Friday, August 26, 2016

College Football: The Game of Games

There are crew cut guys in polo shirts stalking the sidelines; there's a meaningless poll released spawning a million blog posts deriding it as meaningless while at the same time assailing its rankings as the meanest injustice; there's a caller to Paul Finebaum who becomes so enraged about Alabama that he tears off his second shirt; there are inept announcers preparing to allude to hideous crimes and blatant institutional malfeasance as "off-field issues;" a thousand internet commentators simultaneously attempt to fire a thousand offensive coordinators.  College football returns this weekend.

College football breeds the most colorful atmosphere than any other major American sport because of the bizarre nature of its fans and participants: young people who are adept at drunkenness and memes, the unpaid players who study in theory alongside them, rich alumni boosters playing at the levers of power intriguing against the coaching staff, the coaching staff that consists of several hundred goateed guys all named Jimbo or Skip who replace each other every season, and the universities that inexplicably attached to this splitting atoms and producing articles about modes of The Masculine in John Donne or professional wrestling and fuck saw demonstrations.

It's the passionate fans that mark the college football experience

The atmosphere lends itself to all-consuming spectacle. College football fans do not only participate in cheering their team on the field but also in the bizarre metacompetitions for facilities, for ever-flashier uniforms, and, most importantly, in the mind-bogglingly ludicrous battles for teenagers to join their teams. It is a game of games.

These battles are not new; the history of college football is the history of every underhanded recruiting tactic humanly possible wrapped in paeans to Amateur Athletics. What is new is that a sufficiently deranged fan can instantaneously read about a recruiting battle weighed by arbitrarily-assigned grades, insult the teenager and his loved ones for not choosing his or her team, taunt opposing fans on a message board and accuse them of dirty tactics, and then watch a bunch of videos of that monkey-chained-on-dog racing that they tried to ban from the Lake County Fair in a single afternoon.  It is now possible that a die-hard not only knows the two-deep going into training camp, but the projected two-deep two years from now with kids who have yet to graduate from high school or a litany of highly specific grievances about why they'll be suiting up for the Team Up State.

Smaller programs mainly concern themselves with attracting attention.  They have eye-catching uniforms, dyed turf, weeknight games. In my favorite move, Bob Diaco of UCONN unilaterally started a rivalry with Central Florida and created his own trophy and countdown clock while UCF desperately tried to deny that the rivalry existed.  I will remember this on my deathbed.

UCF reacted with the same bemused agitation that Golyadkin had in 
The Double when a second Golyadkin appears and no one else finds it 
odd and the footmen bodily throw him out of the fancier nineteenth-
century Russian tea houses

In big schools, the clashes are operatic. They include races to build more opulent facilities, bellicose press statements, and intrigue worthy of the most Habsburg of courts, if these intrigues were all conducted as grotesque, ham-handed attempts by middle-aged megalomaniacs to lure athletes to their opulent facilities so they can scream at them for several years and fake their own funeral as a motivational ploy.

A rare but inescapable species of fan not only wants to beat State at the big Homecoming game but also have more underwater treadmills than them and a better fundraising apparatus and better marketing so they sell more tickets so they can afford better coaches who can lure better players and beat them for all the Homecomings from now until the End Times.


One does not have to look far on a Northwestern football blog for an example of an equally desperate and futile marketing war: the eternal battle to be Chicago's Big Ten Team.  You may think that the intense Northwestern-Illinois rivalry has cooled since Illinois fired forklift negligence spokesman Tim Beckman and then fired his replacement because he was tainted by him and hired Lovie Smith. You were wrong.

At Big Ten Media Day, a place for Big Ten coaches to put on suits and puff out their throat sacs and eyes spots for reporters, Lovie claimed that Illinois could become "Chicago's Team." This directly contradicts Northwestern's "Chicago's Big Ten Team" slogan that they had earned by purchasing a bunch of billboards.  Neither team plays in Chicago.

Lovie Smith, pictured with the Big Ten East, West, and Conference trophies 
which will one day be united. arranged on their podium deep in the bowels 
of the O'Hare Hilton Conference Room B, and aligned with a Harvest Moon, 
casting a path on a crude map carved into the wall that shows the way to the 
Meineke Car Care Bowl.

Those enjoined in the battle to claim Chicago like it was a Holy Roman duchy in the hands of a childless noble about to succumb to a litany of incest defects imagine a marketing and recruiting bonanza.  Both schools court football-mad Chicago fans to fill their empty stadiums and Chicago athletes to bring them to the top of the Big Ten West.

The results, however, remain barren.  Chicago is a great college football city, but only because it shelters so many Midwestern alumni, who cluster in their own bars to watch the games or show up at Ryan Field to complain about it instead of leaving us alone with our tarps and yowling Wildcat sound effects. Chicago's closest thing to a college football team sadly plays in South Bend, Indiana.  Northwestern and Illinois count a total of five players combined from Chicago proper, according to the rosters on their websites.  Neither team has been able to tap into the city's astounding amount of NBA-caliber basketball talent. The Northwestern-Illinois game at Soldier Field appeared to be attended exclusively by the players' families.

Chicago's Big Ten Teams face off for the Hat. Not pictured: Chicago

Far more important than this foolish battle for the attention of an indifferent city is the actual stakes of the Illinois-Northwestern rivalry: the Hat, the greatest prize in college football.  Will this game live up to the bombastic zenith of the Tim Beckman era, complete with his complement of anti-Northwestern apparatus?  Lovie Smith, at the very least, seems interested in trying.


College football's metagame makes it eerily fascinating.  The specter of recruiting hangs over the entire sport in a complex, chaotic system: the thinking is that a jersey sponsor may introduce an alternate helmet that trends on social media and gains the attention of an enormous fifteen-year-old who two years later tours the facilities and is interested by the quarter-billion-dollar athletic fitness facility with a waterproof X-Box jacuzzi and also the academics of course let's not forget about those and then somehow signs a letter of intent and years later is leading the team to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl while the rival team sits at home in a grim, potatoless hellscape.

He explained, Goldblumically

Does any of this relentless brand-mongering have any effect on the quality of the team on the field?  I have no idea, but the relentless scheming of tightly-wound megalomaniacs desperately competing for the fickle attention of teenagers in front of their fans, reporters, and the whole entire internet while backed by a chorus of unhinged radio show callers accusing them of every type of possible skulduggery makes it impossible to look away. The sideshow has almost superseded the games.

Let the insane internet accusations and berating of coordinators as inept return.  College football is back. Everywhere but within the municipal boundaries of Chicago.

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