Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Trades

Professional sports leagues exist mainly in transactions now. The NBA’s star reporters are not hard-bitten beat reporters doggedly pursuing leads to confirm whether athletes are taking it one game at a time but sentient twitter accounts able to send out news of a trade a fraction of a second before anyone else and because of this we get to watch them go on television and read their phones, and other leagues are clearly chasing this high. I can think of two reasons why it seems like following professional sports has become infatuated with transactions: one is because sports media like everything else is driven by twitter and twitter is fueled by trade rumors and people impersonating Adrian Wojnarowski to spread misinformation and athletes posting the Auspicious Eyeballs Emoji and the other is that almost every team stinks and needs some new players in there dammit.

The transactions markets have become faster and more fluid in sports leagues for various reasons but in many cases appear to trend towards star talent clustering together.  In the NBA, that means superstars can assert their leverage to demand trades to move to one of a few contending teams where their intentions can be divined by a host of amateur detectives constantly monitoring who they follow on instagram and then posting their red string corkboards on the internet.  In baseball, it is the owners driving the movement as only a handful of teams are willing to pay for stars and the rest are selling theirs off furiously in trades, not even for hauls of super prospects but for semi-anonymous minor leaguers as the entire sport gears up for a brutal labor battle that seems likely to shorten or even end the 2022 season.  And the NFL is a land of chaos anyway because NFL contracts have no meaning and are written by Jerry Jones drunkenly firing a pistol at several pieces of paper that have paragraphs that start with "whereas."  In recent years, though, superstar quarterbacks have begun to figure out they can move around with more intention than most players, although never to the Chicago Bears because they are not stupid.

So let's take a look at where this whirlwind of moves have left three Chicago teams that are in various stages of oblivion, either hurtling towards it, trying to climb out, or just sort of making themselves at home.
 
IF TOM RICKETTS WANTS TO CLAIM TO HAVE NO MONEY HE SHOULD SIMPLY STAND IN FRONT OF WRIGLEY FIELD EVERY SINGLE DAY WEARING A BARREL
 
It is opening weekend for the Cubs and while the team and the city are thrilled to have people back in Wrigleyville vomiting on each other and screaming “you’re such an asshole GAVIN” into each other's mouths even though we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, the vibe around the Cubs is funereal. The Cubs have already dealt Yu Darvish for three teenagers and Kyle Hendricks’s pre-pubsecent doppelganger as Tom Ricketts has cited “biblical losses” in revenue which means that a number on a spreadsheet has told him that he and his family are in some abstract and meaningless way slightly less wealthy. They have already jettisoned beloved World Series hero and icon of Midwestern beefiness Kyle Schwarber and refused to pay a reported pittance to retain Jon Lester-- both of them are now on the Nationals. And they have made clear that some combination of the Cubs’ star free agents Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo could be dealt or depart in free agency when their contracts end. Theo Epstein resigned so he would not have to be the one to hit the plunger and blow everything up.
 
 
At some point after the Darvish trade, the Ricketts family got pummeled enough in the media that they managed to miraculously find several millions of dollars just lying around as one does and they brought in Joc Pederson and Jake Arrieta. Pederson’s career batting line is nearly identical to Schwarber but he costs slightly less and he has never to my knowledge blown out a knee and then made a seemingly impossible comeback to hit .412 in the World Series including a hit that became the go-ahead run in the top of the 12th inning to end the longest championship drought in the history of professional sports, but to be fair he hit very well in Spring Training. Jake Arrieta was for a few years the greatest pitcher I have ever seen and is now grizzled and washed up and clearly a replacement for Lester as the Old World Series Guy who will treat fans to having his beard dripping with sweat instead of Lester turning the color of an iron rod when it is put into a forge by a medieval blacksmith as either of them would labor to get outs in a humid August start to get them within 4 games of the vile Cardinals who of course were paid $50 million to take Nolan Arenado.
 
I am not upset that the Chicago Cubs will be mediocre and disappointing this season because that is the default setting for the Chicago Cubs. But trying to follow them this season, with the impending destruction of the team lingering over every game, with them playing on a Fox or ESPN broadcast and having to listen to the announcers yammer about it the entire time, and with the trade deadline coming to take everyone away does not sound like the most pleasant way to follow baseball.
 
THE VOOCHENING

The Bulls on the other hand decided to depart from two influential models of team building.  The first one is the belief that NBA teams should constantly be tanking and in a neverending process of flipping draft picks in a way that requires putting on an ill-fitting suit and bloviating about "assets" and while your assets are appreciating, depreciating, or being packaged to move for other heretofore unowned assets, the team playing games on your regional cable sports channel goes around getting its ass violently kicked in front of the whole world.  The other model is how the Bulls had been operating which was doing a half-assed and dumb version of this but never actually making any trades and allowing the team to be run and coached exclusively by maniacs with oddly shaped heads. 
 
Instead, the Bulls' new brain trust decided to do something somewhat unorthodox and push its chips in now for all star center Nikola Vucevich because Zach LaVine has ascended and the Bulls are ready to try to contend for the play-in game in an awful conference.  They gave up two first-round draft picks, young center Wendell Carter, Jr., and the bloated remains of Otto Porter, Jr. in return for Vucevic and washed-up forward Al-Faroq Aminu.  They also acquired tattooed Luke Besson movie villain Daniel Theis and some other players that might or might not be useful.  


