Saturday, September 29, 2018

Week 3: Money

Northwestern's new quarter-billion dollar sports facility sits under water, only accessible by private submarine.  There, athletes have access to the Big Ten's heaviest weights, wettest pools, and cutting-edge virtual reality displays where they take the field to explore game situations from routine plays to extreme scenarios where they are cloned and must destroy the most dangerous opponent of all: themselves.
The new facilities will allow players into football simulations so immersive 
they will cause an epistemological crisis between themselves and their 
VR doppelgangers with names like Bryntch Laserman

Pat Fitzgerald's office is in a hollowed out volcano.  It is filled with Northwestern memorabilia, jarring modernist statues of pumping fists mounted to the wall, and a giant lever that he can pull to immediately get blasted by a rotating supply of foreign currencies. This is a small perk by college football coach standards.  Jimbo Fisher, as part of his lucrative contract with Texas A&M, is allowed to adjudicate cases in Brazos County Court while wearing a custom Whataburger robe.  Chip Kelley is signed to Death Row Records.  Nick Saban will now only appear in public while wearing a solid gold mask and any attempt to talk to him will be met with karate chops from his private guard.

Northwestern will play basketball in a new arena this season that floats high over Evanston, accessible only by private blimp.  Their old arena, a galleon rotting in the shallows of Lake Michigan, will be ceremonially disposed of by Northwestern's Big Ten Runner-Up Scuttling Team.  The new arena features bouncier courts, up to seven available baskets, and a series of hot dog kiosk candelabras that can be manipulated to open up secret passages to even fancier hot dog kiosks where VIP patrons can get slightly more mustard.  There are fewer seats available; in fact, the new arena will have thirteen seats in total, all for large donors who respond to massive dunks by yelling "I say!" and somehow at least seven of them will be taken by Indiana fans.

Northwestern paid Akron about one million dollars to come to Ryan Field and beat them.  The Wildcats were favored by three touchdowns.  They led 21-3 at the half.  For much of the game, the Zips did not only seem unmatched but completely unfamiliar with the rules of football.  But football is a ludicrous game and some heinous turnovers, avant-garde pass defenses, inability to move the ball, and a truly heroic performance by Akron quarterback Kato Nelson who spent the first half eluding tacklers only to watch whatever progress he made called back because one of his lineman was flagged for bringing a unicycle onto the field, caused a Northwestern collapse. 

Northwestern has decided to get serious about their Revenue Sports, and the way to get serious about Revenue Sports is to wave piles of money at them.  This cash infusion from television money and moneyed boosters, and the hideous cartoon-numbered Jason Wright jersey I bought in 2004 goes into stadiums and training facilities that are designed to show that Northwestern is serious about football because only a program that is serious about football would spend roughly the GDP of Palau on a facility where athletes can, with only their voices, ask a supercomputer to change the P.O.D. song blaring in the weight room mid-grunt. 

The explosion of money in college sports is not unique to Northwestern.  It is part of a larger trend across campuses.  Part of it comes from men's basketball and football programs raking in enormous sums from television networks; this article shows that Michigan got a $50 million payout from the Big Ten Network for the 2018 season, which is evidently just raking it in from the farm implement and extra large men's pants commercials.  These fancy new buildings certainly seem like a fantastic way to spend money in any way other than giving it to athletes.  But the architectural spending fit with other goals.  One is a general mania for building that affects universities beyond their athletic fields; few universities would rather spend money on anything more than building a Ramrod "Rod" Yaarghdarrgh Facility For Business Technology Where Students Plug Their iPods into Bigger iPods.  Furthermore, fancy new facilities are a crucial part of advertising and branding-- every Northwestern football and basketball broadcast this season will feature a paean to the new facilities and arena, with awe-struck announcers saying things like "I took a tour of this stadium, Joe and let me tell you, it's really something" with B-roll of Pat Fitzgerald flying around on a personalized jetpack that he needs to Analyze and Facilitate the Development of Football Stratagems.
The Tactical Coaching Jetpack allows 
coaches to soar high above practices while 
top of the line communications technology 
allows them relay real-time instructions like 
"What the fuck is that Horseshit tackle there 
what are you doing you asshole horseshit"

