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NCAA Football: Washington State at Colorado Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

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Making sense of it all: Reconciling the inherent messiness of college football fandom

We have eyes wide open to all the problems in the sport, and yet we keep coming back — with good reason.

On Friday, my wife and I will pack a couple of days of clothes, load up our silver Subaru Outback, and drive due east away from our home in rural western Washington.

Over the course of 300-plus miles, we will drive over and around some large mountains; past a bunch of lakes; above a mile-wide river (which, mercifully, separates us from Oregon before eventually spilling into the Pacific Ocean); through massive flat fields of corn and potatoes and onions, orchards of apples and pears, rolling hills of wheat and lentils, and probably also other things I’m missing because I’m not a farmer, gosh darn it.

It’s undeniably beautiful. And interminably long.

But, eventually – five plus hours into our journey – we finally descend down a long hill and into an oasis in the remote reaches of the southeastern part of the state where someone, for some reason, decided to build what would eventually become a large research university. (Free land is a hell of a deal.)

It’s a lot of trouble to go to, just to join 30,000 other Washington State Cougars fans in screaming my head off on behalf of a bunch of college students who are 20-plus years my junior — players who I know are woefully undercompensated as they put their bodies and brains at risk in the pursuit of a professional career that is so improbable, they’ll most likely end their playing days not in the NFL, but armed with just a college degree in a major that’s of only marginal use in the marketplace. (Oh, and probably also lifelong joint pain and maybe even CTE.)

And I ... uh ... can’t get enough of it?

Yep, I can’t get enough of it.

If you’re reading this, I presume you love college football as much as I do. And, like you, I love it for so many reasons. But it also causes me some inevitable cognitive dissonance. Maybe you feel some of that, too.

There’s little doubt that college football is a peculiar enterprise. Nowhere else on the planet do higher education and sports come together in this fashion. It is uniquely American, and it’s always been a little weird.

OK, a lot weird.

It’s hard to overstate how utterly bizarre this marriage looks from the outside:

“Nothing in the educational regime of our higher institutions perplexes the European visitor so much as the role that organized athletics play. On a crisp November afternoon he finds many thousands of men and women, gathered in a great amphitheater, wildly cheering a group of athletes who are described to him as playing a game of football, but who seem to the visitor to be engaged in a battle. He is the more mystified when he discovers that of the thousands of onlookers, not one in a hundred understands the game or can follow the strategy of the two teams. At the end, the vast majority of the onlookers only know, like old Kaspar of Blenheim, that “ ‘twas a famous victory” for one university or the other.

When the visitor from the European university has pondered the matter, he comes to his American university colleagues with two questions:

”What relation has this astonishing athletic display to the work of an intellectual agency like a university?”

”How do students, devoted to study, find either the time or the money to stage so costly a performance?”

That was part of the preface of a 1929 Carnegie Foundation report on the growing influence of college football in higher education. How much more bizarre must it look now? This arrangement makes no damn intellectual sense whatsoever on really any level. In virtually every other country, an athlete’s pursuit of a professional sports career takes them to actual professional organizations by the time they’re in their teens; the universities in those countries are for the rest of us who can’t run fast or kick/shoot/hit the balls well to get serious about preparing to become productive adults; trade schools provide another avenue to a career.

Training specifically for your job? Compartmentalizing endeavors? That makes logical sense!

However, a lot of smart people have long argued that there’s nothing at all strange about bringing together the pursuits of knowledge and athletic excellence. Inspired by the Latin phrase “mens sana in corpore sano” — “a healthy mind in a healthy body” — college students in the late 1800s were encouraged to play sports, many of which were just emerging.

This wasn’t about frivolous extracurriculars; it was an essential route to full human development in which indispensable qualities such as toughness and strategic thinking could blossom. Throw in a dash of elitism and classism adopted from England (“only the uncouth boor would play for money, Wellington!”), and the concept of collegiate “amateurism” — a fanciful world in which the virtues of athletics and education are supposedly inextricably tied — was born.

In an outcome that should have surprised no one, it has never been the tidy fit the idealists imagined it would be.

As college football was taking off in the first few decades of the 20th century, the competing interests in academia tried to make sense of its impacts. Over the course of more than 300 pages, that Carnegie Foundation report excoriated universities, condemning the commercialization of the sport and railing against the defilement of higher education by the scourges of recruiting and corruption of player subsidies (read: scholarships and employment).