It is not unreasonable to question the wisdom of cashing in so many draft picks for Vucevic and remaking the roster for a team that might not top out as anything more than a low-seeded playoff team, but I can't remember being this excited for a Bulls trade because they had done something.  The Bulls now had two all stars and also I never had to watch Luke Kornet again.  I was incredibly excited for Vucevic's debut until several minutes into the game when the Bulls got completely annihilated by the Spurs.  And then wasted by the Warriors as LaVine hobbled ineffectively with an ankle injury.  And then they lost again to the Suns.  The Bulls have not won a game in the Vucevic era and remain clinging to the last spot in the play in.  

But Vucevic is not a rental, and the Bulls can still build around him and LaVine.  They have not made the playoffs since the Three Alphas era, which was only four years ago but that is also the number of teams Jimmy Butler has been on.  And they have Patrick Williams, who is extremely young but can do this.

 

 There is an endless debate about the merits of tanking in the NBA versus trying just to be decent knowing there is no chance of competing for a championship against whatever superteams exist, and while I can understand the arguments of both sides, I can't understand people who consume basketball as a bloodless collection of "assets" when there are 82 games a year and many of them are played in Chicago during months when it is really unpleasant to be outside.  Also they severely understate the worth of a player like Denzel Valentine, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite Bulls because he is an avatar of chaos and the only player with any personality even though he is objectively not very good at NBA basketball but is willing to stomp around the court like godzilla after draining a three pointer early in the fourth quarter.


THE CHICAGO BEARS ARE COMFORTABLY RELAXING IN QUARTERBACK HELL
 
For four years, Bears fans have taken their decades of quarterback-induced neuroses and channeled them directly at one unassuming young person from Mentor, Ohio.  Mitch Trubisky's first public appearance in Chicago after being drafted as the Quarterback of the Future was at a Bulls game when they showed him on the jumbotron and an entire stadium booed the shit out of him before he sheepishly appeared on the court to accept a jersey from Benny the Bull.  
 
It was not Mitch Trubisky's fault that Ryan Pace traded up to draft him over two vastly and obviously superior quarterbacks, one of whom to me looks like the best player to ever play quarterback in the history of football.  Nor was it his fault that he played for the fanbase most insane about quarterbacks in the entire National Football League.  It was probably his fault at least a little bit that he never learned how to competently read an NFL defense but to be fair that seems really hard.


I still have no idea how I feel about Mitch Trubisky.  Every time he started, even when his limitations were painfully apparent and it became clear that he would not become an even average, competent quarterback, I still rooted for him to finally figure it out.  And I laughed when he would reach back and do something profoundly oafish which was more likely while the cameras cut to a slow motion shot of him dejectedly ripping down his chin strap. I felt a little bad for him when he became a sort of living meme culminating in him getting an ironic Nickelodeon Valuable Player award by internet smart-alecks after performing incompetently in a playoff blowout.

It was hard to get a read on how to feel about Trubisky because he did not really display anything resembling a personality in public, and so he became this blank canvas upon which the derangement of NFL fandom got its full expression.  By the end of his run with the Bears, the best description for his job was as a mascot.  Locally, he inspired endless speculation, causing grown adults to go on searching soul journeys when calling into sports radio to mispronounce his name.  Nationally, he was only Mitch Who Was Drafted Over Patrick Mahomes, that's it, that's the punchline.  Now he's gone, off to Buffalo, bound only to pop up in case of an injury to Josh Allen where he will once again ascend to meme-hood whether he is good, terrible, or merely mediocre.

The Bears got rid of Trubisky, promising fans better days at quarterback and tantalizing them with visions of maybe Russell Wilson suiting up and after all of that they dropped Andy Dalton on us.  Andy Dalton.  Dalton might be the least inspiring, least interesting veteran backup quarterback to put on a team other than Nick Foles, who at least has inspired a number of bawdy ballads in Philadelphia.  Andy Dalton.  The Bears told their fans they would show them an exciting, romantic space opera and instead sent them a tediously detailed tome outlining the mechanisms of an intergalactic trade dispute.  Andy Dalton.  If you were to sum up the entire history of Bears quarterbacking over the past half century you could conceivably describe it as "Andy Dalton."  He's pudding.  The Bears have chosen not to move on from the executive who made possibly the worst quarterback draft pick in the twenty-first century and let him pick the next quarterback and what he came up with is Andy Dalton.   

I believe that the Mitch Trubisky debacle has finally caused a sort of psychic break in Bears fans where they are no longer interested in rooting for a team with a good defense and an Andy Dalton-style quarterback who hands off and tries not to throw egregious interceptions and just want to watch a single good quarterback once regardless of the rest of the team.  I would root for a two-win team that just lost shootouts week after week and didn't even have linebackers if it meant I could watch a quarterback do one of those demoralizing drives where they just hit open receivers one after the other to the point that it doesn't look like the other team is even defending them that I have to see done to the Bears constantly and have never seen from the other side.  I've seen the Bears win with insane, unfathomable defenses, incredible special teams, bruising running games, and that one season where they won exclusively from Mike Brown returning interception touchdowns in overtime.  I don't think I am uniquely deranged, and that there are others like me.  Without a competent quarterback, there is nothing to root for except for the Packers to not have a hall of fame quarterback for like a year.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

By Defeating Me In This Title Game, You Have Proven My Point

No one expected Northwestern to actually win the Big Ten Championship last Saturday, but I would argue that the Wildcats managed to win the aesthetic battle by turning the entire thing into a grim, unwatchable puntfest that stymied the Buckeyes until they remembered that their offensive line is group of large, sentient dump trucks and they have a running back that transcends time and space.  In the end, I suppose, everyone got what they wanted: Ohio State gets another inevitable conference championship and berth in the Playoff, Northwestern proved they can lose to Ohio State with more dignity than all but one Big Ten team this season, and the Big Ten got its television money.

https://twitter.com/CFBONFOX/status/1340367024296521729?s=20

https://twitter.com/CFBONFOX/status/1340367024296521729?s=20

Northwestern's winning strategy all season-- to grab a lead and then desperately hang on as the opposition punts, throws ill-conceived interceptions in the direction of Brandon Joseph, or dies of old age-- while effective against most of the Big Ten faltered against big, bad Ohio State.  Fox television even correctly identified them the entire game. And Northwestern managed to prove a point that even though they were really bad 30 years ago, they are fine now, which remains their most important mission.