While it is not surprising that the multi-billion dollar windfalls from college sports would culminate in a ludicrous facilities arms race in a sport run by a combination of bureaucrats and boosters who love to name things after themselves and coaches whose entire aesthetic is dad whose lawnmower has a little too much horsepower, the new facilities at Northwestern can be best described as hilarious.  For years, Northwestern's single animating aesthetic in its football and basketball program was the stadiums' shabbiness-- of cold, unyielding bleachers, of legions of visiting fans whining about them, of heroic upsets of Big Ten giants and unfathomable losses to a multitude of Akrons under a semi-functional dot scoreboard.  Of course, that was all a fiction-- a Big Ten team is still in the Big Ten and spending unfathomable sums on training and advertising and sending Pat Fitzgerald to talk about Young Men in teenagers' living rooms.  It is one thing for an unwieldy Northwestern team still defined by its decades of futility to get boat-rowed by a MAC team; it is infinitely funnier for a Northwestern team with a quarter-billion dollar practice facility.


Now the Wildcats move into the meaty part of the schedule.  Michigan has aspirations; they are ranked, they have just completely eliminated Nebraska from the face of the earth, and they are still coached by Football Noid Jim Harbaugh, who has thumped the 'Cats in all of their meetings.  Northwestern is reeling after a devastating loss to Akron with their bowl aspirations hanging on a thread in front of a nightmare schedule.  The Wolverines should be terrified.  

Northwestern football under Pat Fitzgerald has been marked by a tendency to inexplicably lose games to teams they should not lose to and somehow winning games they have no business winning.  How many times in recent years have the Wildcats limped out of the non-conference schedule after watching an FCS team somehow lateral the ball for 25 minutes and win by a half point, sent fans panicking by scrutinizing the schedule, and then somehow winning three Big Ten games in increasingly bizarre ways that cause opposing fans to immediately demand that they fire the offensive coordinator?  

Last year, Northwestern won ten games.  That included a nearly mathematically impossible three consecutive overtime wins; a fourth, in the bowl game, involved thwarting a two point conversion that I choose to believe happened only because Mike Stoops became terrified of going to overtime.  That team was about 75 cumulative seconds away from barely qualifying for the Halloween Store in the Mall That Operates for Two Months Bowl.  Northwestern football constantly operates on the margins and it is impossible to predict.

There is no reason why the Wolverines shouldn't come in, jog around Ryan Field for an hour, and win by 30.  Northwestern has not looked very sharp this season, and Evanston will be inundated with blue-clad fans loudly scoffing.  Northwestern's penchant for chaos is by definition unpredictable; if it you could pick the games where a double digit underdog Wildcat team would pull out an insane win, none of us would have to work because we would all be a collection of Biffs Tannen ruling our own communities of terrified gamblers.  Maybe it is cowardly and stupid to write thousands of blog-words analyzing football to say the fuck if I know, but here's my conclusion: the fuck if I know.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Week 2: Pain

Football fetishes its strategic sophistication.  All coaches now need to communicate via radio to their Tactical Press Box Command Centers except for quarterbacks who need to use the last landline telephones in existence for some unexplained reason; coaches shield the mouths against the possibility of sideline lip readers; no play can be called without three assistant coaches and every backup quarterback performing vigorous, bug-eyed calisthenics to signal the play; referees constantly litigate impossible rules to the pixel and then give complex explanations to the crowd in a clunky law enforcement argot.  The needlessly complexity distracts from the fact that, at root football is about violence and mayhem.  On every play, gigantic human beings smash into each other, shove each other, drive each other into the turf, and generally clobber each other for our amusement, and every few plays the whole thing stops to someone can writhe around in pain while trainers run out to assess the damage and broadcasts pause to sell us trucks.

