Thursday, August 28, 2014

Bear Attacks

College football has returned!  The Wildcats will take the field this weekend in a rematch against Cal played at time when events actually start that don’t take place at Studio 54.  Once again, a small number of people roughly comparable to the crowd at a rally for the Divine Right Party will gather at Ryan Field to exorcise last season’s demons and witness the destruction of college football as we know it.

Many aspects of the game are unrecognizable.  Realignment has led to the end of old conferences, the rise of new ones has confused casual fans (the reshuffle involving the Late Big East, Conference USA, and something called the “American Athletic Conference” in particular has the feel of a television show crafting an alternate reality to avoid trademark infractions.  The American Conference is home to schools like State University, Texas and Wasamotta U.
The American Conference's Milford School student section unnerves the opposition 
with an eerie silence

This means that Rutgers and Maryland will play in the Big Ten, creating rivalries that will, in the tradition of college football, become ageless bedrocks for fans until teams inevitably move to another conference in two years because a cable network is throwing around ducats like a Dickensian Marquis.
College football is changing as a result of the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit and the Northwestern unionization case.  The impossibility of clinging to amateurism for players in a multi-billion dollar sports entertainment industry is eroding in the court of law and in public opinion.  The results of the O’Bannon lawsuit, however, have shown that the status of college athletes in revenue sports will remain in an ambiguous morass of slow-moving lawsuits about how much lunch meat to give players and selling pants. 

We can’t be sure what college football will look like in the future, except that all future entertainment will turn out to be death sports propping up an authoritarian government envisioned by people in the 1980s.  Litigation, however, will mean that college athletes will eventually be able to be compensated and able to capitalize on their likeness until we can get robots to tackle each other for our amusement and also take over universities and churn out papers with titles like “The Flesh Prince? Discourses of power and bodies: Foucault’s rhetorical ‘pendulum’ ‘swings’ from Bel-aire to TGIF,” in Sensors: A Journal of Robot Humanities, v. 46514836 (May, 2167) pp. 15164-15194.
Dean Vernon is unable to deal with Robot Faculty


The most important change to the college football is the addition of a playoff.  The four-team system will replace the hated Bowl Championship Series system, which was designed to combine polls in order to select the best two teams in the country and to enrage the South.  The new system will use a panel of judges to arbitrarily select four teams in a playoff and infuriate the South and potentially the Rust Belt.  We’ve made progress.

For NU fans and, indeed, fans of most of the 120 FBS football teams, the precise method of choosing a national champion, be it a Mythical National Champion, a BCS Champion, or a Piggly Wiggly National Champion, is largely irrelevant.  Schools outside of the newly-christened “Power Five” conferences (excluding Notre Dame, which bums athletic conferences like a drunk ex-smoker) will toil for mid-tier bowl berths.  MAC teams exist mainly to provide weeknight games ending in 75-68 scores and to potentially humiliate Michigan.  And the majority of Power Five teams are only around to upset major teams, charge the field, and play each other to death in Pizza City Bowls across the country.

Most college football fans have no real stake in the annual debate over rankings, Heisman winners, and championship berths that fuel the Twenty-First Century Sports Jabbering Industry.

BYCTOM is a card-carrying member of the Twenty-First
 Century Sports Jabbering Industry, although fewer 
people read this blog than a hastily-xeroxed  fan zine 
about zither player trading cards

As a Northwestern fan, I don't care about the playoff or the National Championship or whatever powerhouse team manages to win.  I don't care about the Big Ten being terrible because there is maybe one team that can win the championship and it no longer has a quarterback and because Michigan is the Sick Man of College Football.  One year, perhaps even this year, the 'Cats may catch fire, catch all the breaks, and reverse 2013 the conference on their way to having a claim on a playoff berth.  One day, perhaps, Illinois will come out of nowhere and win every game except the Hat Game and be denied a playoff spot and Tim Beckman will be caught doing whippets on the sideline.  Until then, though, I'm not going to worry about the ridiculous Kafka-esque process that this dumb sport uses to determine a champion.  I measure victory in bowls and Hats.

