Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Big Ten Copes with Its Disaster Scenario (3-0 Northwestern)

The college football conferences have heedlessly decided to go through with football despite a pandemic that has never been even close to under control, teams figured that they could invent fantastical safety protocols, do some rudimentary testing, and otherwise pretend that a pandemic was not happening so they could sell television commercials and fundraise from people named Ernest "Dip" Trebuchet III heir to the stick on googly eyes fortune who has a direct line to the university president and has been threatening to come right down there in his town car with googly headlights and kick the offensive coordinator right in the behind.  They were obviously prepared to accept that hundreds, if not thousands of players would get sick and spread the disease around college towns and that fans would create superspreader events in the stands and at watch parties and in bars.  But what no one in college football could have possibly anticipated or they would have stopped the whole thing is that undefeated Northwestern and Purdue are playing the most pivotal Big Ten game this week for control of the West division.  It didn't have to be this way.

Here, from, is a list of games canceled just this weekend


Northwestern football has been good this season and my initial reaction was oh no.  In their first game against Maryland, the Wildcats came on and wiped the Terrapins from the face of the earth, a world-historical butt kicking that they haven't done to a Big Ten team in literally a half a century.  This looked like it could be the year that the bruising defense melded with a competent offense to finally reveal a team that did not necessarily have to win hideous games by turning the field into a toilet and it was happening during a season that by all accounts should not be happening.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and Northwestern returned to winning games in the delightfully grunt-laden, artless ways they tend to win games against Iowa and Nebraska.  Here, Pat Fitzgerald decides sometime after Northwestern goes up by between 1-3 points that he has seen enough and calls the rest of the game; the rest of the results can roll in with a series of punts and turnovers and then the whole thing ends with the opposing team holding a press conference and citing irregularities in the offensive holding calls in front of an interstate landscaping concern.

While it is always satisfying for Northwestern to beat Iowa in the most perfunctory and frustrating way possible, the real prize has been a win over Nebraska.  The Cornhuskers have spent the entire football offseason being a tremendous pain in the ass.  University administrators and head coach Scott Frost went berserk when the Big Ten initially canceled football, threatened to secede from the conference and wander the Earth demanding people play them in football, accused Wisconsin of ducking them when the entire Badger team came down with Covid, tried to illegally schedule a game against an FCS opponent, and just generally acted like Nebraska football was some sort of crucial Grain Belt infrastructure and not a deeply embarrassing football team that has spent its entire time in the Big Ten struggling and failing to be better than Northwestern, a team that most college football fans baely remember exists.  For all of their hollering and whining, Nebraska is winless after getting sat on by Ohio State and Northwesterned by Northwestern.  

As enjoyable as it is for Nebraska fans to have stormed Big Ten headquarters demanding to get their asses kicked like an army of Arties Fufkin, it seems unlikely if not impossible that the irony of this situation is apparent to anyone in charge of Nebraska.  Though Nebraska has been walking around the Big Ten like Yosemite Sam firing pistols at the ground so they can levitate over the floor at a meat restaurant and demand that someone beat them in football, no one else in the Big Ten seems to mind putting their teams out there week after week so they can rake in the Big Ten Network advertising dollars from the company that makes giant glasses that fit over regular glasses.  Nebraska may have been the most ridiculous Big Ten team, but we all live in Nebraska World, letting the Huskers go out and get humiliated while Big Ten university presidents quietly rake in the same cash.  It is just as stupid for Northwestern to be out there as anyone else and the only difference is that for once it appears that Pat Fitzgerald has managed to stay relatively quiet because the mask is a pre-war technology that he can accept instead of a cursed Electronic Email App.

Northwestern is 3-0.  They could win the West.  Or they could be shut down at any point because of a Covid infection as the entire Chicagoland area is once again engulfed by the pandemic.  It is not a football season but a matter of attrition.  No one has any plan.  The entire edifice of college football is a billion-dollar media concern that claims to have the resources to be able to manage this but are in reality a coterie of clumsy mustache guys desperately trying to keep a bunch of plates spinning for as long as they can for their associates to grab the money and get on the next train out of town.  They can stop this at any time and nothing, not a pandemic, nor the threat of Northwestern in a potential title game against a Covid-ridden Ohio State starting Brutus Buckeye at linebacker who gets repeatedly penalized for targeting because the head takes up 27 percent of its entire being seems to be able to bring this to a halt.


I do not know if it is depressing or almost reassuring in this moment of political crisis to read enormous books about how odious and fucked up American politics have always been.  Over the summer, I spent a considerable amount of time with The Invisible Bridge, Rick Perlstein's account of the 1976 presidential primaries and rise of Ronald Reagan.  Perlstein specializes in the rise of the far right staring with the Barry Goldwater movement in 1964 and is popular history's master of the political grotesque.  The Invisble Bridge traces the fallout from Watergate, the bitter end of the Vietnam War, and the continued hardening of ideological lines and parallel realities and how all of this festered in an America that barely seemed capable of being held together.  

