Saturday, October 6, 2018


There was a point in the second quarter, just after Northwestern went up 17-0 against the fourteenth-ranked Wolverines when play stopped and Pat Fitzgerald ran on the the field in a one man fist bump bacchanalia, his face and neck as purple as the players' jerseys, when it seemed possible that Northwestern could actually win.  There, in a home game, against a sea of gold and a two-digit line and Harbaugh and Harbaugh's pants and his whole thing, the Wildcats came out and not only gained a quick lead but seemed to dominate the game at both ends. But when someone rubbed some smelling salts under the Wolverines' noses and they came back and Northwestern's offense went off to whatever bizarre dimension it goes to in the second half, it also was not surprising to see the whole thing fall apart and raise the familiar question of: so what.

Northwestern football fans face an existential question that hovers over the program every year that can best be summarized as: why?  I hope it does not seem too defeatist to suggest that the mighty Wildcats seem unlikely to play for a national championship.  It seems slightly less unlikely they will qualify for the playoff in its current form or even an expanded form.  Even a Big Ten Championship seems more out of reach than ever with the East Division heavyweights lurking in Indianapolis should Northwestern manage to finagle their way out of their bumbling West Division; I'm certain they will do it one of these years when Wisconsin comes down with the flu.  But, in more seasons than not, Northwestern's season success seems to be governed mostly by the relative prestige of the bowls they play in, a decision governed equally by their record and decisions made by bowl executives motivated entirely by the amount of exposure they can get for their Named Sponsor, a weed trimming backpack repair company.
Northwestern poses with a piece of dumpster cardboard fashioned 
into the Music City Bowl Trophy

No sane person watches Northwestern football hoping for championship glory-- no sane college football fan should, given that about a dozen teams share an iron grip on sustained success, and Alabama has rendered the concept of the football championship into a joyless inevitability.  Programs outside the Power 5 have almost no chance to compete for a championship.  It is college football's innate impossibility that gives it its joy because the single-minded RINGS focus that hovers over professional sports cannot exist and the entire apparatus governing college football fandom appears to be animated by animus and spite.

The saving grace to college football's impossible, top-heaviness is that the sport is insanely punitive; one loss is dangerous, two is catastrophic for any team with playoff implications, and the goofy subjective nature of the ranking process means that a loss to a crappy team can instantly destroy a contender.  Fans of the struggling, the down year, and the historically abysmal can enjoy their team's complete and utter ineptitude by knowing that they are so radioactive that they can infect a big brand team and drag them together straight to hell.  So while it was unpleasant to watch Michigan mount their inevitable comeback, to hear Ryan Field come alive when the Wolverines' Clay Matthews-looking guy sacked Thorson, to know that Northwestern did not manage to annihilate Michigan's playoff resume from the face of the Earth and their reassured fans were able to strut out of the stadium satisfied that their natural order had not been impugned, for three quarters they all wanted to barf and it was great.
Northwestern lost this game too

The funniest thing I've seen at a football game was a chorus of Michigan fans inveighing against The Refs in a grand collective harrumph.  There exists no universe where, if the referees had a conspiracy against a team in a Michigan-Northwestern game, it would be in favor of knocking the Michigan Brand out of the playoff hunt.  The explanation involves Michigan committing more penalties and college football referees being inconsistent and semi-competent.  If the calls did tend to unfairly favor Northwestern for whatever reason, that is incredibly funny to me and I would be happy if Northwestern players got away with throwing the Chong Li Bloodsport Shorts Powder at the Michigan lines while the referees were distracted by the scoreboard, desperately trying to see which Northwestern players could successfully name the most Disney films in ten seconds.

In the end, Northwestern lost, another scoreless second half, and an alarming blow to bowl contention.  On the other hand, a bunch of Michigan fans were temporarily inconvenienced.


The Cubs won 95 games, had the best record in the National League for most of the season, and watching them this season mirrored the soothing and relaxing feeling of being hunted for sport.  This is the burden of actually watching a good team.  For most of my life, the Cubs reliably sucked, trotted out players named Tiff Bungus who all spent September running into the ivy and then spontaneously combusting in the offseason, and no one cared.  Then, they started going to the playoffs every year and the whole thing became more serious. 

The Cubs brought in two starters this season: an ace who pitched several largely ineffective games and then vanished to the Mark Prior netherworld and a reclamation project whose inability to throw strikes went from maddening to almost openly antagonistic.

One of the ludicrous aspects of following multiple sports is the strange shifting identity.  I spent most of the Michigan game like I do most Big Ten games, mildly irritated at the visiting fans claiming the stadium and having the gall to root for their own teams.  But, at the same time, I root for the Cubs, whose fans now consistently invade other stadiums and annoy the absolute shit out of everyone.  At the end of the season, when an exhausted Cubs team stumbled towards the end of the season and a seemingly-unstoppable Brewers juggernaut fueled by Christian Yelich's transformation into a skinny youth pastor Barry Bonds collided in a game 163 at Wrigley, it seemed only fair that Brewers fans had taken over.  For years, Cubs fans had ridden in Mad Max caravans up I94 to take over Miller Park and engage in absurd, honking Midwestern shouting matches. 

The Wild Card game served as a fittingly operatic end to this Cubs season.  It featured inspired pitching, a Cubs team that appeared to try to hit the ball with a twin-sized mattress, Javier Baez getting away with an illegal hug because it was cute (in this exact situation in the NFL, Goodell would have spent the next day outlining a Legal Embracement Protocol where announcers could slow everything down and say "right there, Joe, that's when a collision turns into snuggling"), and everything but the stadium lights dimming and Tyler Chatwood appearing as the Phantom of the Ballpark aiming a candelabra at someone but missing by 15 inches.

The Cubs played in a cloud of controversy at the end of the season.  They had some heinous motherfuckers on the team that were not fun to root for.  Joe Maddon drove everyone completely insane.  A deranged set of Cubs fans became embroiled in a debate over the fucking hitting coach; I have spent a truly embarrassing amount of my life watching baseball and I could not for the life of me name a single Cubs hitting coach until this year because a bunch of maniacs have been screaming about Chili Davis on the internet-- they believe that he went into the locker room and told them in no certain terms to stop hitting home runs.  The whole thing would be exhausting except that it is sports and you can always turn it off.

This is one of the best things about sports.  Because you can spend hours invested in a team and watching with no control as it gets crushed, annihilated, and utterly owned, cheated, collapsing, and falling apart, and in the end you can turn it off and go about your day completely unaffected.  What a luxury.


Northwestern plays Michigan State, in amateur football: this weekend.

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