“You can learn more character on the two-yard line than anywhere else in life.” – Paul Dietzel
On January 11, 2016, there was a football game at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona between the University of Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers. The Crimson Tide won 45-40. The game garnered 23.6 million viewers, the sixth-largest audience in cable television history. Nick Saban, the head coach of the Crimson Tide, was very pleased with his team’s performance, complimenting their camaraderie after receiving criticism at the start of the season. Dabo Swinney, Clemson’s head coach, was proud of his team and what they’d accomplished and looked forward to next season. Two white guys talkin’ football. Historic cable numbers. Big-time sports. Yet the spectacle fell flat to me, a sign of a bloated sports landscape, an abscess in need of draining.
The media coverage of the NCAA and its attendant conference rivalries and bowl games are somewhat mind-boggling, in both scale and complete disconnect from the colleges and universities they represent. To some fans, the NCAA is just more football, a competitive proving ground for the nation’s most accomplished and disciplined athletes. The SEC, Pac 10, ACC, Big 10 eyc. are basically proving grounds for the NFL, with quality players minus the salaries. The presentation of college football is illuminated by the cartoon glow of marketers seeking to mainline a coveted source of revenue: eyeballs affixed to live TV. Popular college football is a combination of the efficient, vertically integrated media landscape and a wished-for cultural narrative of masculinity within the hallowed halls of the country’s oldest universities. NCAA football suggests that we’ve reached a point of no return with laissez-faire rapacity in the United States, athletics spun completely out of control into a strange, pseudo-provincial exercise in branding, a collection of corporate entities juking to reach a financial goal line that no one can clearly see, dangling carrots in front of the finest student-athlete-football players in the country, baiting them to sacrifice the bulk of their education to the Football Gods for the promise of an NFL career and the social spoils of modern day gladiatorial combat. It’s escapism and empty platitudes, brought to you by Stouffer’s Reheatable Snack-Paks- but diving touchdown catches are tight, though.
There’s a distinct line in the sand dividing those who watch college football at Buffalo Wild Wings and those who’ve never given college football a single thought. On the surface, the difference appears to be Red and Blue America- conservatives love college football and weird liberal types not as much, and the reasons are clear: the huge Southern universities like Alabama and Auburn and Ole Miss and Florida State have the most successful football franchises, and propagate conservative Christian values, so the big student bodies rally around their teams and show populist pride, presumably because there’s nothing else to cling to but prepackaged, provincial cultural allegiances. Many college football teams and athletic departments have been more than happy to sell themselves to private capital in crass ways, like state-of-the-art Jumbotrons and skybox restaurants. What’s more, the fascistic rage on display at college games, where ninety-thousand fans wear the same colors and chant (often racist) fight songs breeds aggression and violence, or at the very least reflects it.
Whether it’s time wasted watching, talking and reading about football, mostly from the comfort of my couch, or the fact that so many football players demonstrate such acute anti-intellectualism, football fandom is not without its fair share of egregious contradictions. I’m a fan of the New England Patriots, but I worry that my sports consumption is just a primitive trap meant to divert my energy from more worthwhile endeavors, and take my money- while watching others rake it in. It doesn’t help that through all levels of football there’s a head-slapping tendency towards masculism and misogyny. Watching football is not as cognitively rewarding as ‘reading a great novel’ or ‘going to a museum’ or ‘having a conversation with someone about something other than football’, but perhaps it is appealing both for what it is, which is straightforward, and what it isn’t- that is, difficult in any way. I mention this to offer up a more nuanced framework: the argument against college football as it stands isn’t about jocks versus nerds, or even conservative versus liberal. I get the appeal of the sport itself, and have no problem with the majority of the athletes who play the game. It’s the intermingling of superficial mainstream sports culture and the purpose of college: to, in the words of David Foster Wallace, learn about “the choice of what to think about”.
