Saturday, November 26, 2022

A Hat? In This Economy?

If you can say one positive thing about the 2022 Northwestern football season is that it is mercifully over.  The Wildcats are nursing a single win over Nebraska, they will have their worst season since 1989, and the program seems to have plummeted from the highs of a Big Ten West championship back to its miserable depths in only two years.  On Saturday, they will have one more desperate attempt to salvage something from the season by prying the Hat from atop the bulbous, far side caricature skull of Bret Bielema and then retreat to whatever lair Pat Fitzgerald crawls into the offseason as he tries to figure out how much longer he can remain his imperial control over the football program while actively in the Rick Venturi Zone.

The last two losses summarized the season so far.  The first turned into a miserable blowout in Minnesota, where they only interesting wrinkle was the Gophers tearing through every available quarterback; there was a point in the fourth quarter when it seemed like the Wildcats were one quarterback injury away from the impressment of anyone large and wearing a purple sweatshirt.  


Beer is served in clear, plastic cups at TCF Bank Stadium in case a fan finds Fitzgerald's Shilling and is forced to play quarterback for the Northwestern Wildcats 

The second game was close enough to imagine Northwestern winning.  Then again, the game was only so close because of an incredible turn of events where a Purdue pick-six was called back because the officials found the cornerback guilty of Illegal Hurrahsman-ship for high stepping for 30 yards and made them take the ball back at the 30, which resulted in a three and out and a missed field goal.  


I am sorry for even putting such offensive and disgusting content on this website.

As a college football fan, the officiating on this play was a travesty, an insanely draconian outcome for overly festive running that serves as a reminder that the NCAA's ruling cabal of severe, frown-lined bureaucrats seem to have a bizarre vision of college football where the thousands of drunk people at games many of whom were dressed inexplicably in shark costumes would see a guy lifting his legs a few extra inches off the ground on a game-securing touchdown and say "that simply will not do."  On the other hand, as a fan of a team who benefited from the call, I can say that, as a turn of events, it was extremely funny.

(SIGH) HAT HAT HAT HAT

Northwestern has an opportunity to salvage their season by doing the seemingly impossible and prising the Hat from the bulbous, far-sided head of Bret Bielema.  That will be a difficult task.  The Illini are finishing an excellent season; last week they nearly took out Michigan on the road.  They have an impregnable defense and their running game will test a Wildcat defense that has struggled all season stopping opponents' ground games.  Illinois will be heavily favored and the Ryan Field stands will be glowing orange. But in this game, North America's greatest sports rivalry, one can only hope that it is an indescribable and possibly deranged urged for the Hat can drive Northwestern to an inexplicable victory.

 

If The Hat is not won during the game, I will assemble a Heist Crew to steal it from the Illinois Athletic Facility where we are call caught 35 seconds after entering the building.

Illinois has more than just Hat Lust on the line; a win and Purdue loss against Indiana that could happen if for example they have multiple touchdowns called back for Too Many High Fives or Excessive Smiling would thrust the Illini into a potential Big Ten West championship clusterfuck. After Iowa's very funny loss to Nebraska, there is the possibility that four teams could finish 5-4 in Big Ten play, which would require cracking open the dusty books of Legends and Leaders to determine the ancient Tie-Breaking Scenarios with one team headed to certain slaughter in Indianapolis and the rest somehow all heading simultaneously to the Music City Bowl.

Breaking down the potential Big Ten West Tie-Breaking scenarios if Purdue chokes.
 

This season, I have been seeing a lot of discussion online about how the Big Ten West is a flaming garbage scow and the federal government should intervene specifically to stop the Big Ten West teams from playing unwatchable lummoxing football at each other every week and I'm incensed.  Anytime there is grousing about how breathtakingly mediocre and hideous the division is, Northwestern should be contending in it.  Northwestern football is like one of those single-celled organisms that live in volcanoes and hydrothermal vents that are viable in environments where no one wants to be, and when the Big Ten west is essentially a giant pile of toxic waste, the Wildcats should be thriving.  Unfortunately they have one year to get their act together before the California teams force some sort of grand realignment and the conference is forced to create new divisions such as maybe "legends" or "leaders" that could destroy the magic of the Big Ten West.  I hope that Kevin Warren and his henchmen think long and hard about the effect on Northwestern and all of the other grasping oaf programs in college football's greatest division before acting too quickly.

One innovation I think could help the Big Ten West become even more annoying would be to bring back ties.  I was inspired by USA manager Gregg Berhalter's heroic decision to have Christian Pulisic simply kick a ball to nowhere in order to seal a tie at the end of the USA-England game when it occurred to me what Pat Fitzgerald would do offensively if the Wildcats were able to weaponize a draw to drive opponents completely insane.  Imagine a scenario where it would benefit both Northwestern and Iowa to tie instead of trying risky forward passes and they just alternately kneeled for the entire game.  Imagine a scenario where every Big Ten West team has like four ties during a season because no one is letting their extremely Big Ten West quarterbacks dare to throw the ball for the entire second half while fans throw garbage on the field.  Imagine the Playoff Committee having to sort through the concept of a one-tie Conference Champion while sports radio callers besiege their headquarters with towers and sappers.

Unfortunately there is no tie scenario today.  The stakes are binary: you either have the Hat or you slink away from the stadium, crushed and bare-headed.  This season has been such a disaster that no amount of Hats can salvage it, but it would sure feel better to go into an offseason with a heroic Hat victory than the same thing that's happened every other week.

BUCK DUCKETT IN THE PANTS FROM BEYOND

"Why does he want to meet us in the middle of the woods?" Crodway asked, brushing back a branch in the dark.

"Obviously, there are a lot of eyes around. Once we get the pants, we just bring them home. No one can prove where we got them. No one can say shit," Laslow said.  

Crodway was not assuaged.  The forest was impenetrably dark save for the beams of their flashlights, and he suspected that Laslow didn't know where he was going.  

"You'd better not get us lost in here. Coach has got Madford looking for us making sure we're not getting in trouble.  This is definitely trouble."

"Relax," Laslow said.  "We're almost at the clearing."

Crodway didn't answer.  This whole thing was Laslow's idea.  Sure, he could use some new pants.  Laslow said they were rare and had never been seen in the United States before.  That's what Mr. Gludcrul had told him.  But he was out here mainly because Laslow would otherwise be out in the woods alone, and he was already dangerously close to the bench after throwing three picks in last week's game.  Crodway, who already spent his Saturdays desperately trying to prevent opponents from hitting his quarterback, figured that he might as well try to stop him from getting completely lost in the woods.

"I don't see his car yet," Laslow said.  "Dude, you should see this car," Laslow said.  "Rolls.  Phantom.  He said he'd maybe let me take it for a spin if we get the win." 

But they were at the clearing and there was no one there.  It was eerily still, like the trees themselves were trying desperately to avoid detection.  There was silence.  Then a rustling.  The sound seemed to come from behind them then from the left.  But when they aimed their flashlights into the forest surrounding them, they saw nothing.

"Five minutes, Laslow, then we have to go," Crodway said.  

There was nothing.  And then there was something.  Some formless shape seeming like it had materialized from the trees, something almost imperceptible but definitively there and something that was definitely moving towards them.  They turned to run but no matter what direction they turned it was in front of them moving closer and closer.

-----------

Detective Carl Tratt was five minutes from the end of his shift when the call came in, five minutes from a warm house with a warm, brown bottle and instead he was squatting in the frost in a forest clearing looking at two bodies.  A professor found them on what he told the officer was his "morning constitutional," which made Tratt dread having to the professor later on.  He was told what he'd find when he'd come in but he was still not prepared for this.  The bodies were desiccated, almost shriveled.  Neither seemed to have much blood in them, but there was none at the scene.  

"Jesus Christ, what the hell happened to them?" he asked the Paul Quatch, the medical examiner.

"I've never seen anything like it.  No blood.  No wounds.  No trauma.  I have no idea what the hell could have done this."

Tratt's phone rang.  He listened for a few minutes and frowned, then hung up and paced around.

"Quatch, that was the office.  Coach called in this morning.  They've got two football players missing.  One of the roommates saw them grab some flashlights on the way out.  Says they were on the way to get some pants."

"Oh no," Quatch said.

"That's right," Tratt said, sighing. "They've already called in Duckett.  He's on the train from Indianapolis."

"Well better get your cloak cleaned and your amulets shiny," Quatch said.

Tratt had never met the NCAA investigator Buck Duckett, but he heard about him.  It was bound to happen when you worked in a college town.  Most of the time, you would just hear about Duckett poking around in a trash can outside an athletic facility or harassing some big time booster at a country club.  But Duckett was also an encyclopedia of college football's dark underbelly.  He knew all of the secret deals, he knew the networks of people funneling money into the sport.  It was rare that any of that dealing crossed from an NCAA infraction into the realm of an actual crime, but when it did he was a useful person to talk to.  But no one on the force wanted to.

