Friday, October 23, 2020

Oh No Northwestern is Playing Football Again


The Big Ten returns to football

It is clear now that nothing, not outbreaks or worrying health effects or even complete team shutdowns could stop sports from coming back at full force in America.  The NBA went full bore on its bubble idea, essentially imprisoning 22 teams in a Disney resort with no apparent ill effects other than one player quarantined for flying to a strip club, another thrown out for an alleged tryst, and Jimmy Butler charging fellow players exorbitant prices for coffee.  Baseball barreled through COVID outbreaks shutting down three entire teams for extended periods of time then making them play a bunch of double headers and every week forcing through bizarre new rule changes like "how about two outs?" and you can do up to four legal "Manfreds" per game.  The NFL is handling the pandemic by virtually ignoring team-wide outbreaks and having coaches wear masks on the sidelines incorrectly.

In this atmosphere, it has become impossible for any sports league to watch other enterprises shoulder their way through common sense public health precautions when there is a pile of money to consider.  This is especially true in college football, where a complete lack of any leadership has led to bizarre ad hoc attempts to continue playing with no plan even as the season has devolved to barnstorming as large swaths of teams test positive and head into quarantine.  For the past several months, university presidents have stood in press conferences sweatily explaining how they plan to keep their campuses and football stadiums safe by installing plastic sheeting and wiping everything with a damp rag while other university administrators are hurriedly stuffing burlap sacks filled with money onto trucks before everyone starts asking too many questions.  How could the Big Ten resist?

The college football season opened with Austin Peay losing largely because the team's entire longsnapping squad was quarantined.  Each week has seen several games cancelled or postponed; the University of Houston, for example, cancelled each of its first five games because of an outbreak on opposing teams.  Some games have begun with fans in the stands. It is impossible to describe how jarring it is to see fans in a college football stadium-- the entire scene makes me feel like game is taking place in a Mad Max wasteland where fans will attempt to shoot crossbows at each other and do motorcycle lance tournaments in the parking lot in order to get each other's stores of potato chips and guzzoline.  But no matter how insane and fucked up things have gotten in this plague-soaked college football season, no one has stopped it.  The teams can cancel, postpone, and nurture virus clusters all they want as long as the checks keep coming from the television networks, which is the only reason any of this is happening.

The Big Ten managed to hold out exactly long enough to see that people will tolerate an absurd level of chaos without stopping the flow of money before announcing a return to football.  It had held through some hilarious demands to play.  My favorite was the convoy of Concerned Football Dads that drove to Rosemont to sort of mill around in the shared parking lot for Big Ten Headquarters and an all you can eat meat restaurant.  The University of Nebraska has been the Big Ten team most loud about its demands to play football.  Nebraska's spiral into full on football derangement has been enjoyable because they have been roughly as successful as Northwestern in the time they've been in the Big Ten, and there are few things funnier than watching In Football Terms, Approximately Northwestern attempt to throw their weight around.  As soon as the Big Ten announced that it would play this season, Nebraska's athletic director who is somehow named "Bill Moos" reacted to the Big Ten giving into their complaints and threats to leave the conference by complaining the Huskers' schedule is too hard.

Northwestern reacted to the announcement with a frankly insane Pat Fitzgerald tweet depicting a generic Northwestern Guy appearing to rise out of Lake Michigan like he is going to lumber through Evanston, get into a three point stance, and tackle Godzilla into a building with a first floor that is a fast causal pasta restaurant.

The return of Big Ten football fits in with the country's full on surrender to the pandemic, at a point where governments, companies, and almost any institution is attempting in varied, patchwork ways throughout the country to return to normal even though the virus has never been under control and is now surging back to its earlier peaks because it is costing businesses money to remain shut down and because people are either stir-crazy or have turned into one of many different types of lockdown-marinated maniacs.  A single positive test in the NBA shut down the entire league and every sport in the United States; now entire football teams serve as major disease clusters and are sort of waiting a couple of days before resuming play.  

One of the fascinating things about watching sports is how quickly even the pretenses of leagues taking the pandemic seriously has faded.  Basketball and hockey had their successful bubbles.  Baseball had players spaced out in the dugouts with masks and other precautions such instead of letting pitchers lick their hands and rub the ball up with their spit they were allowed to use a damp rag.  Within weeks, even after several entire teams came down with Covid, these restrictions all faded and teams spent most of the season huddled together in dugouts that have devolved into the same disgusting pits of baseball detritus filled with discarded cups and half-gnawed out sunflower seeds and several inches of accumulated spittle that baseball players are constantly oozing. 