Perlstein is not interested in scouring archives for novel documents or applying overarching theory to his work.  Instead, he is interested in recreating, almost curating, a selection of the inane, bizarre, disturbing, and familiar events that occur during the scope of his book.  Reading a Perlstein book sometimes feels like getting strapped into the Clockwork Orange Eyeball Device as a series of events everyone knows from living through or the preserved in the popular imagination co-mingle with forgotten campaign ephemera until it all blends together in a slurry.  It is, I think, an attempt to make sense of a political era by reproducing in miniature the confusing chaos of politics in the mass media age that upends pat attempts to characterize the era.  For example, one of Perlstein's favorite themes was that after Watergate, a substantial number of people were not scandalized or upset by Nixon's actions, and while the sophisticates in Washington knowingly smirked at Reagan for refusing to criticize or attack Nixon, he actually brilliantly courted a growing movement so awash in anger and grievance that Watergate had nothing on the horrors that they believed liberal politicians were unleashing on their communities, and they were poised to take over the Republican party and eventually the country.

The Invisible Bridge, like Nixonland, weaves a psychological biography of its main character into the contemporary accounts.  Perlstein's Reagan comes across as a striver from a poor, almost itinerant family headed by a drunk, abusive father.  Reagan, fueled by novels about heroic characters, invents himself as an athlete and a big man on campus, remembered by his classmates either as a shimmering golden boy or an obnoxious braggart who, for example, never tired of telling stories about his daring lifeguard rescues on the Rock River even if embellished or made them up.  And while Perlstein's Nixon reflected a sort of disgruntled, flop-sweated striving against the elites that connected with a group of people sick of intellectuals and entertainers and swells telling them what was best for them, Reagan offered something different-- an actor, yes, but one knocking around in talking ape pictures, a smooth folksy broadcaster who lent the right's cultural grievances a touch of homespun common sense and effortless charm; in short, Reagan was able to channel the burbling rage against the Great Society and civil rights and the anti-war movement and those freaks and eggheads on TV without coming across like a total maniac. He had the great advantage of appearing as someone none of his opponents thought to take seriously until it was too late.

No politician comes across particularly well in Perlstein's books-- even the most well-meaning do-gooders are chained to mass media optics, and their ambition in Perlstein's view warps their actions-- and he suggests that is impossible to attain any sort of office without indulging in hypocrisies that demean everyone.  He paints surprise phenomenon Jimmy Carter as a dissembler willing to say or do anything to come across as the straightforward, honest governor designed to appeal to what Perlstein dubs the "suspicious circles" of people disillusioned by Watergate (Perlstein loves these kinds of phrases to label groups).  Perlstein does display a modicum of sympathy for Gerald Ford only because he found himself in an impossible position of running against Reagan, who deploys the proven and virtually unstoppable campaign strategy of just lying constantly and making shit up that proves his followers' points while Ford's people spend all of their time fruitlessly fact-checking long after anyone remembers or cares.  Perlstein also points out a weird phenomenon where the Saturday Night Live caricature of Ford as a bumbling doofus also somehow manifests itself into reality as Ford, seemingly out of nowhere, starts stumbling and bonking his head into things in front of cameras as if he developed a yips condition for moving his limbs.  In the end, Ford and the more mainstream Republicans barely clung to the 1976 nomination, but they lost the war; the party's enthusiasm and energy belonged to Reagan.

Perlstein frames the book with several recurring incidents that feed into the culture war: the return of POWs, the Patty Hearst trial, Watergate hearings, the movement to ban textbooks.  He also has an eye for perfectly absurd details, sometimes too good to be true (for example, Perlstein mentions that in Cleveland's Ten Cent Beer Night riot, fans wielded ninja-style throwing stars.  When I went to his website where he keeps his footnote, the link was to a wikipedia page that made no mention of throwing stars, nor did any of the articles in the page's footnotes.  A search for ten cent beer night and ninja stars only found two hits and both were extremely 2011 epic wacky history blogs that barely functioned, much like  Perlstein uses sources to emphasize the sense of threat, chaos, and a broken country that was, if not ubiquitous, certainly available to Americans in the mid-70s, where the people of the United States seemed united in disgust, fear, and cynicism except directed in very different directions.

I will get to the bottom of how many people on ten cent beer night had Ninja Weapons

In any sort of book like this, there is the overwhelming temptation to look for contemporary resonance. Perlstein himself hates this, especially when people tweet him about it.  But Perlstein is himself a person writing in the twenty-first century; it is impossible for me to believe that his understanding of the rise of Reagan is not informed by the Tea Party movement growing as he wrote (the book was released in 2014).  More importantly, though, it is not really necessary for Perlstein to wink to any sorts of contemporary arguments in this book because he does not need to.  The movement he has been writing about remains aggrieved about largely the same things; the arguments are not inert but shift between parties, areas and groups of people (Reagan successfully brought in the Evangelical movement as a bedrock), and the use of novel communications technology to organize while being underestimated by rivals on all political spectrums remains a constant.  We all live in Rick Perlstein's world all of the time.


1 comment:

Daniel O'Neil said...

Bravo, sir. I am going to read that book so I can be as depressed as you are