Half the class could become valedictorians. We're at the precipice of an everyone-gets-a-ribbon era in pro sports.
After Roger Goodell tried to float the idea of expanding the NFL playoffs this week, the response might have led one to believe that he had proposed eliminating math from public schools.
The quality of the playoffs will be diluted, the dutiful objectors say, and the regular season will drift ever closer to insignificance. They're right. They're just not right enough to bestow gravitas on their arguments.
As an appalled Steve Young said after ersatz refs spun a Golden Tate touchdown from their imaginations in Seattle: "There's nothing [the NFL] can do to hurt the demand for the game. So the bottom line is they don't care.''
The only threat to the NFL comes from brain-trauma research, which doesn't have much professional interest in whether 12, 14 or 16 teams make the playoffs. This expansion idea emphasizes the NFL's craven quest for more revenue, with the attendant unhealthiness of all gluttony. But a bigger wild-card weekend won't generate more risk to any one player. It will increase the number of young men facing the long-term hazards of 60 vicious minutes, which they could have avoided through lower achievement.
They all want to be there, playing on, separated from the weaklings, getting an extra check. Or at least, they're all supposed to want to be there. A few years ago, retired NFL lineman Ross Tucker wrote an essay for Sports Illustrated saying that stars with secure futures occasionally failed to embrace the joy of going to the playoffs with a team they didn't see as a genuine contender.
Any fans who see Goodell's proposal as a boon to their beloved almost-rans might want to keep that in mind. An undeserving team in the playoffs has more potential to muddle its own future prospects than to damage the sanctity or entertainment value of the postseason. A playoff berth could take the sting out of a 7-9 regular season and, consequently, the necessary motivation out of the general manager.
At the moment, the NFC has nine winning teams, the AFC only seven. In a 16-team format, that conference would be on the way to burping up the 6-7 Jets as its eighth playoff participant. Anyone who watched the parody of football they produced on Thanksgiving should find that inconceivable. But could they, given the chance, pull off an upset? It seems inconceivable. A lot of things do until they happen:
The Jets of 2010 losing 45-3 in early December at Gillette Stadium, then beating the Patriots six weeks later in the playoffs.
The Arizona Cardinals taking terrible losses, including one on Thanksgiving, down the stretch of the 2008 season, hearing NBC's Cris Collinsworth call them the worst playoff team in history, and then advancing to the Super Bowl.
And finally, the great staple in this debate: the first sub-.500 playoff team during a full season, the 7-9 Seahawks, hosting and upending the defending champion Saints in the first round of 2010.
It's important to remember that the 2010 Seahawks did not benefit from the presence of a wild-card berth. The shift to eight four-team divisions bought their ticket. The change from six allowed the 32 teams to be properly apportioned, but it created some division winners that, if any discretion applied, would have encountered an adamant bouncer working the door to the postseason.
Would a larger field damage an outstanding team's chances of winning it all? The league already has a pattern of ousted teams that dominated the regular season. The last time the team with the best regular-season record won the Super Bowl was 2003, when the Patriots went 14-2 and dumped the Panthers in the big game.
Over the last 10 years, three teams produced at least 15 wins -- the 2004 Steelers, 2007 Patriots and 2011 Packers -- and all of them saw another club hoist the Lombardi Trophy. The Steelers and Packers didn't even reach the Super Bowl.
Since 1990, when the field expanded from 10 to 12 playoff teams, five of the NFL's champions also finished the regular season atop all the standings. The 10 preceding seasons, minus the strike year of 1982, produced five champs who also had the best record before the playoffs. So a 12-team field yielded five top seeds as champions over 21 years, and a 10-team field yielded the same results in less than half the time.
It suggests that adding two teams distorted the chances of the best team, doesn't it? But here's the problem: In all of those years, the top seed had a bye in the first round. So it didn't face an extra opponent (as a 16-team field would require), or a greater mathematical chance of being knocked out of the playoffs.
The regular season has been diluted, but no one can positively identify the source of the liquid.
Already, we see plenty of teams with clinched berths resting their best players at the end of a season. Reducing the playoff field to eight teams wouldn't prevent that. A dominant team is a dominant team. It doesn't matter how many other clubs follow it into playoffs.
The only solution might be a shorter regular season. A concentration of 14 games would be harder to dilute. It would almost certainly be safer, as well. But in the revenue-padding game, that idea will never suit up.