One of the luxuries in rooting for a team like Northwestern is never being in position to worry about what the Playoff Committee is up to, and so when they come out and transparently shoehorn in the teams to guarantee TV ratings into the Playoff while constructing ludicrous Rube Goldberg-style explanations for it because apparently it is illegal to outright say more people want to watch Notre Dame stumble around and get bopped in the noggin on television than Cincinnati so Gary Barta has to come out there and transcend our understanding of football to invoke a different plane of  existence that is only visible to the Playoff Committee and the people who have taken some sort of gray market psychedelic and now believe that they live in a cult compound called Fansville, it is fine to enjoy the spectacle.  In fact, in their own way they are right.  It might not be fair to the Group of Five, but I will enjoy watching Notre Dame getting crushed by Alabama while Brian Kelly turns into an undulating skin tag on the sideline.

 

The committee has correctly assumed American football sickos want to watch Brian Kelly appear to have been shot out of the Mars colony after activation of the Reactor

It has taken the Playoff Committee six years to go from an exciting novelty to an ossified institution propping up the same high-powered programs.  The playoff rankings remind me of a ducal war of succession where the prime territories are easily gobbled up by Alabama and Clemson and then everyone else needs to fight a punishing 30-year land war involving Ohio State.  College football has yet to find a way to crown a champion that does not involve some sort of outrage, but I would suggest that continually farming it out to unaccountable committees of bureaucrats who have yet to come up with a reason for doing anything that cannot be explained by assuming that they are only interested in television ratings is probably not the most productive way to do this; then again, the Committee seems completely invulnerable to shame, pressure, and even Group of Five teams festively taking matters into their own hands and crowning themselves champions (the best thing that has come from the Playoff system) and the conferences that they care about are making obscene amounts of money so it is pretty easy to assume that they do not give a shit.

The college football season is mercifully limping to an end.  The bowl system, already kind of stupid but enjoyably stupid, has completely collapsed upon itself with teams pulling themselves from contention, two-win teams getting bowl berths because of contracts, entire games getting cancelled because of team outbreaks-- the entire thing has mirrored the American coronavirus response in that there are really no rules or rhyme and reason to what is shutting down but the American Men's Sock Garter and Sock Garter Holster Company has paid good money for those naming rights so a couple of three-win teams are going to fall down on each other for a few hours unless too many of them get coronavirus.

Northwestern will face Auburn in the Citrus Bowl, which is as far as I can tell still happening for some reason.  Northwestern and Auburn last met in 2010's batshit Outback Bowl in the dying embers of the Wildcats having a recognizably zesty offense.  Because Florida is a lawless Zone, this game will feature the jarring sight of fans in the stands with a capacity of up to 13,000 maniacs in America's Deranged Vacation Capital Orlando, Florida.  Fans in attendance are encouraged to inspire the teams on third down by cackling.

As you would expect from reading this type of focused college football blog, I have not watched a single second of Auburn football this season and have no idea whether they are good.  I do know that they just fired legendary coach Gus Malzahn as part of what appears to me as some sort of booster-related coup with the type of dumb skulduggery that makes this sport so fascinating, so the Wildcats will be playing a team with an interim coach in the middle of a pandemic in Florida.  I don't think these circumstances merit as Bowl Game Winning Factors, I just hope they get through it, and if it means that Pat Fitzgerald gets to bray on a podium how Joey Galloway is a disgrace in fact the worst deal we've ever done while confetti rains down over a semi-empty stadium then that's fine and everyone can go home while I flip over to watch Northwestern's basketball teams go through the same insanity to play because they also have the temerity to be good this year.

I have enjoyed watching Northwestern play football this season in the way that it is theoretically possible to enjoy a Northwestern football game, but the entire season has been a travesty.  The Wildcats managed to get through the season without a reported Covid case (football camp was shut down over the summer after a positive case, but it was later described as a false positive), and while I am assured that everyone involved has been conforming to guidelines scrupulously, the price for having a football season has required football players and all other athletes competing this season to live essentially as monks.  If anything, this season has rendered the already ridiculous argument that college athletes are simply students enjoying a recreational activity with a billion-dollar TV contract even more impossible.  As college campuses across the country have shut down in various stages, athletes have carried on their practices and games and travel, navigating uncertainty and a risk of infection.  While I understand that players had the opportunity to opt out and many played because they really like it, that's fine-- they should also be paid.  If the NCAA does not like the aesthetics of cutting checks, they can officially deputize a bunch of guys with stupid hats driving long cars to pull up to every facility and hand people sacks of cash the way it is unofficially done, but even the vaguest gossamer strands of an already-lost argument against paying players cannot possibly be entertained unless the argument is "who's gonna stop us" which I guess is a pretty good one because no one has been able to answer it.

The one thing we have learned this season is that there is nothing that the NCAA, the conferences, and the schools will not do to get their television advertising money.  They will play in a pandemic.  They will make up bullshit "safety protocols" that involve college football coaches, the people least likely to wear a mask on the face of the earth, pretend to wear a mask but really just yank it down to scream at people or wear it around their entire face except where it should go.