Rallying against college football is nothing new- in 1939, then-president of the University of Chicago Robert Hutchins withdrew the Chicago Maroons from intercollegiate football, writing in the Saturday Daily Post, “it is possible for a boy to win 12 letters without ever learning to write one”. There have been a rash of books on the problems of college football recently, because business has been booming. In Billion-Dollar Ball, Gilbert Gaul rifles through boxes of tax documents and internal university financial records, pointing out myriad fucked-up tax loopholes awarded to athletic departments and the exorbitant salaries of coaches like Urban Meyer and Nick Saban, who are the highest-paid public employees of Ohio and Alabama, respectively. While Gaul’s book is necessary, financial inconsistencies are a given when you’re talking about handshake-happy country club types. Florida State professor Diane Roberts’s book Tribal profiles the Southern allegiances to big-time college football and built-in emotional rivalries, and Christian fundamentalism, but again, I would argue that her critique fails to offer a substantial enough indictment of college football as a whole. One need only tune in to ESPN to see some footage of Alabama coach Nick Saban going fishing and then golfing, and then maybe fishing again, jabbering about how golf is “kind of like life”, wearing an immaculate moisture-wicking polo shirt, to understand that college football is where a particular brand of American identity is attempting to assert itself, and where a significant rethinking of the game’s support structure needs to take place.
IT PRETTY MUCH IS IT WHAT IT IS
There are now billion of dollars flowing into and throughout Division I football programs, and there is real opportunity for both professional and personal success, but athletic achievement has come to represent a self-actualization in American consciousness that belies the fleeting benefits of a life dedicated to sport. For a student-athlete, being famous and on TV and a player permeates pretty much everything. Cardale Jones wasn’t wrong when he tweeted, “I didn’t come here to play SCHOOL”, and the bloated system of recruitment, scholarships and hype surrounding athletes is itself a predictable mill of prepackaged storylines, a bubble of importance that we inflate with mimetic recognition. The fame causes creatures like Johnny ‘Football’ Manziel to emerge, who, after winning the Heisman trophy and entering a much-publicized draft, has been cut from the Cleveland Browns, dropped by his agent and is now despised on a national level. He played poorly in the pros because his scrambling technique, in which he utilized his speed to exploit the weaknesses of opposing defenses, failed against the monstrously agile linebackers of the NFL, and he kept showing up to work hung-over, or not showing up at all. Without a team or agent, all he’s been left with, strangely enough, are his millions of followers on Instagram and Twitter, who seem to be serving him fine. Famous for being famous. Get in where you fit in.
In the enormous gear-work of the televised sport machine, ‘College Football’ is entertainment designed to crank out our favorite pumped-up stars and generate maximum advertising revenue, with little regard to the players themselves. ESPN is the most successful television endeavor in history, and its lucrative contract with the NCAA- $7.4 billion over 12 years to broadcast the college playoffs and National Championship game- is unprecedented. That’s where characters like Manziel come in. A well-crafted narrative was produced, linking his impropriety with any number of factors including stress, idiocy and alcoholism, and the story chugged along at a cinematic pace. The blank-faced audience (us) were spoon-fed soundbites, enough to develop dissenting opinions on the matter: he’s either a spoiled piece of shit, or he’s due for a major comeback, or somehow it’s Justin Bieber’s fault, or whatever gets you talking beside the water cooler. The press have played up the divisiveness and downward trajectory of his story arc to great effect, when in a just world, he would have been left alone, or helped, or not thought about ever. The real ‘lesson’ to ‘glean’ from Manziel is that in America, you’ve got to make it on your own, because it’s survival of the motherfucking fittest, and if you cannot hack it then you don’t deserve to live.
There have been scandal-prone players throughout NCAA history, but Manziel is different: within the current big-money dominance of the sport, there is a magnified quality to his woes, the lens zooming in on him so that any misstep has been a failure of duty to God and country, his mid-air engine stall acted out live for all of us to see in 1080p. Manziel is one example in a larger, shallow menagerie of human narratives shaped by college football. The cliches put forth are ludicrous- clowns like Tim Tebow and Case Keenum, and head coaches like Urban Meyer and Hugh Freeze can be found tweeting Bible verses, peddling a saccharine brand of Chicken Soup for the Soul Christianity, attributing every meaningless win to the Guy Upstairs. The performative politics of college football are as hilarious as they are obvious, making it perfect entertainment, a product to put on the same shelf as Avengers and Star Wars, to pair with commercials for Sandals Resorts and Bud Light. College football commodifies Christian conservatism and turns it into a parody of itself, and the fans down South gobble it up by the millions.
