Let’s put the Heisman Trophy on hiatus

Dec 13, 2014; New York, NY, USA; Detail of the Heisman Trophy as it sits on a pedestal before the pre-announcement press conference at the New York Marriott Marquis. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 13, 2014; New York, NY, USA; Detail of the Heisman Trophy as it sits on a pedestal before the pre-announcement press conference at the New York Marriott Marquis. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s time to rethink how the Heisman Trophy is awarded. A drastic overhaul is needed.

The 2015 Heisman Trophy race has been underwhelming. That’s putting it mildly. With so much collective attention being paid to the College Football Playoff rankings, it seems as though nobody quite has the energy or the enthusiasm to debate who should win college football’s most prestigious award. The lack of hype feels like some sort of bizarre-o alternate reality. The Heisman Trophy — one of the most famous awards in sports; one of the few trophies, along with the Stanley Cup, that carries true pop culture weight; an award that even non-fans recognize when it appears in a crossword puzzle or is referenced on a sitcom — feels devalued, boring, outdated.

The lack of Heisman enthusiasm in 2015 has nothing to do with the athletes on the field. Alabama’s Derrick Henry, Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliot, and LSU’s Leonard Fournette are a trio of running backs as good as any in recent memory, and that’s not even taking into account Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, a multi-tool phenom with his sights on Barry Sanders’ single-season all-purpose yardage record. When it comes to quarterbacks, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield have both led their respective teams to excellent seasons, as has Navy’s record-setting senior Keenan Reynolds. If people are indifferent to the Heisman Trophy process this year, it isn’t because there is a lack of exciting, gifted players to cheer for.

What’s more likely is that fans aren’t invested in this year’s Heisman race because they recognize how the award has become a hollow, empty sham. That’s not the fault of the players; the blame sits at the feet of the voting committee. One of the biggest issues with the Heisman race is that the process unfairly excludes certain players simply because they don’t play the right position or don’t suit-up for a prestigious program. An all-world quarterback on a team not in one of the Power 5 conferences can at best expect a token invite to New York, but actually winning the Heisman is out of the question. A defensive player, no matter how dominant, has zero shot at winning, the exception being if he also plays on offense and special teams. An offensive lineman or wide receiver? Forget it. Not going to happen. It’s hard to be enthusiastic about the Heisman race when it feels so inorganic and systematically restrictive.

In conjunction with the recent trend of the Heisman being reserved for quarterbacks and running backs, there’s also a weird vagueness at play, one that gives the question of who should win the Heisman a sort of Potter Stewart feel: fans and pundits know a Heisman winner when they see one. The formula for success is some unquantified alchemy of team performance, team prestige, national ranking, difficulty of competition, individual stats, and highlight-making ability. It’s unknown how these categories are weighted, but all the categories undoubtedly matter: failing in one results in a player losing his Heisman candidacy. But beyond those basic parameters there are no set rules. Instead of creating a meritocratic environment in which any player, no matter his position, no matter the school he attends, can be a viable candidate, the vagueness creates a system that leads to predictability. Certain players are top Heisman candidates because they resemble, in some way, previous Heisman candidates. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle; the Heisman is awarded to the player who most resembles what a Heisman winner should be, as defined by previous Heisman winners.

This is a flawed system and fans recognize it. No wonder they’ve tuned out. Deep down each and every fan knows that everyone is just grasping at straws when it comes to justifying why a certain Heisman candidate is better than another. And in a year like 2015, a year in which no player has truly set himself apart from the pack, it becomes difficult for fans to emotionally invest in the Heisman process. It seems counterintuitive, but the wide-open nature of this year’s race makes the award less exciting, or at least makes the award less fun to debate, because said wide-open nature shifts the focus of conversation away from appreciating an individual superstar — the territory most fans feel comfortable in. Instead, the national conversation has to be about how Heisman worthiness is determined, and by its very nature that conversation exposes the flimsy premises on which the Heisman is built. The curtain gets pulled back, revealing nothing but a balsa wood set and a troupe of actors just winging it as they go. And nobody enjoys dealing with those ugly truths.

It’s clear that the Heisman Trophy needs a reboot of some sort; the current system isn’t pleasing anyone. Perhaps changes to the award could be incremental: a receiver winning the award here, a lineman getting an invite to New York there. But where’s the fun in that? If the system is broken, what’s the point of just patching it up? Forget appeals to tradition and legacy: college football has evolved so much over the years, with most of that change being exponential and recent, so it isn’t as though the sport is entirely resistant to new ideas. College football went from ending the year with a handful of bowl games to using computers to help determine national title contenders to a four-team playoff system. That’s a lot of ground to cover. Progress is possible.

So in the name of embracing change, in overhauling things now in order to secure a better (or at least a different) future, let’s consider something radical and unpopular: not awarding the Heisman Trophy. Yes, it’s a ludicrous, half-joking idea, one that wouldn’t fly with most of the football-loving country, but the principles behind it are worth examining. Recent predictability has rendered the award meaningless, or if not meaningless at least not very meaningful. Fans seem checked out, indifferent, and national media appear to be more interested in arguing about the playoff rankings than debating the particulars of the Heisman race. No candidate has truly distinguished himself; it is possible to convincingly argue for every major candidate, but instead of making the race exciting it makes the race seem hollow and silly. No matter who walks away with the trophy in a few weeks, it will feel like an afterthought, like going through the motions. College football fans are told they have to care about the Heisman, so they will feign interest, but deep down it’s impossible to ignore the emptiness of the pageantry and the flawed precedents supporting the entire system.

What would be gained by putting the Heisman on hiatus for a year? First, it would allow for a complete re-examination of what the Heisman trophy means — who can win it, what they have to do on the field, etc. It would allow for a fresh start, a reboot. Instead of just perpetuating the cycle of running backs and quarterbacks, effort could be made toward figuring out how to include defensive players and linemen. Whom the Heisman is actually supposed to reward — the best player on the best team? the most indispensable player on a pretty good team? — could be analyzed in a way that is sorely lacking now, when the criteria are restrictive in their vagueness.

A Heisman hiatus would be good for fans as well. This year’s apathy would be replaced by next year’s anticipation. The return of the Heisman would be an event, and there’s nothing college football fans love more than the spectacle of an event. People who are uninterested in the Heisman race at the moment would cry about missing the award the second said race was terminated. To borrow a bit from the lexicon of professional wrestling, putting the Heisman on hold would create some cheap heat. It would be a story, a scandal. It’d be a much-needed shock to the system, much like how a defibrillator provides a shock to steady a heartbeat. The return of the Heisman in 2016 would be met with unprecedented excitement.

Yes, not awarding the Heisman in 2015 is a tongue-in-cheek suggestion, but even if that sort of drastic measure would be unpalatable for most college fans, those same fans at least recognize, or would be willing to acknowledge if pressed, that the Heisman system is broken, and that said brokenness is detracting from the fanfare that should surround one of the most famous awards in all of sports. There is no reason why the Heisman has to be predictable and boring. It is only predictable and boring because it has been allowed to become so, but that degradation is reversible. Perhaps the problem with the Heisman process can be solved via less drastic measures, but there’s nothing wrong with dreaming about tearing everything down and starting fresh.