How do you know we’re about ready to kick off the college football season? This commercial, featuring all-time NCAA greats that were...let’s say...god-awful in the pros, has been getting heavy airtime.
In case the identity of the participants has faded from your memory, that’s Matt Leinart, the USC Heisman-winning quarterback, Heath Shuler, a former Tennessee Volunteer and Blue Dog Democratic congressman from North Carolina, and of course, last and least, the two-time All-American linebacker, Bo Jackson tackling dummy, and monosyllabic star of quite a few direct-to-video cop/action/blowing-sh*t-up flicks, Brian Bosworth.
It’s a fun ad, and there’s something genuinely heartwarming about the trio of spokespersons having a sense of humor and allowing themselves to be made fun of, but the tag line—The Boz’s plaintive, oddly stiff and yet wholly sincere, “Take me with you,” followed by a possibly stoned cartoon rabbit voiced by Rebel Wilson intoning his name like a religious cant—is both deeply depressing and unintentionally strikes at the core of college football as a whole.
It’s because College Football and College Football fandom is more nostalgia-driven than any other major U.S. sport, including baseball. And that remembrance of and desire to cling to things past is what DISH Network is selling here. (You know, aside from multiple quality Hi-Def channels.) It’s a shot straight to the heart of every khaki’d dad/ex-high school gridiron star that yearns in part for a return to a moment in time when they too were the kings of their particular universe, plowing through feckless cornerbacks into the waiting arms of the head cheerleader. More importantly, it’s a longing for a time when one could pull on an old crimson, university logo-emblazoned sweatshirt and bellow “Roll Tide!” without making a conscious or subconscious “choice” to ignore a whole slew of unpleasantries that are popping up with ever-increasing frequency, including the fact that the NCAA as a whole is a multibillion-dollar cartel that sustains itself by exploiting a bunch of teenagers.
To be fair, thinking about that is no fun at all. Though the stars of the above spot undoubtedly received a nice paycheck from the DISH Network for their performances, none of them earned a red cent for their years of NCAA glory. That’s the issue that’s going to be hanging over all the games this season. And it’s not a question of if, but rather when, even if it takes years of lawsuits and appeals and gobs of lawyer’s fees, the NCAA is eventually going to cave and abandon their patently absurd, flimsy case for “amateurism”—one that’s mainly based on the claim that paying players will “destroy” college ball.
The bulk of fans are still on the NCAA’s side, but that just speaks to the degree to which there is a genuine appeal in the idea of amateurism. It may be a delusion, but the notion that a player is something more than an employee of Florida State or Notre Dame, but actually has a connection and an allegiance to Tallahassee or South Bend, inspires a different kind of fandom.
Which, yes. That’s definitely part of what makes college football so much darn fun. There’s a history in these rivalries, and a sense that the teams on the field are truly representatives of a place and a community that the pro leagues can’t possibly compete with. It doesn’t really matter that the games themselves are often fairly dull routs, with a bunch of high-level, NFL-bound recruits running roughshod over the athletic equivalent of a bunch of poli-sci majors.
It’s the closest the U.S. has to the passion that the rest of the world feels for soccer...er...football— a sport that, truth be told, is equally if not more beset with shady characters and naked corruption. Paying players would undoubtedly change that. It doesn’t make it right, either legally or morally, but there is a truth that’s imbedded in the NCAA’s flailing attempts to stave off the inevitable.
And everywhere you look, fantasies are getting dismantled. Speaking of Florida State, it’s going to be a hoot seeing if the champs can defend their title. They’ve got a loaded team, and as Bill Connelly of SB Nation writes: “The Seminoles had seven players picked in the 2014 NFL Draft and currently boast top draft prospects at running back (Karlos Williams), receiver (Rashad Greene), tight end (Nick O'Leary), offensive tackle (Cameron Erving), offensive guard (Tre' Jackson, Josue Matias), center (Austin Barron, though he's a rung below others), and strong safety (Tyler Hunter). Depending on which underclassmen go pro, they could also end up with high draft picks at quarterback (Jameis Winston), defensive end (Mario Edwards, Jr.), defensive tackle (Eddie Goldman), linebacker (Terrance Smith), and cornerback (P.J. Williams, Ronald Darby).”
Of course, this means turning a blind eye to the fact that last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, Jameis “Crab Legs” Winston, might only be playing ball this season because the University and the local cops bungled or purposely soft-pedaled the investigation into allegations of sexual assault.
Again, via Connelly: “Since he has never been charged with anything serious, we continue to talk about him as a Heisman winner and national champion while a giant elephant just hangs out over in the corner of the room.
“For the purposes of this preview, we’ll just acknowledge the elephant, roll our eyes about how Jameis’ judgment and decision-making off the field need to quickly catch up to those same on-field abilities, and move on, knowing that we might not know everything we should (and that we also know more than we want to).”
The new playoff system might be something that sparks your interest, especially after years of tearing your hair out in frustration with the BCS’ convoluted, obtuse mathematical formula. But the criteria for determining which schools will earn an invite into the four-team tournament seems to be equally unclear, and titled toward rewarding schools from the power conferences. And yes, the NCAA recently rejiggered its Talumudically inscrutable rules in ways that will benefit the selfsame big five.
But the number of bowl games will continue to grow with the assistance of the NCAA’s corporate partners as long as there’s a buck to be made, to the point where David Foster Wallace’s fictional Ken-L-Ration-Magnavox-Kemper-Insurance-Forsythia Bowl doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. Take, for example, the recently rebranded Popeyes Bahamas Bowl to be held on Christmas Eve. No, there are no Popeyes chicken franchises in the Bahamas, and probably just as many local fans of college ball.
Try to square that with Kansas State’s head coach Bill Snyder’s complaint that, “It's changed. I mean, college athletics, football in particular, has changed dramatically over the years. I think we've sold out. We're all about dollars and cents. The concept of college football no longer has any bearing on the quality of the person, the quality of students. Universities are selling themselves out.” Oddly enough, the crass commercialism he’s decrying didn’t prevent him from inking a 5-year, $14.75 million contract extension.
Even a hallowed, sainted institution like Notre Dame, a school that prompted some of Grantland Rice’s purple-est prose and home to the Gipper, Knute and Rudy, isn’t immune, after having been rocked by allegations of widespread academic malfeasance, shattering the artifice that it’s any different from, say, the North Carolinas of the world.
It’s enough for a fan to want to crawl into a dark room, clutching his or her binkie in fear of what Hieronymus Bosch-esque ugliness might be lurking around the next corner—like a (formerly) universally-praised cornerback going all Manti Te’o and getting busted for making up a story about saving his nephew from drowning.
Or, barring a man-cave/safe place, to believe (or rather, to want ever so much to believe), like the Boz, that the DISH Network has actually perfected the technology to enable time travel, and as such can transport him or her to an era where the illusion that these awful things didn’t exist remained more or less intact.