Football leagues on both the college and pro level have never even seemed to vaguely give a shit and it is almost refreshing.  I can imagine it going the other way, NFL teams deciding that they are going to show America how they can conquer Covid by having coaches dressed in clean suits designed by the United States Armed Forces or have them coaching in Microsoft Surface War Rooms-- I'm right now imagining a coach being rolled out to midfield in a bubble by a phalanx of assistants wearing team polos so the coach can excoriate a referee while bouncing menacingly-- but instead the coaches are all chin-masked, dick-nosed oafs who occasionally deign to mask up while making notes on their cards but immediately remove them when it is time to yell at a player or an official and more effectively spray them down with mouth particles like they are firing a biological weapon in a custom Doom map where Will Muschamp battles demons from hell by yelling at them for lollygagging.

It is customary on this blog to suggest that it is insane under most circumstances to let Northwestern play football.  In this case, though, it is a bunch of people who dress in scholarly robes and regalia while puffing on pipes in wood-paneled rooms lined with books from which they do nothing but send fundraising e-mails who have completely lost their minds and are attempting to play football in the middle of a pandemic so that the Big Ten Network can show me commercials about copper-wired girdles, and I admit have no idea how to approach this season.   

After all, this season was supposed to mark a new chapter in Northwestern football.  The Wildcats have Mike Bajakian, the long-coveted new offensive coordinator who had been brought in specifically to stop them from playing the sort of West Champion toilet football that fans have come to expect and even demand.  Northwestern also has a new quarterback, Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey, who may throw the football after a litany of injuries last season left former offensive coordinator Mick McCall running the sort of wedge formations that would immediately be condemned by Teddy Roosevelt.  Instead of shrinking to six wins and a berth in the Here Under Protest is Beef Burgers Bowl, we could expect the Wildcats with a daring offense to win up to seven games and a berth in the Dolecoins The Cryptocurrency Inspired by Bob Dole Bowl.

Recently, the Athletic posted a delightful oral history of the 54-51 game where Northwestern beat Michigan, the "basketball on grass" game that helped legitimize the novel spread offense and usher in a new era of offense in college football.  For many years, that was Northwestern-- the spread team that outscored traditional Big Ten teams and then held on for dear life.  That has not been Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern, who for the past decade have run an offense reminiscent of a semi-effectual World War I tank.  But while Northwestern football has been somewhat excruciating to watch even as the team has racked up wins, I can't help but to have adopted a sort of perverse appreciation for a program willing to disgust and repel any other team dragged into its grasp.  The fact that Northwestern somehow won nearly every game 17-14 has become, for me, a charming bit.  Opposing fans cower in fear from Northwestern not because they worry about losing but because they will have to watch a game with Northwestern in it, a dreary festival of punts and turnovers and the echoing cackle of The Wildcat Sound Effect yowling in ecstasy with every pass thrown directly into the grass.  This is what is at stake if Northwestern somehow discovers the use of the forward pass. 

They shouldn't play football this season.  You know it, I know it, and the people being paid to not know it know it.  No one is even bothering to pretend anymore-- the players have returned to campuses with empty classrooms so that they can fulfill a contract for television programming.  Every year, teams play in dozens of bowl games in front of several dozen people and a top hat guy who is impossibly converting the money from organizing the RodentAway Gopher Assassin Bowl to make make yacht payments so that ESPN has something to put on televisions that flicker in lonely bars on December afternoons.  Now players are being carted into empty stadiums or those otherwise dotted by pockets of maniacs for whom no risk is greater than the pleasure of screaming DEFENSE for the mission of generating TV content without the load-bearing tradition, pageantry, and drunken buffoonery that make the entire sport seem like something more than what it is.  

I have no idea how to approach this season or how to write about something that I don't think should be happening.  For a long time people wondered why Northwestern continued to play in the Big Ten as they sustained years of failure and losing and teams that got blocked through stadium doors and taken through tours of various Big Ten towns in their autumnal splendor before being deposited on a bus and taken home but they kept on doing it year after year; the school wanted to remain in the Big Ten badly enough to endure weekly butt-kickings until they finally could build a program that could reliably frustrate Iowa.  Playing this season under these circumstances, perhaps the people in charge of Northwestern football could ask themselves if it's worth it.   

1 comment:

Daniel O'Neil said...

Like a weird-smalling balm on my aching soul. Welcome back, Northwestern Football