The Selection Committee convenes to determine a College Football Champion


College football analysts have analyzed rosters, attended practices, looked at the state of the Big Ten West, and their verdict on Northwestern's season is a resounding Fuck If I Know.  Last year's games ended on a series of impossible calamities which could not possibly be duplicated.  This year's team lost its two best playmakers and plays a tougher nonconference schedule.  Also, the team became the face of college football's labor activism, with the NCAA and the university denouncing it as the ruination of the sport.
NCAA-provided informational literature to student-
athletes about unionization
And the 'Cats have to perform against their sworn enemies, the California Golden Bears.  Last year in Berkeley, Northwestern played a close game against first-year head coach Sonny Dykes.  The game ended in recriminations and promises of vengeance.  Dykes accused Fitzgerald of instructing players to fake injuries in order to slow the fast-paced Bear offense.  The Bears' attack was indeed vicious.  Wener Herzog has instructed Northwestern defensive coaches to burn their tapes.  Cal suffered an even more disastrous season than NU. They finished 1-11, beating only Portland State.
The acrimony is supposedly behind both coaches, but Dykes spent the rest of the season fuming.  He has spent weekends rolling around pretending to clutch his hamstrings outside of numerous academic conferences on Northwestern's campus, he has been calling Fitzgerald and pretending to sell motivational haircut equipment then screaming OH MY INTERNAL ORGANS and hanging up, he has been putting hooks on Northwestern players' cars.  Football fans hope the game is as exciting as the last one without being marred by controversy.  Actually, fuck it, I want Northwestern to win and I don't care if they do so by bringing in a mechanized Tyrannosaurus on the sidelines and they pretend to get mauled by it every three minutes because we're going to a bowl game this year even if it means using underhanded tactics like stealing playbooks, impersonating coaches, and fomenting revolution in rival programs by sending Kain Colter to their practices in a sealed train.


As college football erupts in stadiums across the country and our homes, it carries a long legacy of mass interest in sports.  And with sports came gambling.  In the 17th century, for example, English people took a great interest in foot racing.  The most celebrated runner of the 1690s was known as the Preston, the Flying Butcher of Leeds, who earned his nickname by literally being a butcher.  This demonstrates a true dedication to nicknames that is unmatched in the twenty-first century except by Kobe Bryant who calls himself the Black Mamba and hisses at people on the court like he is Thulsa Doom.  According to Edward Seldon Sears, Preston became too well-known to race and had to disfigure himself in order to get opponents.

Similarly,  aristocrats wagered heavily on races between footmen.  These "running footmen" had to keep up with horse-drawn carriages, carrying light snacks on poles.  I assume that the presence of gambling aristocrats made these races crooked.  I imagine that there were all sorts of ways to gain an advantage such as destroying a competitor's confidence by wearing fancier footman uniforms, poisoning their staff-borne hard-boiled eggs, and falling down to fake injuries in order to slow the opposing offense.  

While aristocrats could compete for the services from 
the hardiest footmen, the shoe buckle companies also 
fought for their endorsement, as seen for this ad for the 
popular 1698 Stride Man buckle with an elaborate air 
pumping system for increased racing and unruly 
dinner guest thrashing performance

By the nineteenth century, long-distance walking events gained traction with the gambling community alongside horse racing, attracting enormous crowds.  Here, according to Wikipedia, is an account of Robert Barclay Allardice's celebrated 1000-hour/1,000 mile walk in 1809:
One hundred to one, and indeed any odds whatever, were offered on Wednesday; but so strong was the confidence in his success, that no bets could be obtained. The multitude of people who resorted to the scene of action, in the course of the concluding days, was unprecedented. Not a bed could be procured on Tuesday night at Newmarket, Cambridge, or any of the towns and villages in the vicinity, and every horse and every species of vehicle was engaged...Capt Barclay had a large sum depending upon his undertaking. The aggregate of the bets is supposed to amount to £100,000.
The image of people frantically shaking money and screaming at Barclay to walk, to walk, to WALK DAMN YOUR BLOOD while he calmly but determinedly ambles through the countryside is irresistible and unrecognizable to modern sports fans unable to process such a feat without the nineteenth-century equivalent of Skip Bayless shrieking about his gentlemanliness.

