Condoleezza Rice won't just be one of the first women to wear Augusta National's green jacket. She'll also be the first woman to sit on the College Football Playoff's 13-member selection committee, which is charged with deciding the four teams who will be seeded in the sport's first-ever playoff in 2015.
The announcement officially came on Wednesday, though the decision to include Rice has drawn controversy ever since rumors first surfaced a couple weeks ago that she might be included. ESPN analyst David Pollack sparked an uproar when he said he thought only people who "can watch tape, that have played football, that are around football, that can tell you different teams on tape" should be on the committee, even if that implied no women. (He later clarified his statement.) Former Auburn coach Pat Dye expressed a similar complaint on an Alabama radio station: "All she knows about football is what somebody told her. Or what she read in a book, or what she saw on television. To understand football, you've got to play with your hand in the dirt."
The idea that Condi Rice wouldn't be a valuable member of the selection committee because she's never played football is ludicrous. That's like saying Pete Rozelle couldn't be a great NFL commissioner because he'd never played the game. Or that former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates shouldn't be on the board of Starbucks because he's never run a coffee company. Gates's experience, independent thinking and leadership is an asset to Starbucks—just as Rice's intellect, diplomatic background and decision-making skills will be of great value to the group of people deciding which teams make the playoff. Every board elects people who may not have managed a company or been a CEO, but whose breadth of knowledge and diverse viewpoints provide a great sounding board to the others in the room.
Would there be fewer questions if the board had selected a female athletic director, such as Sandy Barbour at the University of California at Berkeley or Deborah Yow at North Carolina State University? Maybe, but I doubt it. Rice, whose knowledge of and passion for football runs deep, may appear to be an outsider because of her prominent Washington ties, but she has plenty of academic bona fides, having been a provost at Stanford, where the athletics department reported to her.
Perhaps the real controversy here is that we have a controversy at all. Just as the decision to allow a woman to join Augusta National looks absurd in hindsight, this one could too. We are talking, let's not forget, about picking which four teams are the best in college football. This is not rocket science. At least three of the teams will most likely be obvious based on their win-loss record, the strength of their schedule and their overall statistics. The college football world may believe this decision is more consequential than choosing between future Federal Reserve chairmen or worthy Nobel laureates, but it is not. It's just football, people. (And that's coming from a serious fan.)
In the end, the debate over Rice's inclusion on the selection committee reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what will be the group's most difficult challenge. The easy part will be deciding which teams should be in the running based on the level of football they've played. The hard part will be getting a room full of 13 egos to come to an agreement on which of the less-obvious teams—if there are any—should get the nod. This will require expertise that goes far beyond knowing how to run the spread offense or execute a zone defense. It will take experience with diplomacy, consensus-building and establishing enough trust between members of an all-star team that they will be able to make good decisions. Rice will bring all of that to the table in spades.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.