The fact is that any conversation with Buck Duckett could swerve in bizarre directions.  The rumors were that Duckett believed in all sorts of strange, spooky stuff: monsters, spirits, demon cults, that sort of thing, and word spread among campus police that he could be found doing incantations or reading from scrolls.  He creeped everyone out.  Now, because some kid had mentioned pants to a detective, he was rolling up on Duckett's doorstep.  

------------

"Chief, this is ridiculous.  The guy's not even law enforcement.  He gets people suspended for eating a burrito that someone else paid for," Tratt said.  They were in the office, and the blinds were drawn.

"Tratt, my hands are tied.  This is the only thread we have, and we're pulling on it," Chief Stunch said.  "You know if these kids were looking for pants, he's the best shot at finding out who they were getting from and why they were in that clearing.  If you have any better ideas, let me know."

Tratt fumed.  He had nothing else.  "Fine, I'll talk to him.  But I can't investigate a murder and keep an eye on this guy.  You know what he does.  He slinks around.  He talks to people.  He hides in dumpsters and he has false mustaches.  I can't watch him constantly," Tratt said.

"Well you'll have to keep him close to you, then.  He's here," the Chief said.  He picked up his phone.  "Bring him in."

Duckett glided through the door.  He was not what Tratt was expecting.  He thought that Duckett would be wearing a cloak or at least some sort of skull necklace.  He was expecting him to have a sack of poultices or amulets.  But the man who walked in was dressed in a crisp suit with a tie and an anachronistic men's hat and carried a briefcase.  If anything, this was more disconcerting.  He looked like an FBI agent from the 1950s.

"Buck Duckett, NCAA," Duckett said.

"Carl Tratt," Tratt said.  "We found two bodies in a clearing.  Likely football players.  Quarterback and a center.  Seemed one of them might have had a line on some pants." 

"Thanks for coming, Duckett," Chief Stunch said.  "I'll leave you two to it.  Tratt should have everything you need."  He left the room.

"You know of anyone throwing money around who likes to do pants drops in the forest?" Tratt said.  "Is that the MO of any operators?"

Duckett opened his briefcase and picked up a file folder and slapped it on the table. "Errol 'Jimmy' Budesnon III."  He grabbed another one.  "Bud 'Poke' Hanragason.  Tad Hadley.  Hudd 'Scrote' Thomas."  

"That's a lot of pants guys," Tratt said.

"No, it's just one.  I haven't figured out what his name is here yet."

"You're telling me there's a booster doling out pants and changing his name and no one has caught on yet?" 

Duckett just stared at him.  He closed the briefcase and removed his hat.  A deep scar ran down his head parallel to the his scalp on the left side leaving a trench in a square buzzcut.

"You know who I am and what I do," Duckett said.  "I know you don't want me here.  I know you all think I'm a kook.  I understand that.  But I also know that this is the first time he's ever left the bodies like deflated sacks in the woods."

Tratt paused.  He hadn't mentioned the state of the bodies or that the baffled medical examiner's office was already on the phone with some out-of-state experts.

"This booster is not just changing his name.  When he leaves, it's as if he never existed.  Just a disappeared athlete and what appears to be no memory.  Holding galas for the coach and showering them with money and then he's gone.  The locker room is renamed.  You see that enough times and you start to believe there's something more sinister going on here than pants," Duckett said. 

He took a large dusty book out of his briefcase.  It took me sixteen years to find this thing and it damn near cost me my skull.  I've been tracking this thing since those fullbacks disappeared.  I think I know what we're dealing with.  But I'm going to need your help.  He opened the book.  Lesser Pants Daemons. 

Saturday, November 12, 2022

High Winds Actors

 

There is one way to characterize this Northwestern football season that is not miserable and depressing and that is to think of it as a prolonged experiment in how much of a minor natural disaster it takes for the 2022 Wildcats to compete in a Big Ten game.

Earlier this season, Northwestern played a very good Penn State team in a ceaseless downpour and the conditions got so mucked up a horrible that it caused the Nittany Lions running backs to have the ball constantly squirt out of their hands nearly every time they tried to do anything other than fall down.  The conditions allowed Northwestern's Slopsmen to keep the game close enough to disgust the Penn State fans who had chosen to get soaked and voluntarily watch a football game involving Northwestern.

Last Saturday, big, bad Ohio State came into Ryan Field expecting the normal type of disastrous annihilation when the #2 team in the country plays a team that has not currently won a game in the United States in more than a calendar year.  Instead, they were greeted with gale force winds and torrential rain that would sort of pop up every once in awhile like Christopher Walken in a late 1990s comedy.  The result of this weather on Ohio State's deadly precision offense can be best described as hilarious.  Every series, the Buckeyes would send their superstar Heisman finalist quarterback out there to try to throw the ball to a gigantic, blindingly fast receiver that had a step on the Northwestern secondary and every time a gust of wind would turn into a Monty Python foot and slam the ball back into the ground.  Meanwhile, Pat Fitzgerald got to dust off the most perverted pre-electricity playbook he could find in some haunted football reliquary and refused to call a single pass.  The backs ran it.  The quarterback ran it.  In fact, for a large amount of time, there was no quarterback on the field and the Northwestern team was somehow using leather helmets and calling each other names like "Sport," or "Walleye."  


Some All-22 film of Ohio State's first-half offense

This worked, briefly.  The plan to use the miserable conditions as part of a concerted effort to avoid playing football meant that Northwestern held a lead and the Buckeyes to a tie for a large chunk of the game.  The weather helped the Wildcats' secret home field advantage that, despite fans being greatly outnumbered by visitors at all Northwestern home games, absolutely no one wants to be at Ryan Field.  For approximately two and a half hours, Ohio State fans were cold, wet, miserable, and forced to contemplate the impossible dignity of losing to Northwestern for the first time in 17 years, this time not to a decent team running a then-novel offense while the Buckeyes kept a future Heisman quarterback benched in favor of one of the most Big Ten quarterbacks to ever lumber out of an Ohio subdivision, but to a Northwestern team whose sole win is over a Nebraska squad whose entire strategy consisted of coordinated vomiting.  

 

Did Northwestern win this game?  Of course not.  But they largely succeeded in the Holy Mission of Northwestern Football, making Ohio State fans mad for a little bit.  With every loss, Northwestern gains a more powerful weapon by making the record worse and more radioactive, and every minute they can hold a lead, a tie, or even a sub 10-point deficit against a better team (which is all of them except-- and I cannot emphasize this enough-- the Nebraska Cornhuskers) they are going to annoy, irritate, and horrify opposing fans.  It was bad enough when these teams had to lose to Wildcat teams that were objectively good; the 45 real minutes or so when this Northwestern team was leading literally Ohio State because the game was being played in the Magnavox Guy's rumpus room had to be among the funniest 45 minutes of football played this season.

Unfortunately, it does not seem likely that Northwestern will be able to do more than briefly lead for the rest of the season.  Saturday they face a very good Minnesota team led by tailback Mohamed Ibrahim who feels like he has been running over the Big Ten West for 25 years.  He is joined by a new quarterback who is quickly-- oh wait, I have just been informed that Tanner Morgan is somehow still in Minneapolis and due to Covid-era Time Distortion, I cannot remember Minnesota having a quarterback who is not Tanner Morgan.  The Gophers are 6-3 under that moldy acronym-monger P.J. Fleck and his fucking boat.  After Minnesota, Northwestern in on the road against a  Purdue team that currently has a winning record and then must play a home Hat Game against an Illinois team that has suddenly turned into an unstoppable juggernaut that has Bret Bielema bellowing over the corpses of Big Ten West teams dumb enough to challenge him.  The dream of a two-win season feels bleak.

But it is November in the Midwest.  Perhaps Northwestern will play one of these games in a blinding blizzard where Northwestern backs are able to slowly sneak past the line of scrimmage.  Perhaps they will play in a small tornado where deafening sirens cause opponents to commit false start penalties.  Perhaps a godzilla or other kaiju will rise from the lake and immediately attack Evanston's one sort of tall office building and while everyone is pointing at the monster and yelling Evan Hull can get past the Illini defense.  Perhaps there will be a minor sharknado.  The fact of the matter is, as long as it is so shitty out that it is impossible to actually play football, the 2022 Northwestern Wildcats will have a chance

INDIANA POETRY CORNER

In 1963, the Indiana state legislature selected Arthur Franklin Mapes's "Indiana" as its official state poem.  In 2016, I was selected to review the Mapes papers for a forthcoming collection of some of his Hoosier-inspired works, where I was able to view the original manuscript for his poems.  I arrived at the State Historical Society of Indiana in Indianapolis, where I quickly fell under the watchful eye of a librarian, whom I immediately understood was reporting directly to my arch-rival in Mapes scholarship, G. Murdiel Klackwell.  

For those of you who do not know Klackwell, he is a middling critic who has nevertheless used his powers of bureaucratic maneuvering and sleazy politicking in order to keep Mapes scholarship within his ever-tightening grasp like an academic python.  Klackwell's own efforts have kept my own dynamic and boundary-pushing Mapes scholarship out of the main Mapes journals, and Klackwell has refused to let anyone confront him with pointed more-of-a-comment-than-questions in Mapes conferences by recruiting a cadre of unusually burly graduate students.  And yet, Professor Klackwell provides nothing but the most wafer-thin bromides while bulldozing over the subtleties and lyricism of Mapes.  Instead, my new annotated version of "Indiana" will rescue the poem from Klackwellism and provide what I believe is a fuller and more nuanced explanation of what is going on behind the poem in a crackling counterpoint to Mapes's gorgeous melodies.

