PHOENIX — Paola Boivin wields immense power.
As one of six new members of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee, the longtime Valley journalist is charged with determining the four teams that will play for the national championship.
As the only woman on the committee, she is a role model and a precedent setter for aspiring female journalists across the nation.
As a member of a committee that boasts or has boasted such names as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, and Nebraska coaching legend Tom Osborne, Boivin is hanging with heavyweights.
“I’m dying to call [Rice], but I’m afraid she won’t answer my call because she is such an important person,” Boivin said, laughing. “That is for me, probably the most attractive part of this. We’ll have a lot of conversations about college football but I’m sure we’ll have a lot of conversations about other things. Just to be a fly on the wall with these people who are so accomplished and successful and smart. To be with those people for three years is really, really cool.”
Bill Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff, offered Boivin the position in December. The committee includes one current athletic director from each of the Power Five conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC), as well former coaches, players, athletic directors, administrators, and a retired member of the media.
Boivin worked for The Arizona Republic for more than 20 years (many as a columnist) before accepting a job at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication as a Professor of Practice in January of 2017.
Hancock can’t remember when he first crossed paths with Boivin (he thinks it was at an Olympics), but in subsequent dealings through college football, the two developed a mutual respect.
“She is known for her integrity and her ability to function well as part of a team, and of course her intelligence, her wit and her judgment,” Hancock said. “I think she will be an ideal member of the committee.
“She’ll bring the perspective of a former beat writer who knows the game very well, as well as the perspective of a columnist who, by nature, is in the position of exercising judgment and expressing opinion.”
Hancock understands the optics of this appointment. Rice faced intense backlash from some corners. Some questioned her college football knowledge. Others exhibited blatant sexism.
“This is about finding the best people, a football expert with integrity,” Hancock said. “Diversity comes after that.
“We liked the fact that we had a woman for three years on the committee and I like the fact that a woman will be returning to the committee, but Paola is not on this committee because she’s a woman. She’s on there because she’s a high-integrity person and a football expert.”
Boivin faced such scrutiny throughout her entire sports journalism career in a male-dominated arena.
“I’ve had 95 percent great experiences, but there’s been five percent that were really crappy ones,” she said. “Early in my career, a St. Louis Cardinals player threw a jock at me in the clubhouse. I had a guy from prison call me at the [Arizona] Republic and say not very nice things to me. Then there’s the emails, the comments like ‘Get back to the kitchen.’ Again, most of my experiences have been awesome, but you develop a thick skin.
“I think I’m like a lot of female journalists who suffer from that impostor syndrome. There’s something in the back of your mind where you really feel like you don’t belong, sometimes because people have told you that you don’t. I’m a strong believer in equal opportunity hiring, but people sometimes use that against women. Only recently do I feel like I’ve come out of that impostor syndrome or shell.”
Boivin doesn’t mind if many focus on the fact that she is a woman.
“I’m the second one, so I don’t think it’s sensationalizing it to mention it. It’s news,” she said. “It means a lot for a couple reasons. I so believe in diversity in everything. Even diversity in a college football committee setting is important because we all have different life experiences and we all come from different points of view. By injecting points of view from all different walks of life, I think you have the best chance of arriving at the right conclusion.
“The second thing is if it inspires somebody else down the road. I’m so blown away by the female sports journalists I’ve met here at Cronkite. If this would help inspire someone else to do something similar, then that’s awesome as well.”
Aside from the chance to work with such accomplished people, Boivin was also intrigued by an opportunity that would excite almost anyone in her profession.
“A lot of it is just being a journalist and sort of getting to peek behind the curtain,” she said. “As much as you cover things and attend sporting events and do interviews, there are always things you don’t get access to. To get an understanding of that system is fascinating.
“I think the best thing about having a journalist on the committee is this: People can talk fake news all they want, but the reality is we’ve spent our careers being taught fairness and objectivity. In this setting, those are two of the most important things. I hope that years of that sort of training can help me look at these things we’ll be examining with a very objective and fair eye.”
The new committee will meet for the first time in May, when Boivin will learn the details of her duties. Before each of the weekly CFP rankings are released, she will spend two days outside Dallas, sequestered with the other committee members, hashing things out.
“From what I’ve read in the past, I might get assigned conferences and Bill told me I’ll have access to an unbelievable amount of video so during football season I’ll be doing that a lot,” she said. “Poor me, I have to watch college football.”
While there are myriad challenges associated with this appointment, the greatest one may come from her journalism brethren wanting inside information.
“[Former White House press secretary] Ari Fleischer is our PR guy,” she said. “We had a conference call with him explaining what we’d be dealing with and we’re basically granted a month for interviews and anything after a month, it’s ‘Talk to Bill Hancock.’ They want to protect the integrity of the process.
“Not that I would do it, but at some point somebody is going to ask me a question. The answer might be construed as me favoring a team. That’s why this is in place.”
Boivin’s husband, Jay Dieffenbach, is an editor for AZ Central Sports and The Arizona Republic. She joked that she’s adding a lock to one of the rooms to keep all her information private.
“It is kind of a funny situation, but Jay respects how important this is to me and I think others will, too,” she said. “I think the bigger challenge I already have is people coming up to me and whispering their teams’ names in my ear, many of them in the media. Jay is already pushing the Washington State Cougars, his alma mater, on me.
“I’m like, ‘I don’t want to hear it. Not listening.'”