Via the Cornell Alumni News in 1929, here’s a summary of the remedies proposed:

The report recommends the abolition of the paid coach, the gate receipts, special training table, costly sweaters, extensive journeys in special cars, the recruiting from the high school, the “demoralizing” publicity showered on the players, the devotion of an undue proportion of time to training, the devices for putting a desirable athlete, but a weak scholar, across the hurdles of the examinations. Intercollegiate sports should “be brought back to a stage in which they can be enjoyed by large numbers of students and where they do not involve an expenditure of time and money wholly at variance with any ideal of honest study.”

We know which side won out there! If “amateurism” was an obvious sham then, it’s certainly still one now, no matter how loudly the NCAA protests. Last fall, Forbes reported that the top 25 earning programs in college football collectively generated an average of $2.5 billion in annual revenue from 2014 to 2016. According to Forbes’ calculations, those 25 football programs cleared an annual profit of a cool $1.4 billion — a ridiculous 56% profit margin built on the backs of a workforce whose earning is limited to “grant in aid,” an artificial cap that has far less monetary value than what the players themselves could command in an open market.

How much more their services are worth is up for debate, but the mere existence of a black market (thanks to NCAA bylaws futilely attempting to prohibit it) is all the evidence you need that this value exists. The revenue, of course, has to flow somewhere, so coaching and administration salaries have increased exponentially, while opulent facilities for training, eating, competing and even relaxing have popped up nearly everywhere big time college football is played.

Despite all this obvious evidence of the NCAA’s anticompetitive practices, the organization has argued repeatedly in its antitrust defenses that it is, in actuality, procompetitive! (I’ll wait for you to finish laughing. Done? No? Now? OK.) So far, the courts have bought it, with the Supreme Court agreeing wholeheartedly in 1984’s NCAA v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma that the NCAA’s unique “business model” can’t exist without “amateurism.”

But cracks in the armor have begun to show — most recently when Judge Claudia Wilken ruled in March that the NCAA’s practices very likely do violate antitrust laws, writing, “The rules that permit, limit or forbid student-athlete compensation and benefits do not follow any coherent definition of amateurism.” Truly, the NCAA’s definition of its core “principle” has been as malleable and arbitrary as it’s needed to be over the years. For example, athletic scholarships — now the foundation of college sports — were a violation of amateurism until 1950; that’s when the schools got together and simply decided that, actually, an athlete could receive a scholarship and also still be an amateur. Weird!

Wilkin, though, refused to take the logical next step and remove the cap on compensation, citing what is always the NCAA’s core defense in all of these matters: “The court does credit the importance to consumer demand of maintaining a distinction between college sports and professional sports.” Translation: The courts are convinced that you and I watch college football expressly because the players aren’t being paid, and that’s why the NCAA is allowed to, in essence, continue to break the law.

It’s an absurd argument on its face, but if I’m being completely honest, I provide a lot of ammunition for it when I pour money into the system by gleefully buying tickets and subscribing to YouTube TV and donating to the Cougar Athletic Fund to defray the cost of scholarships at WSU.

We fans unintentionally incentivize a lot of other things, too, with the huge financial stakes.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Kansas
Art Briles didn’t invent the coverup; he just took it to new horrific levels.
John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Covering up misdeeds ranging from youthful indiscretions to outright criminal behavior has long been a feature of the sport, as coaches endeavor to keep their best players on the field — to their own personal benefit. There are so many examples, but Art Briles, in particular, sticks out: He, along with administrators at Baylor, allowed a culture of rape and domestic violence to fester on his team under the guise of “second chances” for questionable characters. (It surely was only mere coincidence that the Bears won double-digit games four times under Briles after having only done so once in the preceding 100-plus seasons.)

And then, of course, there’s the academic fraud. Since ignoring malfeasance isn’t a particular problem for most coaches, then neither is enlisting the help of football-friendly professors to give passing grades that weren’t earned (University of Chicago, early 1900s), cheating on tests with the help of an assistant coach (Army, 1950), changing some grades on transcripts (William & Mary, 1951), or creating fake classes (North Carolina, 2017*). A quick search of the NCAA’s legislative services database reveals 109(!) instances of major infractions involving academic fraud in just the last 50 years.

*The NCAA declined to take any kind of action at all against UNC, by the way. They simply threw their hands up and decided they couldn’t control the quality of an athlete’s education. No way colleges will do this again, right? Right??