Jeremy Pruitt models a mask style known as the "Oaf's Babushka"
 

They will drag themselves and everyone else over a floor full of broken glass to get these games on TV, and while that is disconcerting and an already appalling part of the horrifying broader tapestry of what Americans have been willing to ask people to get sick and die for this year, it also suggests that if anyone ever gets together and threatens to take those games off TV they just might give them anything. 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

A Football Apocalypse During a Regular Apocalypse

This Saturday, Northwestern meets Ohio State in Indianapolis as a necessary blood sacrifice so that the Buckeyes get to go to the Playoff and Big Ten officials can go light up some cigars and congratulate themselves for making the decision that teams should play through a pandemic in order to get television money and reflect on how they fought through the adversity that came from teams becoming fetid Covid swamps and the many arduous phone calls they had to make.  

Now, after building an eight-game schedule with no slack, allowing Kirk Herbstreit to accuse Michigan of not playing Ohio State during a team-wide outbreak as some sort of ridiculous rivalry hi-jink on the order of stealing the Brutus head and firing it out of a bulbous air cannon, and convening an very silly emergency Ohio State Needs to Make the Playoff Meeting, all that stands in the way of their machinations resulting in that precious playoff berth is this:


 

Not only would a Northwestern victory be satisfying for winning the conference and vanquishing Big Bad Ohio State, it would also serve as a monkey wrench that would destroy the precarious house of cards constructed by the Playofff Committee to get all of their favorite teams in.  Would they have to put in one-loss Big Ten Champion Northwestern over a team from another conference that didn't hypocritically pretend that they give a shit about playing through a pandemic and they are now yelling through gritted teeth about how many games they played on their post-game zoom calls or would they have to consider putting in one of the excellent undefeated Group of Five teams that should be there? Would a potential Northwestern upset fuck up the Playoff Picture so badly that, if a Northwestern player was sprinting toward the end zone in a game-winning play, would Gary Barta himself sprint on the field to tackle him or maybe try to throw a piece of Lucas Oil horseshoe logo signage at him to knock him down before throwing down a smoke grenade and vanishing to an emergency Big Ten complex under the stadium that is filled with mirrors and potentially hundreds of fake Garys Barta any one of which could be the real one who is outfitted with a claw?  These are important considerations for the Playoff Picture.

The Playoff Committee, though, is resting easy in their hotel suites because the Buckeyes are heavily favored.  Northwestern has for the most part been winning games by playing excellent defense and holding on by the skin of their teeth through second-half puntfests.  Ohio State has star quarterback Justin Fields, and it seems likely that Northwestern will have trouble adjusting; my analogy for this is the Simpsons boxing episode where Homer has no idea what to do with superstar Drederick Tatum after gently knocking over a bunch of winded hoboes that here represent the oaf-quarterbacks of the Big Ten West.  Ohio State has obliterated every single team they have faced in the horrid Big Ten except for 2020 football heroes Indiana.  But they aren't playing the game on paper, and who knows; in this most insane year, maybe Northwestern can pull out its greatest upset yet.  "If anyone would like to say anything derogatory toward our players, please do so this week," Pat Fitzgerald pleaded, desperate in search for the next Rece Davis insult that he used to lead Northwestern to its only loss.

Don't you dare call them R*ce D*vises. (Thanks to @AceAnbender for the screengrab.)

 As enjoyable as it would be for Northwestern to destroy college football's postseason, there are no heroes during the 2020 season.  Northwestern, like all programs, has asked its players to shoulder ludicrous burdens for the Big Ten to show me ads for the Brett Favre Knee Brace and the fact that their win as an enormous underdog would also fuck up the Playoff does not mean that it was a good idea to play.  The Big Ten West Championship is both a testament to players doing something remarkable during this upheaval and an obscenity that they were asked to do it.  There are no winners here, although I want to be very clear that Northwestern winning the Big Ten Championship would be incredibly funny.   

THE HAT AND WHAT CAME AFTER

Last Saturday's victory over Illinois had no affect on the Wildcats' division championship, but there was still a Hat on the line so they had to run over the Illini.  Northwestern's dormant running game came alive in a wet day that turned Ryan Field into a mud pit, and they nearly equaled a school record for rushing yards against a Big Ten opponent that they set in 2003 that was also against Illinois.  The Wildcats have won six Hats in a row and are now only win away from evening the all-time record.  

On Sunday, Illinois fired Lovie Smith.  Smith, who I am fond of as the best Bears coach of my life who was fired after a ten-win season so they could hire a Canadian league coach who looked like a ventriloquists's dummy on the cover of an R.L. Stine book, was far too normal in my opinion for college football, the domain of maniacs.  I hope when Illinois engages in its coaching search they consider the fact that I would prefer to write about a coach that was a weirdo lunatic.  I've been able to get by for the past couple years making fun of Jim Boylen, but now the Bulls have a normal square haircut guy in charge.  Perhaps the Illini would consider hiring Jim Boylen, if he is available.  If Illinois goes with another normal coach, it may be necessary to sabotage the Bears' kicking footballs and finally push Matt Nagy over the edge of madness.

(UPDATE: It appears that Illinois is going to hire Bret Bielema, I can work with this.)

Northwestern football is also on the precipice of change.  Athletic director Jim Phillips, most often seen at Northwestern games running around like a shirtsleeved secondary mascot, is moving on to head the ACC.  Phillips will go from working for Northwestern and its boosters to a job where he will, in essence, be working for Dabo Swinney.  Under Phillips, Northwestern's sports programs have thrived in terms of winning games and raising money for ambitious real estate projects and not letting anything get in the way of that.  Here is a good post from Ben Goren about Phillips's legacy at Northwestern about his successes on the field and the costs that those entail.

Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz will also retire after this season.  I have written before that it is strange how coordinators get so much outsized credit and blame for a team's performance and suspect that it is something fans to latch onto, especially when they are mad and want someone fired.  After all, most college coordinators move in an endless itinerant parade where they are continuously swapped with identical goatee guys.  On the other hand, Northwestern has had a very good defense for most of the time Hankwitz has been there, and whatever he is doing it has obviously been working.  Once again, Northwestern will enter a coaching search this time not to replace a reviled coach blamed for the offense's ineptitude but to replace a lauded favorite whose unit has been the heart and soul of the program.  I have the utmost confidence that if there is one aspect of American life that will remain unaffected by the pandemic it will be the football coach speculation industry with all of the attendant flight trackers and self-proclaimed message board insiders.

Finally, there have been rumors that the Chicago Bears are interested in hiring Pat Fitzgerald in a potentially nuclear mutual self-own fueled by ambition, hubris, and naiveté reminiscent of the scene in the movie The Other Guys where Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne The Rock Johnson play those types of devil-may-care badge necklace detectives who make an impossible leap off the building and plummet to the ground below or the decision to pursue an advanced degree in the humanities.  I hope this is just a rumor because Northwestern has remade its entire football program in the image of Pat Fitzgerald and I have doubts that his shit would work in the National Football League but on the other hand watching Fitz try to handle questions from the fevered Chicago football press and deal with untold legions of mustache guys that have never even glanced at Northwestern muster their forces from Kenosha to Tinley Park in order to oust him from Halas Hall because of punting would be funny.

I don't know what the future holds for Northwestern after this game.  If they do as expected and get flattened by Ohio State, then they will supposedly go to some bowl game even as the entire infrastructure around bowl games appears to be collapsing.  College football is poised to limp across the finish line having grasped at whatever money they could find, and it is impossible at this point to believe there is nothing that conferences will not do with their programs to get every last penny.  Bowl season, already a sort of jaunty appendage to the college football season, will probably exist and mutate into something even stupider as exhausted players beg to for the season to end, as teams continue to have outbreaks.  It will probably end up being like one field in a complex that every team who still wants to keep playing comes to and just sort of footballs at each other for a few hours in an unorganized free-for-all as announcers just scream the name of sponsors over the action until someone emerges in a robotic exoskeleton.  But nothing can affect the Playoff as college football marches towards its pot of gold that cannot be stopped even if Northwestern manages to completely destroy it this weekend.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Masque of the Red Hat

In the past weeks, Pat Fitzgerald strutted around screaming the team's new motto of "how dare you call us Rece Davises," then Northwestern ate shit to a bad Michigan State team, claimed the Big Ten West crown via e-mail, and watched the entire Big Ten Conference eat itself over the question of whether Ohio State would get to face them in the championship game, so it was about a normal two weeks in this ridiculous college football season.  

In several years this is going to be an insane sign (photo taken from the Northwestern Football twitter account)
 

The math on the Big Ten West appeared to work to Northwestern's favor two weeks ago because of their win over Wisconsin and because of a new tiebreaker that had been used to disqualify teams because they or enough of their opponents had come down with a disease, a metric that was almost instantly moved away from the horrific implications of teams incubating dozens of cases to be just another Factor in Division Championships.  Under the ancient Big Ten Laws codified in September, Wisconsin was disqualified from appearing in the championship, but under the new Oh Shit Ohio State Could Miss The Playoffs Laws signed in an iron-clad google doc signed with the blood of all fourteen Big Ten Athletic Directors, now Wisconsin could have qualified if they hasn't already lost to Indiana in a straightforward series of events that could have been clearly laid out to the Badgers if the Big Ten had worked out how to manipulate the space-time continuum. 

So sometime last week, Northwestern officially won the Big Ten West outright, which I learned about when they sent me an e-mail offering to sell me 2020 West Champions merchandise.  This itself was funny, but I think it would have been even funnier if Northwestern fumbled the ball in the Michigan State endzone and then were presented with the Big Ten West trophy because of Covid Cancellations.  The apex of this season would then be if Wisconsin had beaten Indiana the next week, then the conference activated the Actually We Were Kidding About The Six Games rule on Tuesday, and a Big Ten official in some sort of protective bunny suit was forced to extricate the trophy from Pat Fitzgerald's office as he levitated over the multi-billion-dollar facility in a state of ecstatic apoplexy.  They could have existed as Schrodinger's Wildcats having both won and not won the Big Ten West indefinitely as the conference continually adjusted its rules.

The Big Ten's Great Rules Kerfuffle has been one of the most enjoyably ludicrous highlights of this godforsaken season.  It is not funny or enjoyable that the conference and the sport in general has been plowing blithely ahead through the ever-worsening pandemic with unflagging, dead-eyed determination to get their TV money, but watching the bureaucrats flailing away with the desperation of Homer Simpson chasing a roast pig has at least been entertaining.  The question of whether it would be fair to leave Ohio State out of the championship game is beyond the point; nothing about this rotten sport is or ever has been fair, and the idea that the Big Ten's phoney-baloney rules were about to fuck over the team whose hopes of getting the Big Ten a slice of that playoff money is one of the reasons why all of this is happening in the first place while the most deranged Ohio State fans went nutso on the internet was a wonderful several hours. 

