Friday, September 1, 2017

Portents and Signs

There is no shortage of radio callers and message board maniacs that would take a 7-6 football season and berth in the NCAA Men’s Tournament as an invitation to launch an entire wing of prop planes with increasingly unhinged demands to fire a Gary Oldmanish everyone at their school. This is the Golden Age of Northwestern sports.

Northwestern returns with all the pomp one would expect from the Pin Striped-Bowl Champions, with a life-size replica of Justin Jackson erected in Monument Park and Pat Fitzgerald appearing at Pittsburgh, as bowl tradition dictates, to dress like an umpire and scream YER OUTTA HERE (IN REFERENCE TO THE PINSTRIPE BOWL) at the Panthers while doing burnouts on their practice field in a custom-built Pinstripe Champion bullpen car.

Pat Fitzgerald engages in the traditional spoils of the Pinstripe Bowl 

Northwestern’s triumphant sports mediocrity has not happened in isolation but from an attempt to operate like a major athletic conference sports school instead of a program for wayward youth to build character through getting run over and dunked upon. Scaffolding has sprung up across the campus watered by a money hose. Northwestern is building a ludicrous quarter-billion-dollar luxury sports fortress along the lake. The basketball team has been forced to a suburban arena for monster trucks, wrestling, and people dressed as monster trucks who wrestle at each other in a production of Grave Digger: The Grave Musical to make room for renovations so they can renovate Welsh-Ryan with things like chairs while sacrificing the crucial home advantage that comes from forcing opposing teams to get onto the court by shouldering past the hot dog line.

Welsh-Ryan Arena, shown before renovations began just before a 
Big Ten contest

Northwestern football has been at least consistently decent for nearly a quarter century.  The basketball team appears to be moving in the same direction.  An entire generation of visiting fans may be growing up seeing Northwestern win bowl games and play in a basketball arena without cigarette machines and in a football stadium with gleaming, gilded tarps and actually believe that their team could lose.  At that moment, it is possible that Northwestern will have lost its way, that the entire mission of sports at the university could have faded from its highest ideal, which is treading on its shitty sports history of crappiness to make opposing fans really, really mad.


They are supposed to be good.  SBNation has them raked #23.  The AP Poll has them just outside the Top 25.  They return a promising quarterback, a stout secondary, and one of the greatest running backs in school history.  They miss Ohio State and Michigan and the Big Ten West remains the province of dreams where anything is possible.  Illinois has been cowed back to Memorial Stadium after their last attempt to play at Soldier Field, embarrassed by a legion of dozens of Chicago's Big Ten fans in mewling purple showed up to take up several rows.  This is dangerous territory.

If you are like me and prefer to take something as frivolously enjoyable as sports fandom and inject it with doom and dread, then it is not hard to see problems on the horizon.  Northwestern has more often than not sputtered after putting together big seasons. Last year, the Wildcats followed up a ten-win season with an inexplicable 9-7 loss to an Illinois State team clawing at the coffin lid of the Missouri Valley Conference.  The last ten-win season spawned a preseason ranking and ESPN College Gameday matchup with Ohio State  that turned into a horrifying death spiral; the Wildcats lost that game and literally every other game until they managed to walk off with a consolation Hat.
A person with a sign saying that "the Exaltation of Mercury shows that 
Northwestern won't even go to the Meineke Car Care Bowl" was 
escorted from the Gameday set, the warning unheeded

College football remains unpredictable game by game.  Northwestern's disastrous five-win 2013 season involved a three game stretch where they lost in overtime, in triple overtime, and on a hail mary pass by a quarterback named Ron Kellogg III who earned that suffix as Nebraska's third-choice signal caller.  The 2015 ten-win campaign involved close wins from a failed two-point conversion, James Franklin's avant-garde time management style, and referees simply refusing to award points to Wisconsin that incited the Badger crowd into attacking them with a barrage of snowballs.  There's an entire school of analytical thought dedicating to pooh-poohing the results of individual games that are determined by small sample freak events like fumble recoveries, missed field goals, and players falling down and clutching at their hamstrings over the hushed, lilting tones of Fox's injured player version of the Football Robot Murder March before playing a bunch of commercials for truck boner dorito pills.  The entirety of college football is an epistemological project proving that human beings cannot actually determine whether football teams are better than each other.

After a long and fruitful discussion, two college football fans agree on 
the importance of Conference Championships in the Playoff Picture

In this uncertain sports environment, it is silly to try to make predictions.  Northwestern's star linebacker Anthony Walker has gone to the NFL, picked by the Colts through the inscrutable whim of an orangutan.  Clayton Thorson will face a challenge in the passing game without Austin Carr, a receiver who was always open, caught everything, and drew the attention of defenses who by the end of the season were covering him the way Illinois law enforcement covered the Blues Brothers.  These are not cause for panic-- the Wildcats have stalwarts returning like all-everything safety Godwin Igwebuike and exciting up and comers like Montre Hartage and Joe Gaziano, the Scourge of East Lansing.  They still have Justin Jackson The Ball Carrier who has spent the summer attempting to track down wayward Pittsburgh players who have been wandering Eastern Seaboard after becoming too confused by his juking maneuvers to find their way out of Yankee Stadium.