-L.R.M. Mandis-Mampis, 2001

INDIANA 

by Arthur Franklin Mapes

God crowned her hills with beauty,
Gave her lakes and winding streams,
Then He edged them all with woodlands
As the setting for our dreams.
Lovely are her moonlit rivers,
Shadowed by the sycamores,
Where the fragrant winds of Summer
Play along the willowed shores.
I must roam those wooded hillsides,
I must heed the native call,
For a pagan voice within me
Seems to answer to it all.
I must walk where squirrels scamper
Down a rustic old rail fence,
Where a choir of birds is singing
In the woodland . . . green and dense.
I must learn more of my homeland
For it's paradise to me,
There's no haven quite as peaceful,
There's no place I'd rather be.
Indiana . . . is a garden
Where the seeds of peace have grown,
Where each tree, and vine, and flower
Has a beauty . . . all its own.
Lovely are the fields and meadows,
That reach out to hills that rise
Where the dreamy Wabash River
Wanders on . . . through paradise.

Commentary

"God crowned her hills with beauty...setting for our dreams"

Mapes is clearly describing Indiana as an ideal place.  These physical features and the state's crowning natural beauty are integral to his central ideas of the Hoosier state as an Edenic paradise.  By looking through the Mapes papers, although he never stated it directly, it seems obvious to me that the emphasis on bucolic nature is used as a contrast to urban areas, particularly other Midwestern cities which were dens of vice, crime, and the illegal pants trade.  Describing Indiana as the "setting for our dreams" clearly implies that he has a larger goal in mind for the state beyond just talking about hills and rivers.  Of course, if you were to ask the Klackwell set about it, this profound layer of meaning is utterly lost to them, possibly because Klackwell himself was spending his time building up his power in the Mapes Association of the Great Lakes in order to wield it like a cudgel and keep superior scholars out of his fancy black tie Mapes Dinners. 

"Lovely are her moonlit rivers...shadowed by the sycamores"

 Notice the play of moonlight and shadow.  This is a clear allusion to Operation: Sycamore, which would have been all over the news when Mapes was composing this poem.  This famous operation involved the NCAA Investigator Buck Duckett disguising himself as "Mr. Pumpkin" in the Sycamore Pumpkin Festival in Sycamore, Illinois, a town close enough to De Kalb that allowed him to find nearly a dozen Northern Illinois football players accepting a cache of stylish pants and jackets that were cleverly conveyed to the school underneath a float for Kornazacki and Sons Hog Stranglers as an elder Kornazacki had lured several linemen to the school by offering free apparel and ham hocks to the twelve squarest-headed lads in the county.  There is no doubt that Mapes had seen the plan to do the exchange at midnight, before Duckett intercepted them, as it was in the papers for weeks.  Mapes's brilliant way of folding this event into a geographic depiction of Indiana indicates the subtle work of a master, the type of verses that led me to Mapes scholarship in the first place.

"I must roam these wooded hillsides...seems to answer to it all"

Notice the contrast of the "pagan voice" calling with the invocation of God in the first word of the poem, setting up Indiana as a land so holy it answers to multiple sets of divine rulers.  This, along with the specific use of "roam" clearly alludes to the impermanent headquarters of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  It was, at the time, flitting between Kansas City, Missouri and Chicago, cities where Buck Duckett's investigations were interfered with and hampered by organized crime, most notoriously the Chicago Pants Outfit led by "Pockets" Mike Popstakl and his enforcers who had the entire Illinois defensive line in customized golf pants and Duckett's most reliable informants shut up or disappeared into various meat lockers and municipal stadiums. 

"I must walk where squirrels scamper"

An obvious reference to the time Buck Duckett disguised himself as an enormous squirrel in order to foil the delivery of a crate of custom athletic shorts to the Ohio State wrestling team.

"I must learn more of my homeland...there's no place I'd rather be"

Here Mapes's invocation of Indiana as a paradise clearly mirrors Buck Duckett's calls to move the NCAA headquarters to Indianapolis.  Mapes would have certainly been aware of this after the NCCA's well-publicized failed raid on an Ames dockyard on the Skunk River where Duckett and his team had surrounded a riverboat carrying dozens of crates of illegal socks for the Iowa State chess team.  What they did not know is that someone at the NCAA had tipped off Eddie Belch, a longtime associate of Pockets Mike (who would later turn on him and erupt in the bloody Chicago Pants War or 1967 which would end in dozens of mobsters strangled with their own pants and kept turning up in haberdasheries and department stores for months).  Eddie Belch's men opened fire on the raid, wounding Buck Duckett, and escaping with the socks.  While recovering, Duckett began to give interviews to magazines like Indiana Busybody suggesting a new site for the NCAA headquarters where his operations would not moved further away from midwestern pants gangs, and Mapes's language about Indiana clearly mirrors Duckett's invocations of it as a place where he and his teams could more effectively target the proliferation of illicit pants and pants-related activity throughout the region.

"Indiana is a garden...where the seeds of peace have sown"

Unfortunately, as Mapes knew, Buck Duckett was simply an investigator.  While he had unparalleled skills tracking down clues and extracting information through pressure and the occasional slap to the head, he was not prepared for the type of bureaucratic infighting that he needed to convince the NCAA heads to move their headquarters.  At this time, he was thwarted by his main rival Dreck Teckett, who Duckett suspected but was unable to conclusively prove was the key inside man for the Chicago and later Missouri Pants Outfits' operations within the NCAA.  Teckett was only the deputy for the NCAA's physical facilities branch, but his superior Gave Ledbrent was a notorious drunkard, and Teckett ran the department like a warlord extracting tribute for parking passes and access to the facility's "good" cafeteria on brown meat Mondays.  Duckett found his memos destroyed in garbage gondolas, his messages intercepted by Teckett's network of lackeys, and even his phone unable to dial internal lines which was a "maintenance problem" for months on end.  Anyone who has ever been in a struggle with this sort of rat, like how Klackwell controls access to the unread Mapes papers by requiring you to grovel to him in his palatial office can attest how draining and impossible it is for men of more magisterial talents to waste time with these petty tyrants. 

"Lovely are the fields and meadows...through paradise"

It is clear that Mapes has dedicated the final stanza of his poem to the future movement of the NCAA Headquarters to Indianapolis.  This interpretation may flow over the head of lunkheads like Klackwell and his coterie of imbeciles but observe how Mapes ends the poem with the slant rhyme of "rise" with "paradise," a clear indication that the importance of conveying this subtle message took overruled his otherwise perfect rhyme scheme.  Some scholars might reasonbly question that the invocation of the Wabash River since it does not flow through Indianapolis (that would be the White River), but this is a clear allusion to West Lafeyette, the city on the banks of the Wabash that was the site of Buck Duckett's largest operation. Operation: Wabash nearly shut down the entire Purdue basketball program when Duckett located and eventually destroyed a cache of the longest pants ever seized by the NCAA to accommodate Purdue's massive frontline of "Moose" Burton, "Moose" Jenkins, and "Big Moose" Kraboose, a 7'5" senior who dominated the Big Ten in the 1959 season despite being only able to briskly walk across the court. 

It is in the interests of Klackwell and his academic henchmen to preserve the masterpiece "Indiana" as a sentimental poem about a state and cover up Mapes's intention to use the poem to pressure the NCAA to move its headquarters to Indianapolis and away from the influence of the notorious pants-gangs.  That is why Klackwell personally intervened to prevent me from publishing a valedictory essay on this subject when the headquarters made its move in 1997 in Mapes Shapes the preeminent Mapes journal.  Instead, I was forced to self-publish it and, while the essay itself is, I believe, a persuasive and perhaps even moving testimony to the power of Mapes's works and Buck Duckett's own tireless toil preventing athletes from receiving pants from miscreants, it largely went unread and unremarked upon by both Mapes scholars and the NCAA itself even after I handed it out at the 2000 Final Four held at the RCA Dome until I was bodily ushered off the premises by jackbooted police officers sent there, I presume, by Klackwell.

As I have prepared for this new edition of my commentary on "Indiana," I have grown increasingly alarmed that Klackwell has entrenched himself completely into Mapes papers.  In fact, though Klackwell has claimed that he believes the words of Mapes are sacrosanct to the point where he has extensively noted any variations from the manuscript to the published version of his poems, I have come to believe that Klackwell will do anything to suppress the "Indiana" poem's true meaning including altering the manuscript or even have one his graduate students forge an alternate version.  