The entire Ohio State debacle served to unleash the absolute stupidest debate in college football discourse this season where teams upset by a rival team cancelling games from a Covid outbreak accuse the other team of ducking them.  In this case, the conspiracy theory is that Michigan has been so delightfully inept at football this season that Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Athletic Department have used a rampaging team outbreak as an excuse to avoid humiliation at the hands of the Buckeyes and potentially disqualify them from the Big Ten Championship.  First off, the idea of spitefully cancelling a game to disqualify a rival is incredibly funny and should be allowed.  But also, the theory is so profoundly oaf-minded, a plainly moronic way of thinking where fans are angry at the Covid-riddled team for not welcoming opponents to the stadium so they can aggressively breathe on them because it might affect how the Playoff Committee thinks about their Football Resumé.  

Needless to say, this theory was espoused by Kirk Herbstreit who then appeared hours later in a self-filmed apology video from his wood paneled Football Office with his face looking like a bulbous dried mango strip; I would suggest that this entire turn of events would be one of those insane and unfathomable 2020 events that would be impossible to explain to the naive pre-March world, but I believe that if you told any 2019 college football fan that teams would still play games during a world-crippling pandemic it would take them approximately five seconds to guess that teams would instantly accuse rivals who have come down with a plague and subsequently are reluctant to play games as ducking them, and honestly they could probably guess that the person most responsible for this would be Dabo Swinney.

HAT HAT HAT HAT

For the second time in three years, Northwestern and Illinois face a Hat Game where Northwestern has more incentive to rest players than win.  They have already clinched the Big Ten West and will once again face Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship and therefore have little incentive to play their top players in a quest to do the impossible and upset the Buckeyes and complete the Northwestern mission of ruining the Big Ten's entire season.  This Hat Game scenario happened in 2018, and Illinois quarterback A.J. Bush played heroically, undone by some unfortunate turnovers and an Illinois field goal try so cowardly that even Northwestern fans groaned.  

This year, once again I will approach the Hat Game with mixed feelings.  On the one hand, of course I want Northwestern to win the coveted Hat, the prize in North America's greatest sports rivalry.  Northwestern is very close to evening the all-time series with Illinois and, in coming years, achieving a winning record against a Big Ten team that isn't Rutgers.  On the other hand, the idea of Northwestern losing to Illinois and limping into the title game infuriating Wisconsin and Iowa fans is funny, and I am sort of nurturing a theory that the shittier Northwestern looks heading into Indianapolis the more powerful their conference-ruining powers will grow.  

It will be interesting to see how Fitzgerald approaches the game.  Last year, Northwestern narrowly clung to a lead and then almost literally kneeled out the entire second half, and it seems that this has gone from a tactic used to beat Illinois with third-string players in the fourth quarter to an entire governing team philosophy.  The only way to play more conservatively if they do manage to get a lead on an Illinois team that I think looks pretty dangerous this season would be for the quarterback to run backwards in the pocket to drain time off the clock resulting in an intentional safety or some sort of weird abuse of rules demanding a ten second runoff.

THIS SECTION IS ABOUT BOB DYLAN MOVIES FOR SOME REASON

I do not know why but in the past several months I have become obsessed with classic rock documentaries.  I believe there are two reasons for this: one was hearing a Crosby, Stills, and Nash song on the radio and then being drawn for the first time into reading about their entertaining web of cocainous feuds and grandiose insults and then watching the Peter Bogdanovich documentary on Tom Petty around the Wildflowers re-release and falling victim to the twenty-first century malady of looking for similar content before next thing I knew I had consumed something like fifteen hours of Bob Dylan-related films in the course of two stressful late-October weeks.

There are two things that stand out in the D.A. Pennebacker film Dont Look Back. One is the insane gaggle of press conferences and interviews that are used to besiege a young Dylan on a 1965 tour of Britain.  Dylan is short with reporters and various hangers-on and, as noted in Roger Ebert's original review of the movie, comes like an irritating prick, but at least for me the entire spectacle of a twenty-four year-old guy with a guitar and harmonica necklace subject to press conferences like he is a politician expected to represent an entire generation is unfathomably bizarre.  The other is how close Pennebacker got to Dylan and how much of the movie is just him killing time before shows, obsessively reading about himself in the papers, hanging out with his entourage who all are identically dressed and sunglassed, dicking around on the guitar, and being at the center of a party that he never wants to be at.  In one memorable scene, Dylan bangs on a door demanding to know who threw that fuckin' glass off the balcony, man, getting into what looks like it might spiral into a physical altercation with an extremely drunk and high man and a middle-aged Beard Guy, and generally yelling at people with his Dylan Voice.  Only the Radiohead documentary makes being a famous rock star look more unbearable, and the confluence of that energy with constant interviews asking him to sum up the state of the world made his abandonment of the folk scene so he could play rock music and have his fans all turn up to his shows to tell him to go fuck himself palpable.

The best part of the enormous and sprawling Martin Scorcese Dylan documentary No Direction Home is the transition from acoustic to electric Dylan.  This transformation, complete with a fan screaming "Judas!" at him, has fallen into pop culture lore, but the sheer anger captured in the documentary is really something.  Scorcese mines several minutes of footage of young British people who are absolutely livid about Dylan.  Many of them have just seen or are about to see Dylan in concert, but they are more than happy to spend several minutes getting extremely flustered and agitated about how Dylan is now "simply rubbish and rot, with the electric. It is shocking how he is not even wearing the harmonica."  This vitriol toward Dylan expressed precisely by scandalized teenagers is one of the funniest moments in the history of popular music and if they had any dignity they would have reacted by throwing beer bottles at a chicken wire fence.