The nineteenth-century version of ESPN's Embrace Debate format.  
This is actually a depiction of a duel between a journalist named 
Paul Déroulède and Georges Clemenceau from 1892 over a political 
dispute, which means that only eight years before the twentieth
century these two prominent public men literally shot guns at each 
other.  Neither was harmed, and Clemenceau went on to become the 
French Prime Minister in 1917, represent France at the Paris Peace 
Conference, and grow a spectacular mustache

Pedestrianism is the antecedent of race walking and other endurance sports, such as race walking, ultra marathons, and watching Northwestern attempt to hold a lead in the fourth quarter.


It is college football season!  Head to Ryan Field, turn on your television, fashion your hands into elaborate defense-encouraging claw gestures, and hold onto your butts.  There's no way the 'Cats can lose on eight consecutive hail mary fumble overtimes again.  There's no reason the Wildcats can't beat Cal without allegations of chicanery.  There's no reason they can't keep the The Hat from The Beck Man.  There's no reason why they can't sack, pillage, and salt the fields of South Bend on the way back to where the program belongs-- in a low-prestige bowl game sponsored by an absurd company that I can't possibly want to win any more.  I'll grab my pole and my elaborate footman livery and race you all to the stadium.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Good Gravy, Northwestern Football is Almost Here

We've had nearly nine months to forget about last season, a season of promise and preseason rankings, a season of winning amongst allegations of fake injury skullduggery, a season of making fun of P.J. Fleck's absurd rowboat sloganeering, and a season that ended in ignominy amongst hail mary passes, last-second field goals, overtimes, failed fourth-down conversions, and, well, at least we have The Hat.  We spent the offeseason watching Northwestern become the focal point of the NCAA's ridiculous Custer-like defense of student-athlete amateurism.  It is time to put that aside, drink beer, contort our hands into claw gestures, and bray for touchdowns as our Wildcats smash into other football teams for our amusement.  Northwestern makes its debut in the Big Ten West in search of a bowl berth, the final blow against the Tim Beckman Hate Machine, and oh my goodness, we play Notre Dame again this year, let's create a dumb rivalry trophy and then use it to dismantle that stadium brick by brick.
Northwestern and Notre Dame last played 19 years and this Pat Fitzgerald 
mustache ago

The Wildcats will this season to their comfortable position of low expectations, they return key defenders, and, most importantly, they will never play in the LEGENDS DIVISION again or at least until the next Big Ten expansion that will create the LIONHEART, LOCH NESS, or LINKEDIN.COM divisions.


Yet, before the season started, the Wildcats have already hit some setbacks.  Star running back Venric Mark, one of the most exciting players in Northwestern history, has departed the team under mysterious circumstances.  Mark missed most of last season with an injury (a "lower body" injury in NU's festively vague injury-reporting protocol that lists injuries as upper or lower-body; the medical staff would be baffled figuring out how to report Buzzsaw's untimely end at the hands of the fugitive Ben Richards).  Reports surfaced that he had been suspended from the team for the first two games for a violation of team policies.  Last week, the school announced unexpectedly that he was transferring.  There's nothing more to say about any of that other than reiterating how much I enjoyed watching Venric Mark zoom around Ryan Field as defensive players futilely tried to tackle him using a variety of defective products from the Acme catalog.
Tim Beckman presents a solid tactical plan to stop the 
Colter/Mark option play

That same day, we learned that speedy wideout Christian Jones is lost for the season with a knee injury.  These developments will strain an offense already adjusting to a presumably more pass-happy offense under the sole direction of Trevor Siemian.  Northwestern fans have seen plenty of him the past few years as a co-starter who saw significant playing time.  Now, the senior will get his shot as the full-time signal caller without two dynamic playmakers and with the pressure of knowing that, at any minute, some pun-happy newspaper editor is going to figure out that his last name is a homophone for simian and let loose with a barrage of substandard ape-related wordplay until he or she is subdued by the proper literary authorities.  