For that reason, I have been forced to, in the dead of night and using a series of keys I have stolen and duplicated, temporarily removed the Mapes papers from the Indiana archives and will keep them with me while I finish off my commentary.  It is obvious to me that Klackwell is in the employ of the remnants of the Chicago Pants Outfit and will try to alter or destroy the papers and have me garroted with my own sock garters.  Fortunately, I traveled to Indianapolis with my own trunk of wigs, train conductor uniforms, false mustaches, and a giant squirrel costume.  I suppose it should be obvious now that I have been using L.R.M. Mandis-Mampis as an assumed name and am the NCAA investigator Buck Duckett whose deeds Mr. Mapes has, for whatever reason, decided to memorialize in his poem.  Even as we speak, the agents of Professor Klackwell and whatever so-called "law enforcement" that is in his employ are trying to track me down to allow him access to the papers and block this commentary that will scandalize the entire government of Indiana.  But I am not intimidated by him or by the various pants-assassins who have been seeking me out for decades for simply doing the work of keeping college athletics free from the decadent influence of commerce.  But there it is, the tell-tale rustling outside the safehouse and I must get my old NCAA service revolver and prepare to defend these papers one last time.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Not Gross Enough

Last week's game against Iowa was the most promising one on Northwestern's remaining schedule not because the 'Cats had any better chance to win than any of their other games but because of the hope that Iowa's offense, which had spent most of the season moving with the efficiency of a person drowning in quicksand, would combine with Northwestern's own struggling unit in a display of football so hideous and offputting that Pat Fitzgerald and all of the available Ferentz in North America would be hauled in front of a congressional panel so that they could be berated by bipartisan lawmakers showing blown up pictures of holding penalties while demanding that they answer to the American people. Alas, that did not happen. Northwestern just got smoked again in a normal bad game.


The Wildcats, with a single win that happened what feels like twelve years ago and absolutely no reason to believe they'll add a second to the tally, are on their way to their worst season since 1989. That year they lost every single game they played. They lost to a then-independent Rutgers. Every game was a double-digit blowout, except the game to Minnesota, which they somehow lost 20-18, a score that to me does not seem possible in 1989. This is not the 1980s, though. Northwestern and its donors have inexplicably poured hundreds of millions of dollars into athletics including a fancy training center, a renovated basketball/volleyball arena, and a proposed new stadium that will cost nearly a billion dollars in its own right, they are paying Pat Fitzgerald a mysterious but presumably hefty salary, and they are getting the same results that they did when the facilities were a strip of grass and a port-a-potty. To be honest this is objectively funny.

To be honest I have not seen a single second of the Iowa game. I was unable to watch the game live and when I saw that the score featured actual numbers and not the primal scream of an undead language, I had absolutely no incentive to watch the specific ways that they had gotten bludgeoned and pinioned all over Kinnick Stadium. Northwestern under Fitzgerald has rarely been a fun team to watch; the entire enterprise, even at its best, often involved grimly clinging to the lead in the second half in a way that resembled watching the second half of Uncut Gems every Saturday. 


This is how I win

Now, Fitzgerald has the Wildcats play the same style of grimy, grinding football, and the results for the past two seasons have not been there. The faint hope of infuriating or at the very least annoying the various teams of the Big Ten has been evaporating.

The Big Ten West this year is a shit show, a maddening collection of mediocrity. This is the type of year where Northwestern has in the past been able to wriggle through the abyss and end up in Indianapolis or at the very least the Eccentric Uncle Mustache Pincher Wax Bowl. Instead, they just keep getting bonked about the helmet. It is normally hard to make the case to anyone why they should watch Northwestern football or that Northwestern has a football team with uniforms and everything; it is impossible to do so now. Time to look at this week's opponent.

A TECHNICAL AND DETAILED ANALYSIS OF NORTHWESTERN'S UPCOMING GAME AGAINST THE OHIO STATE BUCKEYES


THE WORLD SERIES IS AN INSTRUMENT OF MADNESS

Every baseball fan wants to see their team in the World Series, but it is no small comfort that when that doesn't happen the fan is rewarded with the immense luxury of not having to watch her team play in the World Series. Neutral fans get to enjoy the unbearable tension of each pitch, the crowd roaring and retreating like an ocean wave, the catharsis of a timely hit and the crushing misery of an error and the fans of the two teams playing experience the world series by thinking to themselves: aaaaaahhhhhhhhhh aaaaaahhhhh.

Every big game in a sport offers tension and drama, but baseball's pace is best suited to emotional torture. It's already a slow game, but in the playoffs become glacial. No other sport forces spectators to indulge the players in so much housekeeping.  In between each pitch they kick the dirt around, they adjust their gloves and their crotch protecting equipment, they blink and make those weird open-mouthed guppy faces that Dustin Pedroia used to do.  The pitchers stare off meaningfully into the middle distance.  Every pitch for both teams could mean certain doom.

 

Baseball excels at doing this to people for four entire hours

Baseball's general slow and ambient nature-- the game is best enjoyed as a soothing background to something else going on during the summer-- gets weaponized into a terrifying dirge in the postseason as the stakes get higher.  In its ideal summer form, Ron Coomer is talking about the time he got sandwich poisoning on a road trip in 1988 after eating fourteen chicken parms on a dare from Rick Wrona while you chop onions without a care in the world; October finds you watching Jake Arrieta stare at the catcher with pupils the size of pinpricks for 45 seconds while feeling like you are going to vomit.  

But for those of us lucky enough to root for shitty teams, the playoffs offer a delightful voyeur's window into mass nervous breakdowns.  Every cut to a fan shows a group of people on the verge of bursting into tears, every home team setback is met with an eerie, miserable silence.  Baseball is the only major sport that allows fans space to perceverate and to stew, unbothered by anything happening other than players standing around.  Everything about the postseason, from the way that its best teams are promised nothing from a short series to prolonged the way games unfold over a feeling of relentless dread, makes the fans of teams almost rooting for it to end.  It is absolutely wonderful to enjoy without caring who wins and utterly unbearable to endure for fans of teams in it, and I desperately hope the Cubs make it back so I can be miserable again.

THE INDIANAPOLIS EXPRESS

Hugh Millhew was not sure why he stopped the bus for the stooped, bearded man or why he decided to change course and ferry him to Indianapolis. He figured he had a bus now, and when he stopped the man tried to get on, and, after thinking about it for a few minutes he could not come up with a good reason not to go to Indianapolis.

Millhew hadn’t planned on driving a bus on this trip or at any point in his life. His problem was that he liked talking to people and, in this case specifically, people in a bar next to his motel. In this case that was M. Powell Straigthurt, the proprietor of Straithurt Motors on Route 19 who pulled up in a glistening Dodge and told Millhew he could have it for his old Buick plus $180. Millhew said he wasn’t a fool, he wanted to have a look at the thing first. He popped the hood right in the parking lot.

“This thing has a worn alternator, the tires are practically bald, and the radio only gets the bad religious station,” Millhew said, trying to be as nonchalant as possible. “Clutch is sticky too.” Millhew also did not have $180 on him either, but he kept that to himself.

“Son, you drive a hard bargain, but I can tell you know your way around an automobile,” Straighthurt said. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. How about a straight up swap? I could always use another Buick, even if it’s just for parts.” 

That irked Millhew. Sure, the Buick needed some work, the fuel pump was nearly shot, and every four or five times it needed a kick in exactly the right place on the front fender in order to fully turn over, but he had kept it running all the way from Lubbock. But he couldn’t pass up a swap.

Straigthurt proposed doing the trade tonight. He said that did not want other customers seeing him give Millhew such a good deal and then demanding a nice Dodge for their own hunks of junk. Millhew was a little dubious, but he also noticed a flushed and swaying demeanor in the man and figured the rum cocktails he had seen Straighthurt downing one after the other could be playing a role here and it might be best to act before the man sobered up.

Millhew could tell Straighurt Motors was a major operation based on the billboard he saw with the M. Powell’s grinning face looking like the face of the moon and the fact that roof had an enormous inflatable gorilla ("Get yourself a deal that's INSANE!!!" the sign said, making the gorilla's presence somewhat of an enigma). Straighhurt took him to the business office in a trailer in the back of the lot. Millhew sat filling out dozens of forms. It seemed like every for paper he filled out, Straighthurt produced two more and as he attacked them, Straighthurt pounded addenda and clauses out on his typewriter, squinting through half-glasses. Finally he finished. Straighthurts produced a bottle of something brown and offered it to Millhew, but Millhew did not feel like celebrating. 

“If it’s all the same to you, Mr. Straighthurt, I’d just like the Dodge and I’ll be on my way.” 

“Well, I’ll be,” Straighthurt said. “We have a bit of a complication. You see, the Dodge, I just saw it is not available. Already sold to Mr. Lardner N. Wiltnoy. Taking delivery on the 24th. What a horrible oversight. My deepest apologies.” 

“OK then, I’ll just take the Buick back,” Millhew said

“Well, I'm afraid I can’t do that. You see, you’ve just signed it over to Straighthurt Motors. Here it is, in triplicate. Why, I just saw you fill out the forms yourself.”

Millhew was furious. He cursed. He whirled around to get the police. But then he saw it: a whole wall of photos of Straighthurt grinning that billboard grin of his with every badge in the county. There was one with him and the police department softball team he sponsored. There was one directly behind his head with the sheriff. He was smiling the same smile as in the picture now. 

