my way of getting out on my own terms before the Heisman Trustees can throw me out. Monday is the deadline in your organization's ham-handed attempt (in my opinion) to make secret a process that has been a joyful, celebrated American sports tradition for decades.
As you know, in August voters were notified if they didn't agree to hide their Heisman ballots, voting privileges would be up for review. A heretofore unenforced "non-disclosure requirement" was mentioned.
The Heisman trust wants the votes secret in large part because the award ceremony on ESPN does tremendous ratings, and more people watching the show means more people jumping on the Heisman Trophy bandwagon of exclusivity.
ESPN has an entire show dedicated to college football awards, but the Heisman Trophy isn't part of that ceremony. Instead, the Heisman trust makes every one of those finalists schlep up from Orlando to New York for its own ceremony two days later.
It's all about the show. Allowing voters to discuss their selections early would increase transparency and create another layer of accountability for those in the voting pool who have little to no day-to-day involvement in the sport, but that's not what the people in charge really care about.
This is not to suggest the Heisman trust should send out a press release on Wednesday for who is going to win the trophy. We get the need for some suspense to get people to tune in to the television show. But enforcing the rule this way, and threatening those voters who choose to disclose their vote, is ridiculous.
Invite Fewer Finalists
There is no need for six players to go to New York for the award ceremony. Sure, the experience is great for the players, and the traveling parties, but there just aren't six players who ever have a legitimate shot to win the award.
Sending that many people is unnecessary, serving only to create false excitement on campuses around the country. Again, if we can't play football games in December because of some antiquated excuse about pulling players out of class at a critical time in the year, why are we doing that for those who have no chance to win?
Even in a close season—in 2009 there were four players who received at least 160 first-place votes—there are not five or six potential winners. Last season, Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein was invited to New York despite finishing in as distant a third place as one could possibly imagine. Great trip, I'm sure, but what was the point of even sending the invite?
Sometimes less is more, and in the case of Heisman finalists, two or three is usually enough.
Vote in January
If the Heisman really wants to differentiate itself from the Maxwell or Walter Camp Awards—both given out on December 12—it should wait to collect votes until after the bowl games are finished.
I'll never forget the 1990 Heisman vote when Ty Detmer won the award, but he wasn't even in New York because his BYU team had to play Hawaii the next day in a regular-season game! BYU lost 59-28 at Hawaii and then got smoked later that December in the Holiday Bowl, losing 65-14 to Texas A&M. Detmer was injured after taking repeated hits, unable to finish the game.
Looking back at one season nearly 25 years ago doesn't create enough of a case to suggest the Heisman Trophy be given out after the bowls—and Detmer still could have won despite those two losses, though I doubt it—but it just makes more sense to wait until the entire season is over to pick the true player of the year.
If Alabama was undefeated right now, the race between Jameis Winston and AJ McCarron would be incredibly tight. Is that fair? Probably not, but if that's the case, why doesn't it make sense to wait until the two would have played in the title game to choose which is the player of the year?
Forget hypotheticals. If Winston gets outplayed by Tre Mason in this year's title game—if Mason goes for another 300 yards while Winston somehow gets stymied by the Auburn defense—shouldn't that impact who we look at as the best player in game this season?
Moving the award ceremony to January would also set it apart from all the other awards and create a bit of a reprieve for those invited to both the ESPN award show in Orlando and the Heisman show in New York.
Some of them probably have exams, right? Isn't that why we can't have an extended playoff system in December? Exams? Or was it awards?