The brutality of the entire enterprise is part of its appeal; even the most stringent football wonks appreciating the sublime architecture of an R.P.O. also get excited to see a defensive end come in and blast the quarterback enough to drop the ball or huck it straight towards a cornerback.  And the violence is an integral part of strategy.  When announcers talk about receivers "hearing footsteps" or quarterbacks having a clock in their head, they're talking about the fear of physical violence, that no matter how much these athletes have conditioned themselves to take beatings and play through injuries gruesome enough to keep me in traction for months, at heart no person wants to get absolutely whaled upon; that threat is an integral part of the sport.  The notion of pain as an unavoidable part of tackle football the way it is currently played always exists, but becomes greatly magnified when a you are stuck on a couch watching some unfortunate lineman clutch his ankles while having to steel yourself through pain to reach the remote in order to fast forward through a commercial for extreme sports nachos.

Football players put themselves through agonizing training sessions and getting yelled at by obese goatee guys and then go out there and let some of the most well-conditioned human beings on the planet run into them as fast as possible; I woke up wrong. It is never pleasant to watch a person collapse in high-definition agony, but it is something that comes into sharper focus after an ill-advised commute through heavy traffic ends with me in a parking lot face down in the driver's seat, legs danging out of the car, back muscles attempting for some reason to wring me out like a sponge.  That was not a spectacular condition to watch Northwestern play its first home game, propped up by pain medications and orthopedic brace devices that look like discount professional wrestling championship belts and flinching as players blasted into each other with familiar football clacks and grunts and, miraculously, getting up most of the time.

I would like to say that awareness of pain and the various clobbering and clobber-adjacent injuries created by this sport trivialized the silly, moronic disappointment in watching the team I root for get once again hammered by Duke of all places, but I cannot lie: it's not good.


Duke and Northwestern doesn't even sound like it should be a football game in 2018.  It sounds like some sort of nineteenth-century leather helmet spectacle that takes place only after both teams saw four men trampled death and dozens students inflicting riots upon each other in preposterous Victorian boxing stances.  It seems ludicrous o write about a Duke-Northwestern game in modern terms instead of noting that the Duke-men rousted North Western's staff of Quarter-Backs while bamboozling its Defenders with plays like the Governor's Sash and the Winsome Circus Boy.

North Western managed a hard-fought victory 
against Indiana's Train Lads and Purdued-Petes

Pat Fitzgerald managed to wrangle one positive from the Duke loss by popping up in the news referring to the run-pass option as "pure communism" in a press conference.  This insight led to some light mockery across the internet because several wags and goof-makers had to point out the minor point that there exists no historical or philosophical context in which his remark makes sense.  The comment led to two responses online: a horde of pedantic Football Bukahrins unfolded their pince-nez spectacles to confront Pat Fitzgerald, an anthropomorphic jaw, on the finer points communist ideologies; a gaggle of shirtsleeved Cubicle Guys overheated while constructing elaborate flop sweat-laden RPO/communism puns.  I am not sure to what extent Pat Fitzgerald has studied up on World Communisms before comparing them to specific football strategies, but I am positive that his understanding of communism has been influenced most by the 1984 film Red Dawn and the run-pass option is definitely something the devious Soviets would have done while invading various high schools and local drug store hangouts.
Pat Fitzgerald stands in Northwestern's new $270 million Oafish Communist 
Comparisons Building

Both games featured an array of quarterbacks.  Northwestern is no stranger to quarterback committees.  Some of the most successful years involved a rotation between a running quarterback and a throwing quarterback so slow that he was mounted to a wheelbarrow and pulled around the pocket.  This time, though, the quarterback chaos comes from an unwieldy attempt to manage Clayton Thorson as he returns from knee surgery.  The first rotation happened in the Purdue game.  Fitzgerald remained characteristically coy about Thorson's availability leading up to the game.  Thorson started, but came out after two brilliant series without explanation while the sideline reporter scrambled to figure out if Thorson was injured again, whether Fitzgerald was playing some sort of mind game, or if something more nefarious was afoot like the Thorson disappearing under mysterious circumstances or the NCAA discovering that Trevor Siemian had gotten Face/Off surgery and had taken his place and they would need to vacate the Music City Bowl victory.

Thorson's backup is T.J. Green, a junior who has tantalized broadcasters eager to induct his father, former NFL quarterback Trent Green, into Northwestern's inner circle of Celebrity Sports Parents along with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and a beet-red Doug Collins who spends of Northwestern basketball games doing an impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall when he is thrown out onto the surface of Mars. Green is also cousins with receiver Bennett Skowronek, which I only mention because it led to the Dan LaFontaine Schwarzenegger Trailer-caliber Tribune headline "Bonded by blood, Northwestern's Ben Skowronek and TJ Green hope to find home in the end zone."