“You’re welcome to talk to Sheriff Maughton. I’m sure he would be happy to take a look at the paperwork we’ve established here,” Straighthurt said. “Of course, I would never just take a car from someone like you. That would be fraudulent and you don’t get to be the sponsor of the sheriff’s bowling team with those sorts of lax attitudes towards the law and the constitution. I can’t get you the Dodge, but I’ve got just the vehicle for a youngster who knows his way around an engine block.”

Millhew had no choice and he followed him to the back of the lot. That’s where it was: an ancient, rusted bus. It still had “Billy’s Big Billy Boy’s Band, Brownsville” stenciled on the back. It smelled like it was leaking oil like a gutshot gunfighter. 

“Look at this fine automobile. Been all over the country, all over the hemisphere. Still runs like a dream. Seems perfect for an itinerant man such as yourself in his journeys. Maybe meet a nice girl. Maybe meet a few nice girls. You’ve got the room in here.” 

Millhew didn’t want the bus. But he also didn’t want to walk out of there and those were his only choices. He also noticed that Straighthurt had his hand grasping something in his pocket. He sighed and took the keys and the registration.

The plan had been to take the interstate out east and track down his friend Frad Croddle, but Frad had stopped answering the phone and the one time he tried to take the bus on the interstate it had moved so ponderously that multiple drivers threw hamburgers at him and he needed to stop and clean off the windshield. Millhew began meandering through backroads. That’s where he met Professor Huddry.

Millhew had noticed him at the Tri Booth Inn.  An old man bearded man in a rumpled suit with threadbare elbow patches was hunched over a table sniffing the fumes from what looked like a cup of tea or whatever spices they managed to dump in a mug full of hot water for him. The old man was surrounded by decrepit cardboard boxes.  The man looked at Millhew and introduced himself as Professor Huddry of the Huddry-Mantis Institute, but Millhew  simply nodded and went out to the parking lot.  He was done with conversations with eccentrics after the Straighthurt fiasco. But when he went to leave, there was Professor Huddry standing in front of the bus’s door like he was getting on the crosstown express.

“I noticed that were driving alone in this great big bus,” the man said. 

“I don’t see how that’s any of your business,” said Millhew.

“Well, if you’re heading east, I can use a ride to Indianapolis. My previous travel arrangements fell apart due to a small amount of treachery, leaving me to lug my books and articles and I can't find a single ride that does not appear to be a death trap. This must be the jalopy capital of the United States.  I can contribute some gas money.”

Millhew thought about it. He was down to his last $25 or so, and while he had no intention of ever setting foot in Indianapolis, it was at least vaguely in the right direction. Besides, he figured he could kick this odd little man to the curb if he became too tedious. He told him he’d take him up on his offer and began loading the boxes into the bus. There were dozens of them and they had been water damaged by some rain or a puddle and barely held together. It seemed like they had books in them and it took some time to get everything loaded up.

“You don’t know it now, but you’re taking a step to save amateur athletics in this country,” the Huddry said.

"How about we save that first tank of gas,” Millhew said. 

The first hours started in silence. Millhew blared the radio (it was the bad religious station, the one with a firebreathing preacher shrieking about his audience going to hell for embracing Satan’s radio) until it faded from the dial and that's when Huddry saw his opportunity to start talking.

“Have you heard of NIL?” the professor said.

“NIL? Is that some sort of chemical?” Millhew replied.

“No, it’s an acronym. That’s when you have letters that stand for words,” the professor said.

“I know that.” Millhew hissed.

“Name, image, likeness. Do you know that that means? Of course you don’t,” Hoddry said. “It means that crime is legal. It means that athletes are for sale. It means that a man’s integrity is on the open market like a hog’s carcass. Name, image, likeness. You’ve got college athletes getting paid now. And it’s all legal.”

Millhew was at a loss. “Why do you care if college athletes get paid?”

“That is just what I expect to hear from a nincompoop. It’s classic nincompoopery. Page 14. Habeas nincompooperus. Do you hear yourself? Do you understand integrity? Amateurism? The ideal of the scholar-athlete? Listen to yourself.”

“You better watch that nincompoop stuff or you can walk. Don’t forget this is my bus.”

“Of course. I apologize,” the professor said. “Not everyone has been exposed to the beauty of pure amateur athletics. You don’t strike me as a collegian.”

In fact Millhew had done one semester at State before both he and the administration came to a mutual understanding that he would no longer burden the faculty with his presence.

“This is exactly the type of situation that Duckett discusses in Chapter 15. I take it you have not heard of Buck Duckett?”

“No,” said Millhew. He pawed at the radio dial.

“Duckett is the foremost mind in amateur athletics. A guardian of sorts. An investigator for the NCAA. I assume you’ve never heard of the Tennessee Pants Bust of 1978. The author of In Cold Pants, a methodological guide to investigating illegal payments but, more than that, a metaphysical journey, a meditation on the soul of amateurism. The most profound sports text that has been written or will be written this century.”

The bus shuddered.

“I hope you don’t expect that I pay for repairs for this wretched wreck,” the professor said.

“The bus is fine. Just needs a little transmission fluid in a few miles,” Millhew said.

“The soul of amateurism,” Hoddry continued. “Do you know that Duckett once broke six ribs impersonating a scout team punter while discovering a ring of Tech players receiving free hoagies every single day from a devious sandwiches magnate?”

“I don’t know, those football players must get pretty hungry running around in the sun all day,” Millhew said.

“Of course they do,” said the professor. “But there are legal sandwiches and illegal– anyway the point seems to elude you. But what I hope is that it won’t elude the National Collegiate Athletics Association. As you can see I’ve prepared several proofs, mathematical proofs based on a numerological reading of In Cold Pants that I have written up so elegantly that it could get through to even the most thickheaded bureaucrat. I believe that once they are confronted with the texts from Duckett, Duckett scholars, and my own work showing that Chapter 13, the one where he details how he rigged up a crude funicular in order to sneak into a fraternity house and reconnoiter a set of golf clubs given to a point guard is actually, when run through a crude but effective cipher, a clear rebuke to the exact NIL code governing the NCAA rules, they will have no choice but to revoke the imbecilic law and stop this monstrous professionalization of football, darts, and croquet.”

Millhew finally managed to find a radio station. It was a small station and it was playing something called the Symphony of Discordant Accordions but he would listen to hours of snoring or shrieking babies to avoid having to endure to more speeches about Buck Duckett and the NCAA. Eventually they decided to stop and get something to eat at a roadside diner. Duckett had hoped to sit alone at the counter but Hoddry motioned him into a booth, and Millhew's manners wouldn't allow him to abandon him.

“The key to understanding Buck Duckett is in line and page numbers, which is why you need the third edition. You see, the key does not work in the first or second editions quite well with the roman numeral introduction and the beastly fourth edition, with an entirely superfluous chapter about the various swashbuckling incidents Duckett endured while investigating fencing teams that was probably ghostwritten by some dullard publisher's assistant.”

A strange man sitting at the counter swiveled around his stool and stared at them. He was as tall as Hoddry was stooped, gangly, clean-shaven, with remarkable ears that drooped down across the length of his tiny face. Millhew was embarrassed because Hoddry was talking his nonsense loudly and occasionally gesturing with a fork. The man got up, seemingly unfolding himself from the stool and materialized next to them with impossibly long strides.

“What’s this Buck Duckett nonsense you’re raving about?” he said.

“Well, this is high-level theory and scholarship. I don’t have time to explain it to another thick-headed oaf. I’m a very busy man with business before the NCAA,” the professor replied.

“Buck Duckett is nonsense. That was debunked years ago. All tall tales from a sad man writing stories about busting water polo players. If you had simply read Pack Bracket, you would have no issues defending amateurism,” the man said.

“Pack Bracket? Pack Bracket? I should have been able to tell I was dealing with a Bracket Man by looking at the ridges on your skull. Look at his head,” Hoddry said turning to Millhew. “The classic shape of a cretin. It is a miracle this man is able to feed himself. Pack Bracket.” Now he looked up at the tall man looming over him. “You realize that it was Bracketism that led right to NIL? The Bracket Men’s texts were so harebrained that the NCAA laughed them out of the room. Or did you not see the issue of ‘Amateur Sports Theorems’ about it? Maybe there weren’t enough pictures.”

“That hearing was a damn stitch-up and you know it,” the tall man said. “The whole thing was already a joke when people started reading this fake detective talking about disguising himself as a waiter to catch Moose Caldwell accepting illegal fireworks when everyone knows Caldwell’s own uncle turned him in.”

“Please,” Hoddry said. “The Moose Caldwell Uncle theory is something I’ve easily debunked if you read chapters four and six of my manuscript. All of the evidence shows that Duckett not only intercepted the pants but also left a series of prophesies embedded by analyzing the sentence structure. But I wouldn’t expect a Bracketist to be able to follow such a basic line.”

“Then you haven’t read Nick Nacket. I have it right here.” The tall man ambled over to the corner of the diner where he had his own mess of cardboard boxes that seemed impossibly damp and began rooting through them. 