I haven't run the numbers.  I haven't analyzed the schedule.  I have not pored over depth charts, watched filmed, attended practice sessions, disguised myself as Skip Myslanski and attempted to gain intelligence on the team by pretending I am writing an iambic pentameter poem about field goal holding techniques. There is no insight here beyond an irrational sports pessimism.  That is counterproductive.  There's no point attempting to shield oneself from disappointment when it comes to college football, where the worst outcome is have an Iowa fan sneer at you triumphantly in the parking lot.  It is time to be equally irrationally positive.  So here's the season preview.  Wisconsin? Divided in two and run blocked into Lakes Mendota and Menona.  Penn State? Remember when Vanderbilt sort of abruptly canceled a game with Northwestern when the SEC schedule changed and everyone was upset about that for some reason?  Well, the mighty Wildcat will not forget, as Northwestern players burst from the tunnel crying for vengeance, specifically in reference to football scheduling procedures for the 201 and 2014 seasons.  Nebraska?  We will see how the Cornhuskers play under the pressure of playing in front of their fans as opposed to at Ryan field where they also play in front of slightly fewer of their fans.  

The Wildcats will, according to my proprietary HOKUM model, run roughshod all over the Big Ten, leave the Hat safely ensconced in its guarded, climate-controlled Hat Chamber, and be good enough to force irritated college football pundits to have to get yelled at about them when they start inexplicably releasing meaningless Playoff Rankings because the college football media is entirely dependent on yelling about meaningless rankings for weeks at a time and so will I, traveling through American cities with a bullhorn demanding that the Playoff Committee take note of Opponent Schedule, Second-Half Hot Dog Shortages, and Body Clocks.


Prohibition lives on in the popular imagination as a time of rum-running, bootlegging, speakeasies, and gangsters who all talk like Edward G. Robinson all the time, just a mass of hardened criminals in pinstripe suits all staring at each other through sliding peepholes with hot jazz inaudible under the din of guys saying myaah.  This is a romanticized version of it, but people do get the general sense of the problem of trying to ban alcohol through the rule of law, of trying to enforce it through officials who may like to drink themselves, of creating an entire class of casual criminals who have probably already been punished by drinking corn mash fermented in an old sock.  

The Soviet Union tried to curtail drinking in the 1980s.  Stephen White's 1996 monograph Russia Goes Dry examines the Soviet anti-alcohol campaign with an academic flourish of figures and numbers.  White remains concerned with studying the anti-alcohol campaign as a critique of Soviet campaigns against social ills.  He susses out patterns, examines difficulties of enforcing campaigns over sprawling localities, and looks at societies, journals, and posters.  

Posters from London's Pushkin House exhibition on 
anti-alcohol campaign posters

White and the Russian sources he cites struggle to identify consumption statistics.  Soviet statisticians included alcohol in broad categories such as "other foodstuffs" during the 1960s; White cites scholars that surveyed emigres or extrapolating from earlier categories of expenditures.  The Soviet government found that alcohol had a twin problem-- White estimates that in the 1960s and 1970s, alcohol taxes provided about a third of all government revenues but meted out a staggering cost in lost productivity, health, and even security. For example, White describes a Soviet crew in Czechoslovakia that bartered its tank for several cases of vodka, pickles, and herring; the bar owner then sold the tank to a recycling plant.

The Politburo announced an anti-alcohol campaign in 1985.  White stresses that the Politburo remained divided.  Mikahil Gorbachev came on board.  The most zealous anti-alcohol crusader was Yegor Ligachev, a teetotaler who had long desired to curb drunkenness.  The campaign was met with internal opposition from other officials who felt that the campaign was misguided or ill-planned-- one minister resigned, and Boris Yeltsin later wrote that the campaign was "amazingly ill-conceived and ridiculous" and that he "could not reconcile [himself] to [Ligachev's] obstinacy and dilettantism."

The campaign limited the supply of alcohol in stores, cracked down on homebrewing, and released a large number of posters involving bottles being crushed by hammers.  White claims that initially, the campaign did discourage drinking and manage to change some public attitudes.  But, within a few years, the campaign began to wane.  Homebrewing increased and led to vast quantities of sugar bought or even stolen.  Local Party officials varied wildly in enforcement.  In one Ukranian Village, local officials housed their own elaborate brewing apparatus described by Pravda as "45-degree first-grade hooch." The sober lifestyle had not caught on in Novosibirsk, where White notes that fewer than three percent of of Party members abstained; "A Communist is also a human being" was the local slogan.

The campaign faltered after several years.  Like in the United States, the attempt to reduce availability of alcohol sparked an enormous trade in illicit brewing.  The campaign also hurt revenue.  White notes that the government had planned to offset decreased spending on alcohol with increased spending on other goods, but the supply of these goods never materialized, and profits from alcohol sales ended up in the hands of private, illegal brewing concerns.  By 1988, one official critical of the policy had, according to White, referred to it as "a blunder unequaled since the time of the Sumerians."

Nevada comes off an uninspiring 5-7 season with new coach Jay Norvell and a new Air Raid-style scheme led by Matt Mumme, son of legendary Air Raid innovator Hal Mumme.  Northwestern is somehow favored by 24.5 points, although I should note that betting lines are meant to encourage betting on all sides and in this particular case to entrap people with gambling problems who would actually wager on a Northwestern vs. Nevada game.  The sun should be out.  The tarps will be gleaming.  Northwestern will be dressed head to toe in purple in a sponsorship arrangement with Dimetapp.  The videoboard is set to show us hundreds of images of Pat Fitzgerald's jaw jutting against an American flag.  It is football season again with all of the joy and disappointment and yelling and complete absurdity that entails.  

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