Northwestern has had an uncharacteristically interesting offseason.  Normally, Wildcat fans can look forward to ramping up to opening day by reading Pat Fitzgerald's candid admissions that they will indeed be playing (American) football this season and are training with branch of the military that will teach them how to lift logs in tandem and safely detonate landmines for football purposes.  This year, though, the union case made Northwestern football into national news, thus taking away a key tactical advantage against Big Ten coaches who often forget the 'Cats are in the conference and now need to figure out how to get a bus to Evanston in less than 72 hours.  
Whatever the hell this thing is doesn't need to worry about finding out how to ride 
to Evanston for the forseeable future

Then again, maybe Northwestern's dismal season and loss of key offensive players has rendered the offseason attention moot.  The Grantland Big Ten preview by the excellent Holly Anderson, for example, offered few bits of insight for Wildcat fans such as the existence of the team or its intention to play football games this fall in both home and away venues.

As we've learned from years when the 'Cats have boasted preseason ranks and then crashed or have been picked to finish in the basement and then won Big Ten Championships, there's no point in prognosticating.  The defense, returning Ibraheim Campbell, Nick VanHoose, and Chi Chi Ariguzo along with some exciting newcomers, could potentially carry the team to a better record than we expect.  The Big Ten West does not terrify anyone.  But the 'Cats will have to face a vengeance-obsessed Sonny Dykes, try to maintain their perfect record against Northern Illinois, and travel to South Bend in November during a brutal stretch of conference games in order to make it back to their rightful place in Pizza City.  I would not have it any other way.


For those of us who are idle and silly enough to waste our time following sports, we have been greatly rewarded by the creation of year-long soap operas around our favorite leagues.  The NBA is the best at this, featuring a summer of stunning revelations, open letters written in comic sans and normal fonts, exile and deliverance from Minnesota, and breathless updates on golf cart men.

The NBA trade and free agent market is rendered even more exciting by a collective-bargaining agreement that is essentially impossible to follow unless you are a person who owns a green accounting visor and one of those jewel-magnifying monocles for strictly recreational purposes.  Player movement is governed by a salary cap riven with exceptions such as the midlevel exception, the room exception, the bird rights exception, the table ladder and chair exception for players able to successfully pin either Karl Malone or Diamond Dallas Page in a professional wrestling match, an exception for players willing to get a tattoo of former commissioner David Stern in an area visibly exposed by a modern basketball jersey, an exception for teams with non-extinct animal mascots, and an exception for general managers able to last an entire night in the NBA's spooky mansion.

The NFL has gone a step further and made contracts, as far as I can tell, completely and utterly meaningless, like they've been placed on the front page of the official organ of the fictional evil Wisconsin communist regime.

This interview with a Temporary Mosinee Communist sheds light on the festive fictional communist coup.  While the Mosinee experiment is a notorious Red Scare episode, few historians are aware of Moscow's repsonse, where citizens in a small rural Soviet town pretended to launch an American takeover and spent the day accusing each other of being communists.


The wind is shifting, Wildcat fans.  Old men can feel it in their bones.  Pat Fitzgerald's fists pump infinitesimally harder in practice.  Soon, the leaves will fall from the trees.  Dozens of people will pour into Ryan Field.  The Chicago Cubs will stop embarrassing themselves in public.  Football is mere days away, and I couldn't be more excited.  There's no hype this season.  No preseason ranking.  No expectations.  No verbs in these sentence fragments.  It will soon be football season, it will soon be Big Ten football, and it will soon be time to share in college football's greatest prize: a berth in a bowl game named for a soon-to-be-defunct product or service.  Wildcat football is coming to save us all.