“Let’s go. We can leave this deluded maniac to his scribblings. We have no time to waste,” the professor said as he gobbled up the remains of his meatloaf and stood up. But he was not fast enough. By the time he finished and paid the bill (the only reason Millhew had not left him at that gas station hours earlier when he got into a thirty minute argument with the attendant about Charleston Chew), the tall man had loped over to the parking lot and was already loading his boxes onto the bus. 

“I ain’t letting you go to Indianapolis without at least reading Nick Nacket,” he said, waving a battered volume at the professor.

“Do you think I haven’t read it? Or at least sampled enough of his incoherent nonsense to understand the futility of this enterprise?” By now both men were on the bus pointing their arms at each other and taking turns rifling through boxes to shove documents at each other while invoking the names of Beckett Heck and Truck Van Truk.

Millhew quietly slipped out of the parking lot and onto the road and stuck out his thumb.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Had 'Em In The First Half

Northwestern was leading at the half.  They were stopping Maryland and its backup quarterback from moving the ball and they were finding first downs and the endzone and all of this looked like a normal, hideous afternoon Big Ten game and maybe even the Wildcats' second victory of the season until it didn't.  

There is an old maxim in football that when you score to tie or take a lead late in the game you should not immediately give up a 75 yard run, but for the second game this season, Northwestern failed to heed it and it ended up costing them.  But while the Wildcats did not technically win and remain stuck on one victory through this trying season, it was encouraging to see them in the game with an exciting change at quarterback and another heroic performance from St. Evan Hull who is doing everything he can to try to drag Northwestern out of the loss column.  

As bad as the record is and as rough as those nonconference losses have been to endure, Northwestern has only been blown out once and have been infuriatingly close to winning every other game.  For several years, Pat Fitzgerald has been taking Northwestern as close to 1-11 as he could like it was a Cronenbergian football fetish but still managing to win bowl games; whatever magic he had for a decade has reversed itself.  The games are still close enough to talk yourself into them winning another one eventually.  

Cronenberg ends collaboration with Pat Fitzgerald on futuristic football movie "pUntZ" citing Fitzgerald's aesthetic views of football as "too disgusting."

But all of that is beside the point because Northwestern plays Iowa this week in the most anticipated game by maniacs and weirdos. Northwestern may not have a particularly good offense, but Iowa, from what I can tell, is pioneering new obscenities against football every week under the direction of Kirk Ferentz's goober son. I have not personally watched a single Iowa game this year but every single Saturday I look to see what is going on in college football and it's just a nonstop stream of "Iowa drives -45 yards and then somehow digs a 'punting tunnel;'" "Iowa quarterback somehow manages to intercept himself before he is carted away to a classroom to discuss this with a philosophy professor;" "Iowa lineman eats football to destroy evidence after getting whistled for illegal procedure penalty."

The last thing you see before a 7-4 football game happens

What I am hoping for is a display of football between these two teams so hideous that it causes Congress to reconsider the legality of college football. I would like to see these two teams somehow fumble it back and forth to each other for a full quarter. I would like to see both teams send out their punting units at the same time while a member of the marching band plays a tuba that shoots flames out of it. I would like to see Kevin Warren appear at the game and instantaneously make a rule that both teams can lose points while Pat Fitzgerald gets so enraged that his neck is no longer able to fit into the tunnel. I would like the scoring for this game to involve imaginary numbers.

Kevin Warren after being informed that he can't simply ban a Northwestern-Iowa game on the grounds of grotesqueness

Unfortunately, I do not think that this game will rise to my chaotic shit football aspirations. Iowa is still really good on defense while Northwestern has had trouble stopping the run, and, if both teams continue to play like they have been playing, it seems reasonable that Iowa will simply run the Wildcats over without having to go to their passing game and accidentally open a hole in a space-time continuum that allows Brian Ferentz to call for interceptions thrown to someone who last played in 2007. 


Iowa fans have been upset with Brian Ferentz this season, but he is building one element of success in Big Ten coaching by looking increasingly like a Far Side Guy

After last week's humiliating annihilation at the hands of Ohio State, the Hawkeyes are looking to bully someone. On the other hand, there is a chance that Pat Fitzgerald will go down into the subbasement of the athletic facility where he has built a $3.8 million Incantations Room and he will manage to summon the unholy demons of Punting and Uncalled Holding Penalties that have allowed him to beat Iowa by one point by demanding they go "1 and 0 this week."

 BUCK DUCKETT'S LAST PANT

“People have a misunderstanding about this work,” the venerable NCAA Investigator Buck Duckett says to me over black coffee at a diner in a southern college town. “Most of what I do is just making phone calls or looking at computer records. I’m not rooting around in trashcans. I’m not following people. I’m not doing stakeouts in a goddamn car.” 

Three hours later, we are staking out a fraternity house in a goddamn car, where Buck Duckett thinks a star tailback is about to take delivery of jewelry, video game systems, and expensive, stylish pants. We sit quietly. Every few minutes, Duckett releases a puff of vape smoke into the night air. Every time someone leaves the house or approaches it, we tense up and Duckett aims a long-lensed camera out of the driver’s side window. But after a few hours of waiting, nothing happens. “Maybe he was tipped off,” Duckett muses. “Or maybe he’s not hiding it at all. They'll show him picking up his stuff on the evening news.”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association prohibits its amateur athletes from receiving compensation. Or, at least, it had. By now three states have passed laws allowing college athletes from receiving money from their name, license, and image. These so-called NIL laws will allow athletes to endorse products and appear in commercials; they should break open the dam and allow essentially the payment of athletes. For many people disgusted by universities raking in billions of dollars through media rights deals while athletes work for free, this is a welcome change. For Buck Duckett, who has made his living busting athletes, boosters, and bag men in the illicit world of under-the-table payments, it is an existential crisis.  

“Obviously, the question of how NIL payments will fall under NCAA sanctions is very fluid at the moment,” Brett Dreebin, author of “Dollars and Sacks: A Study of Under The Table Recruiting Payments” tells me. “It is unclear whether there will be a role for investigations and enforcement in the NCAA at all.” An NCAA investigator who asked to remain anonymous had a shorter assessment. “Well we’re fucked,” the investigator said.

***********

There are depictions on 10,000 year old cave paintings of sports: wrestling, footraces, archery. As early as 3,000 years ago, we have records of sports organized into formal competitions as they became increasingly abstracted from skills required in hunting and warfare. By 2,000 years ago, civilizations from Mesoamerica to Ancient Egypt to Ireland had begun captivating spectators with the games involving balls. 

It would take several thousand more years for humans to come up with the idea of professional sports. Professional sports leagues began forming in the late nineteenth century on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players formed in 1871 with a league that could formally pay players after accusations that teams were secretly funneling money to so-called amateur players. By the 1880s, professionalism had been codified into soccer in England and Scotland.

Professional sports were the inevitable result of money and prestige in amateur competitions; once these stakes were established, it became virtually impossible for teams to resist luring the best competitors through underhanded payments. In England, for example, teams loaded up with Scottish players known as “Professors of Football” who moved to England and played for various payments designed to be called anything but wages. In cricket, “shamateur” players were not paid directly by clubs but were enticed to play there by other means. For example, W.G. Grace, the great nineteenth-century cricketer who won matches by intimidating opponents with the thickness and lustrousness of his beard, drew lavish reimbursements for travel and accommodation that dwarfed payments received by actual professionals. In virtually every case, sports leagues founded on an ideal of gentlemanly amateur play yielded to the temptations to recruit the best players, and the only way to do so was with cash. 

There is one major exception. The American college sports apparatus has clung violently to its ideal of amateurism. Even as college sports went from a collection of rowdy amateurs playing games that barely had rules as a cover for organized thrashing to a multi-billion dollar television product, the NCAA has rigorously done all it can to prevent that money from trickling down to “student-athletes,” whom the association likes to think of as ordinary students doing an extracurricular activity that in certain cases happens to be broadcast to millions of people and allows the schools to spend tens of millions of dollars on coaches and hundreds of millions of dollars on lavish athletic training facilities that bear the name of a billionaire donor who in turn gets to call the coach at four AM and scream that they ought to run the dang option. And it is these boosters whose underlings or sleazy brothers-in-law who have been driving around the country since time immemorial with sacks full of cash, deeds to cars in players’ grandmothers’ names, and the gaudiest pantaloons ever knitted by human hands.

The NCAA’s attempts to police amateurism have been a history o bumbling officials trying to bail out the Titanic with a water bucket. They could never stop everyone from getting paid or even most people. But they stopped quite a few, and when they did it was often because of Buck Duckett. 1978, his first big case, “Big” Walt Nexus, $2,300 in a Sesame Street lunch box given to his kid brother. 1984, Maxwell Rictus, thirteen gold chains, a Dodge Challenger, pants on the table. 1992, “Lucifer” Nick Lufus caught bragging about $68,000 and a pair of hammer pants overlaid in gold lamé in the lyrics to an obscure song on his cousin’s label that Duckett tracked down in a swap meet and spent four days with a Dictionary of American Rap Lingo in order to decipher that the NCAA ruled as “compelling evidence” to suspend Lufus the night before the Muskie Bowl. 1996, “Wet” Steve Jason got a 38 dollar lunch comped at a local burrito restaurant.