The Wildcats have another inexplicable MAC night game showdown against Akron.  The quarterback situation remains unsettled.  Northwestern fans would be thrilled to see the 'Cats leap out to a quick and decisive lead and let Green gain experience against the demoralized Zips; after watching Northwestern teams, I am pretty sure that no matter how good Akron may or may not be (SBNation's preseason Numbers Rankings had them at 166th in the country), I have determined that Pat Fitzgerald is committed to giving fans good money value for their tickets and ideally would take every single game to overtime except the Illinois game because the Hat is too important to leave to chance. 


Spencer Hall's Elephant article reminded me of a book I picked up earlier this year called Behemoth: The History of the Elephant in America by Ronald B. Tobias.  Tobias, a nature documentarian, traces the presence of elephants in the United States both literally, as circus and zoo attractions, but also as rhetoric, symbols, and mascots.  Tobias's book is wide-ranging and often tragic, describing the plight of circus elephants in revolting conditions and deaths that came from attempting to keep them contained.  But what really struck me reading this book was the reminder that the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a vast, wild, and lawless place, where elephants were kept in bizarre and casual situations that occasionally resulted in them rampaging all over a town.

Imagine that a circus comes to town and an elephant (usually male and in musth, a months-long hormonal phase that renders them violent and unpredictable, especially when kept in chains and assaulted by nineteenth-century mustachioed trainers) frees itself.  Few towns at the time had anything resembling an elephant-stopping infrastructure; they had several confused constables and panicking circus personnel; an elephant rampage was essentially a Godzilla-level event.
World militaries differ in strategies, values, and promotion system but 
what binds them all together is evidently the universal belief in promoting 
any officer whose Godzilla Defense Strategy involves continuing to attack it 
with conventional weapons long after they prove useless

Tobias, for example, describes the exploits of Tusko, an elephant that repeatedly ran amok in the Pacific Northwest in the 1920s and 30s.  In 1922, Tusko, held by the Al. G. Barnes 4 Ring Wild Animal Circus got loose in Sedro Woodley, a town along the Skagit River in Washington State.  Tusko, in the heat of musth, threw his keeper 30 feet in the air and then crashed through buildings and fences before smashing into a bar to gorge on sour mash as residents drunkenly followed him around.  "When it was over," Tobias writes, "Tusko had squashed or overturned twenty automobiles, collapsed the walls to three houses, knocked down a variety of oubuildings, and pushed a farmhouse off its foundation.  His swath of destruction ran for thirty miles." "The local paper dscribed the bull as 'frisky' and 'full of hijinks.'"

In 1931, the circus sold Tusko to a circus promoter named Al Painter who "used him to ballyhoo dance marathons at a 'Million-Dollar Pleasure Paradise' called Lotus Isle, near Portland Oregon."  But Painter could not contain him either.  A pilot buzzed the building where Painter kept Tusko chained and he once again became free and basically destroyed Lotus Isle.  The attraction shut down.  Painter sold Tusko to another former circus man named "Sleepy" Gray for a dollar.  The elephant nearly escaped again; as Tusko thrashed against his chains in Portland and the mayor called in the National Guard.  Gray sold Tusko again to "Colonel" H.C. Barber, according the strict law that says that any unseemly and huckster-adjacent enterprise in the United States must at some point involve a self-proclaimed Colonel.  Gray still lived with Tusko and tried to take him to Seattle, but the city would not allow him to bring Tusko within its limits.  Here, in a situation so insane that it could only happen in Depression-era America, Gray got hired by a demolition company to let Tusko smash houses, just showing up with his rampaging elephant.

Tusko, though, could not turn a profit; when the Colonel planned to have him killed and stuffed the Mayor of Seattle impounded Tusko at the Woodland Park Zoo (Tobias notes that the city complained that Tusko had been "used continually as a racket").  Seattle residents donated money for his feed.  But he only survived a year in custody and died heaving against his chains after another musth season.