I guess I’ll start off 2022 by assuming the role of Grumpy Old Man. But after enduring the binge of college football bowls over the past week while recovering from COVID, I have thoughts.
And they aren’t very pleasant.
Regular readers of this column know I’m of a torn mind about college football. It’s a great passion of mine, but I also recognize it serves as the marketing department for one of America’s most corrupt institutions. In fact, were it not for the widespread popularity of college athletics, with football serving as the lynchpin of the multibillion-dollar corporate entertainment complex in which our institutions of higher learning are fully invested, most Americans would have fully turned on the people who run modern academia long ago.
One of the narratives we’ve been force-fed for the past 30 years is that the money spent on college athletics is an obscenity, and that the academic missions of the institutions involved are compromised by the presence of soon-to-be-millionaire athletes who are on campus for the sole purpose of biding their time until the pro leagues can draft them.
That they aren’t “student-athletes.”
The flip side of this analysis is never offered, of course, which is a shame. Because for all the complaints about college athletics, given the current state of American academia, one could make the argument that coaches and players on campus are the people showing the most accountability, integrity, and pursuit of excellence. The quarterbacks coach isn’t selling academic research to China, after all. The free safety isn’t trapping his fellow students under a mountain of debt to pursue degrees which will never pay off. And the defensive end isn’t persecuting students who might have a dissenting political view from that of the school administration.
College athletes have, on average, higher graduation rates than students as a whole. They generally have far greater success after college than do students as a whole even without the opportunities in professional sports factored in. And yet they’re the most maligned people on campus.
Mostly, it’s envy which produces this. But it’s also a philosophical difference, because the ivory-tower mentality which prevails on most campuses is not satisfied by what the athletes do. Competition isn’t their thing. In fact, they’re in academia rather than the real world precisely to escape from it. The old Dan Aykroyd joke from Ghostbusters (the first one, back when it was funny) was prescient: “Personally, I liked the university,” said Aykrod’s character. “They gave us money and facilities, we didn’t have to produce anything! You’ve never been out of college! You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve WORKED in the private sector. They expect results.”
Universities have treated their athletic departments as cancerous growths on their institutional characters, all the while becoming more and more woke and detached from the competitive reality those departments exemplify. That divorce has begun to metastasize within the world of college athletics, and now the cracks are clearly evident.
The bowl season this year has been a mess. College football is coming apart.
Several games were canceled with COVID as an excuse. Player opt-outs have shredded the rosters of the participating teams. College football’s new transfer portal, into which thousands of players have jumped, most without the likelihood of landing on scholarship with a new team, has thrown rosters into chaos. And the new NIL reality, which stands for “name, image and likeness” and is the marketplace by which athletes are now able to monetize themselves, has created a turbocharged free agency which is nothing short of exhausting for the average fan.
Taken alone, none of the individual elements of what seems the sure demise of college sports and football in particular are indefensible.
Teams with dozens of players laid up with COVID symptoms shouldn’t be playing. It’s understandable to see them cancel.
And if a kid isn’t happy at State U., who can fault him for looking around in search of a better situation? What purpose is served by forcing him to sit out one of his few years of eligibility due to switching schools?
And why shouldn’t a player who has amassed a degree of fame and notoriety earn some money from that? Who is anyone else to deny him a chance to earn money from his craft?
But combined, this new reality is awful. And the product of college football’s bowl season is nothing short of unwatchable.
Yes, the Ohio State victory over Utah in the Rose Bowl was a wild spectacle. But Jaxon Smith-Injigba’s 15-catch, 347-yard extravaganza came courtesy, in large part, of a Ute secondary so depleted by injuries and transfers that one of the team’s running backs had to be pressed into duty as a cornerback. That a pair of OSU’s other receivers, Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, skipped the game only meant Smith-Injigba had more balls available to catch.
Ohio State was missing half a dozen starters due to opt-outs … for the Rose Bowl. They won anyway, but it’s impossible not to have a bad taste in one’s mouth over the opt-outs.
And in the Sugar Bowl the story was the player who didn’t opt out. That was Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral, who’s a likely first round pick in April. Corral wouldn’t hear of opting out of the game, but injured an ankle in the first quarter and watched Baylor abuse his backup Luke Altmyer on the way to a 21-7 victory.
And the ESPN announcers spent the rest of the broadcast justifying the op-outs which have destroyed their product.
So we’re all on the same page here, the opt-outs aren’t having “to prepare for the NFL draft.” There is no better preparation for the draft than actually playing in real games and showing one’s skills in the arena. Most of these kids are opting out of bowl games so that they can sign with agents and get paid.
Hurting his ankle in the Sugar Bowl won’t negatively affect Matt Corral’s draft stock, either. NFL people understand the nature of football injuries.
Between the semipro character the game has taken on and the nonstop woke messaging ESPN — which has more or less a monopoly on televising the college bowls — insists on subjecting the viewer to, the enjoyment of the game is diminishing rapidly. The announcers from Thursday night’s Peach Bowl between Michigan State and Pittsburgh couldn’t stop whining about the underrepresentation of black coaches atop major college programs — there are 14 current black head coaches among 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, or 10.8 percent of the total. This looks like a fairly close representation given that blacks are just under 14 percent of the U.S. population, but play-by-play man Mark Jones, who is black, insisted that since the vast majority of scholarship athletes in these programs are black the percentage of head coaches should be reflective of that number.
If someone broadcasting a game would have reversed the view and decried the lack of scholarship opportunities for white athletes they wouldn’t have been allowed to finish the telecast. And perhaps rightly so. But when Penn State’s James Franklin pulls a contract extension worth nearly $100 million after a 7-6 season, it’s hard to sympathize too much with the poor, put-upon plight of the black head football coach. Particularly when Notre Dame just hired Marcus Freeman, who’s never been a head coach, in one of the most high-profile jobs in college sports.
But for all of the mercenary lean of the game, and the wokeness and irritation of ESPN’s monopoly corporate narrative spin, the worst thing about bowl week was the commercials.
And one in particular.
No, not the pathetic Google commercial which might as well have come straight out of DNC headquarters. The other one.
Dick’s Sporting Goods is a fading, failing retailer which alienated much of its core customer base a few years ago when it stopped selling “assault rifles” out of some stupid virtue-signaling compulsion. It now believes, per the pronouncement of its CEO Lauren Hobart, that its mission is not to sell sporting goods but rather to “get more women to the top of their game.” And the minute-long spot it’s running (which seems longer) is dotted with visuals of females engaged in all kinds of athletic endeavors — including girls in football uniforms.
Which is not a thing. What is a thing is men encroaching on women’s sports. Interestingly Dick’s new boardroom gynarchy isn’t very outspoken about that.
The lure of college sports has long been its simplicity and the purity of the game. That’s gone now. What remains is the fading interest from fans tired of 20-year-old free agents, woke announcers and politicized corporate messaging polluting what used to be entertainment.
And when that interest has fallen away, replaced by renewed enthusiasm for hunting or golf, the consequences for higher education could be interesting. When the state legislatures or even Congress are no longer full of rabid college sports fans elected by their fellow enthusiasts but instead skeptics of the waste, grifting, and anti-American indoctrination offered on campus, the massive bubble college sports helps to fuel is destined to burst.
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