Duckett tells me that his busts came about from patience and a boring willingness to follow facts, trace receipts, and talk to sources. His colleagues paint a far more colorful picture. Bill Maceman– now retired from the NCAA and working private security at a minigolf and go-kart emporium where he keeps a dossier of teenagers banned for petty theft, pirate vandalism, and mooning– tells me that Duckett once slept in a dumpster for three nights in order to catch Moose Manjagt accepting a Member’s Only Jacket from local jute magnate Moose Dugan. Other Duckett stories seem to have become legends. I heard several versions of a story about Duckett seizing a set of golf clubs and rare Vicuña wool golf pants from the power forward Ralph Van Prigg by alternatingly posing as a caddy or burying himself in a sand trap. In one version, he disguised himself as an alligator lounging in a water hazard in order to scare away the other golfers and isolate Van Prigg’s party and then having to dodge multiple rounds when Van Prigg’s policeman uncle produced a service revolver and began firing at him (Duckett cryptically asks me if I thought he’d disguise himself as an alligator when I asked him about it but did not specifically deny it).

One thing that is nearly impossible to nail Duckett down on is the extent to which he believes in amateurism in sports and the effects of new NIL policies. Every time I press him on this, he simply says “I don’t make the rules.” Duckett says he is simply doing a job, just as he would be following company rules if he was investigating insurance claims or selling time shares. But his enthusiasm for the bust tells me otherwise. It is hard to believe Duckett would be working so hard to nab players getting payment if this was simply a job. Quadd Hatcher, a newspaper columnist who crossed paths with Duckett while defending the suspended tight end Owen Groud after Duckett caught him with a cash sack told me “Duckett wouldn’t be doing this if he didn’t care about players getting paid because this job is so self-evidently stupid.”

It is hard to see why Duckett would be so attached to amateurism in college sports. He was not a college athlete. In fact, he put himself through school partially as a professional boxer, a wiry lightweight under the name “Gentleman Buck” whose 6-13 record allowed him to graduate in three years with degrees in criminology and pants. Duckett came onto the NCAA’s radar when he was working as an assistant private investigator under the legendary Ike Dreighto. He was shadowing Bike Branton, the heir to Indianapolis concrete magnate Michael Branton III, during his scandalous affair with the famous saloon ventriloquist Margaret Walross when he  accidentally discovered that Indiana quarterback Moose Hatton was receiving shipments of custom suit pants from the Brantons hidden in cement mixers. The NCAA appreciated the tip and eventually approached him for a job. Within a year he was wearing a false mustache and running sting operations as a disc jockey named Larry Groove giving away free records to athletes.

It remains impossible to see why Buck Duckett is continuing to work cases. Other NCAA investigators are quietly shelving their records and waiting for a new assignment or perhaps a buyout. Duckett’s office is fully operational. Loose papers encroach on his desk like foliage reclaiming an abandoned boomtown. Each wall contains a large corkboard with red string mapping out baroque links between athletes, bagmen, and boosters with spokes veering off into incomprehensible directions (one says “Auntie Annie’s King of Prussia– ask for Pissed Dave”). 

And yet Buck Duckett keeps on investigating. He says he will keep doing so until they tell him to stop.  All he knows how to do is to keep disguising himself as a mime and secretly taking pictures of a banned cash transaction while pretending to fight against the wind.  He does not need to pretend anymore.  The wind is here.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Well This Is Bad

Northwestern football is not particularly fun at the moment.  While the 'Cats managed to hang around in all of their losses to the point where it seemed possible that they could, with some luck, managed to have actually won some of those games, that did not happen against Wisconsin. They got completely blown out.  They got whomped.  The offense faltered.  The defense made Wisconsin's usually plodding and inept passing game look like the Greatest Show on Turf.  At one point, Northwestern was down four touchdowns at the end of the half and Fitzgerald made the ludicrously unserious decision to kick a field goal from the three yardline that missed in every sense other than serving as a metaphor for Northwestern's football season.

A contrite Patrick Fitzgerald was forced to tearfully concede that the team is a playing like "rece davises" (the Northwestern video of him saying this bleeped out the word "rece.")
  

Wildcat football is down in a way that we haven't seen for decades, and I have no idea what the solution is.  They are playing in exactly the same way that they have for the entirety of the Pat Fitzgerald era, but it is no longer working.  The new offensive coordinator somehow has managed to reconstruct from the ground up the rickety, limping offenses of his predecessor; the only observable change is that he is no longer whimsically referring to tight ends as "superbacks."  The defense has cratered under Jim O'Neil and while I have no idea what it is his specific scheme or coaching or just a loss of a generation of good defensive players, he makes for a handy scapegoat because there's only one other person in the crosshairs.

It is virtually impossible to imagine the program moving on from Fitzgerald.  He has been incredibly successful by the generous standards of Northwestern football, and although he has not hit the highs of his predecessors who won the conference and went to the Rose Bowl, his teams have been more consistently good.  He has also made himself synonymous with the program and oversaw an overhaul of the team in his own image while effectively using Pat Ryan as a money piñata that has allowed the school to build fancy new facilities, arenas, and a new stadium which will be the House that Fitz Built.  And yet, it is difficult to imagine him changing, looking for new solutions, or imagining a way to play football that doesn't match the grimy and delightfully disgusting way he has managed to make a career out of clinging to three-point victories.  I have no idea how bad it would have to get before the athletic director and boosters start having The Conversation; I know we are nowhere close to that happening yet, and I don't know that there exists on the face of the earth a more viable alternative. What I do know is that the school's decision to allow Fitzgerald to function essentially as God Emperor of Northwestern Football in perpetuity and then watching as he oversees a bunch of seasons identical to the early 80s misery days while gritting his teeth and claiming that they just need to execute better is, at the very least, incredibly funny.

 MARYLAND PREVIEW

This week the Wildcats travel to Maryland. 

BASEBALL'S PLAYOFF RANDOMNESS IS EXTREMELY ENTERTAINING WHEN IT IS NOT YOUR TEAM

The baseball grumbleratti were out in full force the Dodgers, Braves, and Mets were defeated before reaching the NLCS by some objectively crummier teams. The argument is that the 162-game season provides and endless, grinding crucible that reveals the best teams whereas any team, no matter how lousy, can get hot in a three- or five-game series and therefore the playoffs exist essentially as a random crapshoot where the eventual champion could easily be some also-ran in only because of Rob Manfred’s generously expanding playoff structure. And the rebuttal to that for any team that is not one of those eliminated juggernauts is: hahahahaha.

 

You would think the Dodgers would be used to this. I like this picture because it looks like Clayton Kershaw is mournfully playing a harmonica.

The people whining about how the baseball playoffs have rendered the season meaningless are laboring under the delusion that they exist to determine the best baseball team instead of existing to provide an exciting and colorful tableau to enjoy the game and get manically scolded by Bob Costas.  And, more importantly, it provides the extraordinarily funny and satisfying situation of a superteam that has spent the past six months of a grueling, daily grind providing that it is easily the best team in the entire game go out and just get humiliated some wildcard team inspired by a terrified goose plopped on the field.  

I have spent the past several days mind-poisoned by Costas's call of the Yankees/Guardians series where I constantly mutter to myself in a Costas voice things like "Another run in and here comes/Francona to the mound/And the pitcher has to be wondering what awaits him in the locker room from his teammates after this/atrocious performance/Blame?/Recriminations?/Perhaps, even death/Which would be a horrible crime but, one that is, under these circumstances/understandable.
 

The past two decades have seen an explosion in knowledge in baseball and a frankly astonishing race among the serious teams to gain an edge through statistical analysis, high speed cameras, and weird Cronenbergian body technology that allows teams to monitor players' performance that was unthinkable fifteen years ago when the biggest debate in the sport involved nerds on the internet getting shouted down by former players and the type of local sports columnist that was still photographed with a conspicuous typewriter about whether getting on base was bad.  This total victory in the field of analytics and investment-style strategies in the game has obscured something that the pointy heads devoted to separating objective knowledge from luck cannot handle: that baseball is incredibly dumb.  

The Baseball Analyst now says that baseball playoffs are tilted too far towards luck.  One study suggests that the minimum amount of games that could meaningfully allow for the superior team to win would be a best-of-75.  And yet, the entire magic of the baseball playoffs is based on the short series, where every pitch looms with unimaginable terror.  What may be luck also translates in the heat of a playoff race to individual acts of skill or valor, of the poetics of clutch and choke.

For fans of teams that win and win all season long, the playoffs loom like a portent of doom.  They have destroyed all comers and their prize is three to five games where they can be crushed at any time by a hot pitching staff or a single bad pitching change.  In this way, the playoffs undermine the excitement of a great season for fans who have nothing but anxiety and misery to look forward to in the playoffs.  But the odds are that you don't root for a team like thatand instead you get to luxuriate in the possibility of a very good team eating shit and watching fans of a team that had no championship aspirations explode in ecstasy while watching a better teams fans sit with sourly clenched jaws for three hours. This makes for spectacular television.