No Direction Home is filled with extensive Dylan interview segments, but they are conducted by his own manager and allow Dylan to weave his own mystique, which is a fancy way of saying that Bob Dylan loves to say a bunch of lies and bullshit.  This is at least somewhat understandable-- the entire Bob Dylan persona was willed into being from his first moments in New York when he pretended to be from New Mexico instead of a sleepy Minnesota town, and one can certainly understand why the Bob Dylan of Dont Look Back had no interest in saying anything particularly interesting to the ravenous press that is desperately trying to shape him, package him, and sell him to their own ends. 

Dylan's commitment to myth-making about himself perhaps explains why he was willing to collaborate with Scorcese again on The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, a sort-of documentary about his bizarre, small-venue 1976 tour that combines old footage that Dylan shot for what has been described as a very bad fictionalized version of the tour he made as a 1978 movie called Renaldo and Clara with contemporary interviews that include several actors playing fake characters including a Danish tour impresario, a fictional head of CBS Records, and even Sharon Stone pretending she joined the tour as a sort of teenaged groupie.  The tour itself, even before all of the hokum, included a lot of elements of acting and dress-up; performers wore masks and facepaint and Dylan enters the phase that all rock musicians hit in their 30s when they invariably become Hat Guys.  Present-day Dylan is once again croaking out his reminisces to the same manager who interviewed him for No Direction Home, but he really comes alive when he gets to do some belabored acting so he can take some potshots at a fictional person named "Stefan Van Dorp."  To be fair, I have not seen any of Dylan's actual acting work other than the GIF of him throwing what might be the world's funniest punch, but it seems like Dylan really only comfortable playing Bob Dylan.


These two approaches from Scorcese and Pennebacker-- Scorcese relying on archives and cagey interviews from Dylan and everyone from the expanded Bob Dylan universe, and the Pennebacker fly-on-the-wall method from Dont Look Back and the almost incoherent, druggy follow-up  Burn the Document that you can find as a bootleg on the internet-- at some point rely on Dylan as the steward of his own story where the price of access to Bob Dylan comes due as indulging in Bob Dylan's bullshit.  One of the stranger efforts to get around Dylan himself is to not use Dylan at all, as Todd Haynes attempted with the bizarre 2007 film I'm Not There that uses several quasi Dylan-like figures to represent different eras of Dylan, which is both a fascinating approach and eerily similar to the way Bill Simmons would approach making a Bob Dylan movie.  The standout performances for me are Cate Blanchett as the Dont Look Back Dylan who goes electric as Blanchett performs a miracle of physicality by transforming herself into a twitchy, irritable Dylan complete with the Dylan Voice actors love to do and Heath Ledger as a loutish actor who represents the 1970s Blood On The Tracks Divorce Dylan.  The movie switches between sections that also include an 11 year-old boy who calls himself Woody Guthrie and presents himself as a world-weary 1930s hobo traveling around in the 1950s, Christian Bale doing Folk Dylan and later Born Again Dylan, and Richard Gere floating through a nonsensical magical cowboy world, but it is a wonderfully odd attempt to make sense of this one person and his numerous reinventions and well-guarded personal demons.

Of course, no documentary or book or any other sort of media will ever give me what I am looking from Dylan which is not a painstaking deconstruction of his lyrics or puerile gossip about his personal life, but a sense of what it is like to be Bob Dylan, to reach a bizarre level of fame and influence that 40 years after his greatest heights he is having movies made about him that involve Richard Gere in bizarre Western Stunt Show dreamscapes.  I don't think it is possible, not for Dylan nor for anyone in any of the other documentaries I have watched because that level of fame is so deranging and warping that anyone who achieves it has to lose all sense of perspective and wrap themselves in a cocoon in order to survive.  The Baby Boomer Rock Doc narrative always involves listening to the Beatles, forming a band, the giddy rush of fame, and then years of drugs, divorces, and probably losing a large amount of money on ill-advised real estate or boat boondoggles that culminate in them going on reunion tours.  

Dylan has made more of a meal of it both by being more famous and held to more importance than his peers and by shrouding himself with mystique that makes fans desperate to try to peel back the curtain, leading to an opening for professional Dylanists.  He has returned in 2020 with a new album featuring the apotheosis of the 1960s Legacy Artist: a 20-minute song about the Kennedy assassination and an announcement that he has sold his catalog for an estimated $300 million, meaning it is likely we are going to be hearing Blowin' in the Wind in the background of one of those pharmaceutical commercials with people in bright clothing cavorting in parks.  The more Dylan that you see, the more he appears as a fascinating enigma and shameless huckster trading on mystery, and both might be the same thing.


Friday, November 27, 2020

ESPN Has Been Very Unfair To Me About the Rece Davises

It takes a certain kind of courage to look at the state of college football, which is hanging on a thread as every team rotates turning their teams into mobile disease distribution units, and stand in front of the cameras to denounce Joey Galloway for a mild football insult, as Pat Fitzgerald did after the Wildcats' enormous win over Wisconsin last Saturday.  We're starting there because this is the funniest thing to happen with Northwestern football in this blighted season other than the fact that it has won multiple football games.  Earlier, before the game, Galloway had described Northwestern as a "bunch of Rece Davises."  Fitzgerald took exception to that after the game and called the team the "Fightin' Rece Davises" while cutting a promo on Joey Galloway as a bunch of Northwestern players whooped out the name "Rece Davis" in triumph.  Northwestern's official twitter account temporarily changed its name to the "Fightin' Rece Davises."  This is so deliriously dumb that I have not been able to stop thinking about it all week.