The surreal line between college football players and reality- the fact that students can see the players in class and around campus (though many athletic departments have built state-of-the-art private tutoring facilities), is intrinsic to all sports and is part of their appeal. These semi-famous student-athletes are in a weird limbo stage where they are playing on national TV and seen as ‘role models’ by fellow students, who see the social spoils of a televised athletic career- i.e., tons of women and partying. For young athletes, the intermingling of media and corporeal existence establishes identity, or requires a retrenchment thereof, and the student bodies echo that sentiment, placing student-athletes on a pedestal. When Jameis Winston was caught stealing crab legs from a grocery store near the FSU campus, he pointed to the fact that they gave food away to players all the time- a community effort. Much has been revealed about the more lenient academic requirements for athletes, allowing them to pass classes with very little actual coursework. In a media-saturated world, coverage denotes significance in a way that nothing else can. In a country where you can become famous for doing a backflip in a weird place or being a rat carrying a slice of pizza down stairs, any inkling of stardom is blown out of proportion. We are living in a glut of celebrity and individuation, which is carrying college football to it’s current chaotic brink, sponsored by Capitol One, all praise due to Jesus Christ.
Americans bang the drum in celebration, valorizing athletes, supporting a competitive attitude towards challenges- “it’s our time!”, “hard work and dedication pay off!”, the idea that sheer will and stamina will earn you victory. Football, more than any other sport, embodies the technical efficiency and specialization of the U.S. economy, echoing the ruling class sentiment that you must do your job and compete, play the ‘game’, and abide by the rules, and you will experience the conventional notion of ‘success’. What is strange is that, given the absolutely brazen display of consumer culture in college football (Phil Knight’s endorsement of the Oregon Ducks comes to mind), the NCAA still refuses to allow players to be paid even a meager stipend, indicative of a classic conservative dilemma: sometimes outmoded systems and ways of thinking simply aren’t worth preserving. On top of the ideological violence in the college football machine is the forgotten fact that these teams represent schools, which represent learning– what could be a brief respite from the harsh, crass world of late capitalism in America. Instead, ESPN and the NCAA and the various athletic conferences have chosen to reinforce conformity and exploitation.
What deserves consideration, also, are the traditions that are being clutched to, the flags being waved in the name of a particular college. Torbjorn Tannsjo, writing in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, argues that the exalted status and bloodthirsty allegiance to an abstract image- a mascot or logo- is a form of Nazism. The fervent fan base of the Alabama Crimson Tide worship the symbol and the colors above all else- death to all rivals (especially Auburn). Tannsjo argues that it is fascistic to believe that “the nation can get strong, it can be successful, even if each and everyone of its citizens suffers”. One need only see images of a crowd of 90,000 crimson-clad Roll Tiders screaming at the top of their lungs to understand that there is a deep-seeded “contempt for weakness” that was at the core of Hitler’s nazism, the unified fury of the crowd on par with the Nuremburg rallies. Again, college football encourages an abstract fanaticism revealing the weakness and hypocrisy of conservative ideology, especially when it is mined (and undermined) for profit.
THE EYE OF THE BEER-HOLDER
It’s challenging when writing or thinking about sports to broach something that often goes unacknowledged:the absurdity of throwing a ball around a field and scoring imaginary points. Though it might sound histrionic, a consideration of the intangible value of sports is more useful than ever. With increased media coverage at every age range of competition- high school highlights are shown on SportsCenter Top 10 all the time- the vicarious experience of sports is going to become more and more disappointing, especially for men who feel alienated from traditional displays of masculinity and family values, or Norman Rockwell notions of community. We’re far beyond the old adage that ‘sports build character’ or are good for health- they are a huge cultural institution, and no other sect of that institution is more in need of rethinking than college football.
The most important stakeholder involved in college football’s continued success is none other than ESPN. Forget the traditions of each stadium, the decades-old rivalries and legendary match-ups.While not the first or only network to broadcast NCAA football, ESPN takes the dramatic moments and blows them out of proportion, setting the scene for the world that we are living in now- a virtual bed of sports to lay in at any time, whether in the morning, while at work, as we fall asleep or even as we fly over the country, spewing CO2 into an increasingly wrecked atmosphere. We are whisked through a pleasant coterie of off-season moments, trade rumors and humorous Vines, all linked to properties that ESPN controls. It’s a media monopoly that dictates how we see the game, how the players see themselves, and how large swaths of America see their culture. Yes, the dream world offered is pleasant as such- riding a televised wave into the future, replete with iridescent manicured grass, the very thing we miss while we watch. One hope of mine would be that conservative America finds a way to divorce what ESPN, and by proxy the entire culture surrounding college football, has taught us to think, whether it be the artificial narratives and emotional arcs of the teams or the blatant clarion call to consume, which permeates every corner of every stadium- and decide for ourselves what we find worthy. We still control our own thoughts, actions, and eyeballs when it comes to entertainment, which is still only one facet of life, I think.