The short series and high stakes give the baseball playoffs its dizzying tension in the way that a team extending its division lead to 15 games by beating the Cincinnati Reds who are starting a 43-year-old part-time shrimp boat captain does not.  I can see the concern that the baseball playoff structure incentivizes teams to forget about the regular season and just aim to sneak into a wild card spot because the playoffs are completely random, but it turns out that teams continue to labor under the impression that having really good players could help in the playoffs even if the Dodgers tend to get bounced every year despite their overwhelming cavalcade of hall of famers.  But for me, I will take the chaos-- that is unless there is somehow a 100-win Cubs team that gets knocked out by a crappy wild card team and then I will probably be very angry and put on a bowtie to write a screed about how they are damaging the Integrity of the Game.

BUCK DUCKETT IN: THE EVENING TREE, BY AN ANONYMOUS AUTHOR

The delivery was not going to be for another hour, but Buck Duckett was already lying in the cold field under a pile of moss.  The grass was chilly and the dew was already soaking into his coat, but he didn't mind; he thought it would hide him better.  There were no voices yet, no lights, no cartons of pants changing hands, and all that existed were the shadows of trees.  Dark forests represent something frightening to us, echoing something buried deep in human psyche.  It might contain wolves or bears or something else-- the fact that our minds are capable of conjuring stories has allowed us to create a foreboding roster of fictitious beasts and monsters lurking there.  There was something primeval about these fears.  Buck Duckett, though, was not thinking about those things.  He was contemplating the trees and the concept of eternity.  It was a comfort for him to think about the almost unimaginably long life span of the trees surrounding him standing as sentinels over this athletic practice field as he waited for the Colonel to arrive with his shipment of trousers, before he would have to stop contemplating and return to the his own mundane business.

This is all I managed to write.  Several weeks ago, I logged onto the web and got an e-mail soliciting a story about a pants detective for a minor college football website and I had declined because I did not know what any of those words meant and I was working on a book of essays about the objects in my bathroom and what they said about my deepest fears and insecurities.  But the e-mails kept coming every day.  They became more insistent, almost hectoring and more and more cryptic.  Why a pants detective?  Apparently, more than a decade ago an athlete got in some sort of trouble for selling autographed football pants and a perverse and psychologically damaged website editor thinks this is still funny.  This assignment was nonsensical and insulting, but I was stuck on an essay about how the rubber ducky represented the unpredictable tyranny from my volatile father that I was desperate to avoid passing onto my own children, and a creditor was calling me every day demanding payment one of the houses I had purchased on a small, bleak island where I could pace and smoke, so eventually I gave in.  I hoped that no one I respected would see it.

Apparently in United States college athletics there are, or were, rigid codes about amateurism policed by a small cadre of investigators that would allow the institution to punish athletes or institutions for paying players.  This system could not be more alien to me.  I am told that college sports there are big businesses, and the teams play in enormous stadiums.  I went on the web and looked at some videos and the spectacle was impossibly lavish.  This is a very different situation then sports here, when my friend Geir got a chance to try out for the Fløy football team at 17 and was sent a bus ticket and paid 3,700 kroner for his trouble before getting unceremoniously cut.  We all got extremely drunk that night and he turned his ankle badly getting chased by a neighbor who had caught us urinating in his garden, and Geir had to write to Gjøvik-Lyn and Tromsdalen telling them he was on crutches and could no longer make their try-outs.

The short story assignment felt like a straight jacket.  No matter how much I walked around the forest path smoking and brooding or drinking fifteen cups of coffee and staring at my computer, I could not even begin to think about how to write about something as profoundly stupid as a man who investigates pants.  When I asked for more details, the editor told me that recently the college athlete association had changed the law making it legal for students to advertise products and get paid and hypothetically could, under certain arrangements, receive an unlimited number of free pants without consequence.  This made the idea not only stupid but impossible.  But in a moment of weakness I had signed a contract, and the threat of entering into international legal conflict over a story about a pants detective became so onerous and miserable that I sat down to write.  Buck Duckett.  What an idiotic name.  

I sent an e-mail to my friend Per, who had experience teaching at an American university in order to see if he could offer some insight into the profound quagmire I had found myself in.  He told me that my assignment had nothing to do with American sports and had been conjured up by a madman. "I do not want to alarm you, but I would check to see if you are the victim of a prank.  Do you remember, for example, when the Paris Review got Coetzee to cover an entire season of arena league football and he embedded himself with the Chicago Bruisers?  When he found out it was a jape, he got so enraged that he tried to fly to New York to bludgeon Plimpton with a dial-a-down but they would not let him on the plane with it." But after checking with my American agents, I sadly found that the Buck Duckett enterprise was too real and evidently inescapable.

I logged onto the web and clicked the link the editor had sent me to look at other Buck Duckett entries.  What I saw was appalling.  It was all third-rate detective nonsense and shoddy, almost illiterate parodies, and the other authors had been able to submit them anonymously to protect their literary reputations, if they had any.  When I was fourteen years old, I was working at my school's literary magazine called Det Alvorlig. I published a poem in nearly every edition, but the editor, a boy a year older named Espen, had clearly set himself up to the be star.  At every one of our parties in the woods while the rest of us would be drinking ourselves into oblivion with the reckless enthusiasm of young people who had just discovered getting drunk, Espen would be lounging on a log issuing his literary pronouncements, damning the literary establishment, and (this infuriated me) surrounded by girls. Espen had always been kind to me, welcoming me to the magazine, publishing my work, and being gently encouraging and because of that I despised him.  In retrospect I wanted him to hate me, to fear me as a rival who would take control of the magazine through the superiority of my work, and I took his kindness as a condescension but at the time I only felt sourness and fury.  I felt that his poems were mediocre and derivative.  We were teenagers, and all of our poems were mediocre and derivative at best; the work we churned out that was wholly original was embarrassing (I published a poem from the point of view of a train engine that had very strong right-wing political convictions and quarreled with his communist caboose).  By the spring, I had decided that I could no longer bear his literary swashbuckling and needed to destroy him.  As a young teenager, it is very difficult to engineer a rival's literary destruction.  I know this from fending off numerous attacks from a Swedish memoirist who published a nine-volume account of observations about his own life cheekily titled "The Little Red Book," and who remains beneath mention.  I had lodged in my brain that Espen's poems were largely derivative of the early twentieth-century poet Olaf Bull.  Not only were they essentially plagiarized, as far as I was concerned, they were also anachronistic, the themes and language plundered and thrust haphazardly into a more contemporary style.  The previous summer, at my summer literary magazine independent from the school magazine, another student had told me that I was badly regurgitating Tarjei Vessas, and the experience had been utterly crushing, a blow that still reverberates in me every time I publish anything, an icy fear in my spine that a critic will rise up and blast me with the Vessas smear.  

I biked to the library and searched and searched until I found a book bearing the logo of the Olaf Bull Society and then I tucked it into my shirt, took out a pair of meat shears that I had found in the kitchen, and neatly removed the logo.  I pasted it to a paper and then used the magazine's mimeograph machine to make it appear like crude letterhead.  Then I began typing.  The letter accused Espen of "gross misappropriation" of Bull's prose and said it was "perverse and disgusting" how he had "warped it and inserted contemporary cultural references like one of those surrealist faeces paintings."  I used the phrase "literary disfigurement."  The letter contained a shockingly long and detailed set of decreasingly plausible thefts that I kept adding because I believed that the letter had to have heft in order to land with the most devastating effect.  It had not occurred to me in the frenzy of my hatred that the idea of a literary society viciously attacking a teenager publishing in a student literary magazine was so implausible and insane that it could not possibly be real; I had instead focused on making my accusations seem more literary and became proud of how incisive my critiques had been.  It did not occur to me, at least, until several seconds after I loosed the letter into the post addressed to the student magazine, when the ridiculousness of the letter, its pettiness, and its obvious path to my hand exploded in my brain like a detective solving a mystery, like perhaps this idiotic Duckett character finding a pair of fucking pants, and it was too late.  I tried using a branch and a piece of chewed gum to try fishing out every letter in the box one by one until I could find mine (surely the fattest envelope) and destroy it, but people kept coming by and I had to pretend that I was not trying to break into a mailbox and was merely loitering near it with a disgusting stick and gum apparatus like it was some sort of new youth trend that I had seen in a magazine.  When the letter arrived, I was ridiculed.  I had tried saying it was just a silly prank, but the savagery of the barbs and self-seriousness of the letter contained no whimsy and just venom.  I was cast out of the magazine and its woods parties.  Three weeks later, Espen was hit by a train and everyone was so wracked with grief that the letter largely went forgotten or unremarked upon.  We all had been so aged by loss and shock that it seemed impossible to remember anything so childish had happened.

I looked over my Buck Duckett paragraph and could not summon the dignity to actually finish it.  The entire episode was too sordid, and I was prepared to endure a lawsuit and sell two or three of my other rustic smoking cabins to compensate.  I invite the editors of this horrible blog to do their worst.