The funniest part of this feud is the invocation of the words "Rece Davis" as an unutterable football insult.  Rece Davis is, of course, the generic sportscaster host of ESPN's College Gameday pregame programming.  The way that Fitzgerald took it is that Galloway was insulting the team's athleticism but instead of just saying something normal like that, he invoked the dreaded Rece Davis and now has made that name into a staggering and apparently inexcusable football epithet.  After the game, Fitzgerald characterized Galloway's statements, which, I repeat, were him referring to the Northwestern team as "Rece Davises" as "incredibly disrespectful."  How would you feel if I referred to you or your loved ones as a "Rece Davis" is something Pat Fitzgerald did not ask but it merits consideration.  

Coach R---- and Coach M---- meet after one has called the other a R---e D---s











 

 

I have e-mailed ESPN's PR department asking for a comment from Rece Davis about his name becoming an egregious football insult and I will update if I hear back from him on this matter as well as if he prefers the plural of his name to be styled Rece Davises or Reces Davis.

This is not even the first time Fitzgerald has gotten all red-assed about an ESPN commentator.  You may recall that after the 2016 Pinstripe Bowl, Fitzgerald got on the microphone immediately after the game to denounce then-ESPN personality Danny Kanell because Kanell had used all of his 40 "confidence points" on Pittsburgh defeating a Northwestern team that had barely squeaked into bowl eligibility because they lost to FCS Illinois State at home 7-6. Kanell was doing one of those pointless time-filling ESPN shows about bowl games no one cares about because the ratings for these ill-attended, barely-watched games is somehow worth gazillions of dollars. I don't blame Fitzgerald or any coach who trawls for Insults and Adversity the way that large whales feed themselves by straining the water for barely-visible bits of kelp and protozoans, but it is also extremely amusing watching Fitz huff and puff and toot like a cartoon steamwhistle at these vacuous talking heads; it behooves everyone at Northwestern athletics and ESPN to immediately get Stephen A. Smith to say something vaguely unflattering about Northwestern football.

Fitzgerald could get all riled up at Joey Galloway because Northwestern defeated Wisconsin 17-7.  The Wildcats remain unbeaten, they have beaten the toughest team on their schedule, and seem almost certain to have clinched a berth in the Big Ten Championship game against Ohio State.  The victory over Wisconsin is now moot; the Badgers will miss Saturday's Axe Game against Minnesota because of a Covid outbreak on Minnesota's team, and Wisconsin is now ineligible to play in the Big Ten Championship Game.  If Wisconsin had won, Northwestern would still be likely to head to Indianapolis, but at least this way Badger fans will not completely lose their minds and express themselves in what I assume is a new Big Ten tradition of driving down to Rosemont and screaming at a Meat Restaurant, and while I am glad Northwestern won, we have to admit that this scenario is funnier.

The Wildcats won an ugly, near-unwatchable game with smothering defense, turnovers, and just enough points, which has become their signature style.  They forced five turnovers, including two more interceptions for ball-hawking prodigy Brandon Joseph, they ran for 24 yards; the third quarter consisted of nine consecutive punts from both teams.











Northwestern's win fits with a general carnival atmosphere in the Big Ten this season.  In a world where college football should not be played and this season represents the most deranged capitulation to advertising money in a sport that is entirely an advertising money racket, the Big Ten has delivered its funniest and most satisfying season in years.  Historical doormats like Northwestern and Indiana have surged.  Traditional powers like Michigan and Penn State have gone completely to shit, and not in the annoying way where they win eight or nine games and all of the fans melt down about it, but they are legitimately awful teams who stink.  Michigan needed a Jim Harbaugh jaw-grinding triple-overtime victory over Rutgers to get their second win.  Penn State hasn't beaten anyone, literally.  Nebraska continued to exist as the Big Ten punching bag when they got annihilated by Illinois and then brutally tweeted-upon.  Only Ohio State remains grimly inevitable, the only thing stopping the American people from what we all deserve: a Big Ten Championship Game between Northwestern and Indiana.

The Wildcats have three remaining games against relatively bad teams Michigan State, Minnesota, and Illinois.  At this point, because of Wisconsin's disqualification from the Championship Game, they need only one victory to clinch the West.  Everyone is acting like this is a fait accompli, but anyone who has ever rooted for Northwestern knows that they are capable of getting upset at any time; two years ago when they won the Big Ten West in a year where no team was disqualified for contracting an extremely contagious airborne virus, Northwestern lost to an Akron team that had never beaten a Big Ten team in a streak dating back to the nineteenth century.  And when a team plays a style that involves scoring exactly as many points as they need to win, it seems like other teams have a tremendous opportunity to get an upset.  Northwestern fans are aware that you can never take any Big Ten team lightly from the experience of supporting a Big Ten team that has consistently won at least one game a year that gets other teams very mad.

I have been getting through this season by treating Northwestern's continued success as a punishment for the college football world.  As they continue to dangerously push forward with games, I have argued that the outcome they deserve is more Northwestern football, a team nobody wants to watch playing an aesthetically hideous form of bludgeoning football, continuing to roll through a season that shouldn't be happening.  But this is all a dodge.  I'm railing against college football on this blog while watching every Northwestern game, cheering the results, and continuing to write about it.  To accept college football at some level means accepting a place that values the opinions of the Playoff Committee who continues to meet in person for the vital purpose of making a list that is literally unnecessary until the final week of the season, even if I just want to watch Northwestern gradually beat Michigan State for three and a half hours Saturday.  It's Dabo Sweeneys all the way down.

But despite the ugliness inherent in college football this season, there is one thing I hope to avoid and that is a team being referred to as "Rece Davises" twice.

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 CBS.com, 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.

SUSPICIOUS CIRCLES

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 bringyourchampionstheyreourmeat.blogspot.com).  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.

  

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.