There’s also the other kind of academic fraud — the kind on which the NCAA remains silent. There are those who would prop up the NCAA’s system by citing the indisputable value of the college degree. However, players who are promised a “college education” are generally relentlessly and aggressively steered towards courses and majors that require the lowest levels of rigor, giving them the best opportunity to keep their focus where the coaches want it — on the football — but not giving them the best opportunity to be successful once their NFL dreams are extinguished.

As repugnant as that is, we’re all complicit. The product you and I demand from these players requires dozens and dozens of hours a week on just the football. Most players understand the deal they’re taking, but they hypocrisy is thick given the Great Service the NCAA claims to be providing to its “student-athletes” — many of whom come from situations where college attendance would otherwise be unattainable. Football players are not afforded the same educational opportunities as other students — full stop.

It’s all pretty gross.

And it won’t even come close to stopping me from staying up until midnight on a Saturday for some #Pac12AfterDark.

There are so many reasons why I anticipate the coming of this weekend as much as any on the calendar, and so many reasons I seriously doubt I could ever quit college football, even as my eyes are wide open to all the sport’s baggage.

Like many of you, I dip my toes into a lot of sports. I’m not sure how much overlap there is in the Venn diagram of college football and NFL fans, but whatever overlap there is, it includes me — I’m a Seattle Seahawks season ticket holder with my dad. Given the contrast in time and monetary investment involved in taking my family to games at WSU vs. driving myself up I-5 for an afternoon, we find it’s a good way for a Coug and a Husky to establish some common ground in the midst of our busy lives.

We used to go to every game. But as the years have gone by, I’ve gone to fewer and fewer — to the point that I think I only went to a couple last year. This, despite the Seahawks usually being good and CenturyLink Field being fun. But even as the Seahawks have done their best to give the games a collegiate atmosphere (sorry, Texas A&M, for the whole 12th Man thing; is it better or worse that we now just call ourselves “the 12s”?), I usually find myself simply wishing I had figured out a way to make a trip to Pullman instead, longing for what college football offers.

There’s no question that the professional players are more skilled, producing what is objectively “better” football. But there’s an antiseptic quality to the NFL, a bland homogeneity that permeates just about everything, from the copycat offenses on the field, to the uniform uniforms (lest a player risk a fine), to the team dancers you’ll find in every city (Y’ALL READY FOR THIS??), to the blackballing of players who step out of line (lest they offend any paying customers).

Sure, college quarterbacks are going to throw a ball at a receiver’s toes more often than they should, and defensive backs are going to commit inexplicable penalties, etc. But those guys are also going to provide some legitimate entertainment in the form of batshit crazy moments.

Here’s one of my favorites from last season!

Let’s dissect, for a moment, all the reasons why this entire play is wholly unique to college football.

  1. The setting: The crowd, still floating from ESPN’s College GameDay broadcast in Pullman that morning, is turned up to 11.
  2. The formation: The offensive line is on the left hash, but a receiver is snapping the ball from the right hash. To add to the hilarity, WSU coach Mike Leach affectionately named it “Big Gulp” in a nod to his running Twitter feud with a USA Today columnist.
  3. The “defense”: While James Williams just kept churning his legs, Oregon somehow missed approximately 46 tackles on this single play, despite only having the legally allowed 11 players on the field.

Bad play by the Ducks? Sure.


I might also turn your attention to the origin of #Pac12AfterDark: That time in 2014 that WSU quarterback Connor Halliday hit peak Air Raid to set the NCAA record with 734 passing yards. It resulted in 59 points for the Cougars against Cal …

… and that somehow wasn’t enough, thanks to a #collegekicker missing his 19-yard field goal attempt with 15 seconds left in the game, dooming the Cougs to a 60-59 loss.

You’ll note the highlights didn’t even bother with all the scoring plays! They’d need 20 minutes to cover all of this glorious mess, which most closely resembles a couple of heavyweight boxers exchanging drunken haymakers:

In that same game, some guy named Jared Goff threw for a paltry 527 yards for the Golden Bears. Although, he might also have thrown for 700 yards if not for Trevor Davis, who had the audacity to bypass his teammate by taking consecutive kickoffs to the house.

Anyway, some people might call that terrible football. I call that four hours and four minutes of pure, unadulterated, orgasmic, exhausting CFB joy. (At least, I do now — I wasn’t quite as charitable in the moment. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

Then there are college football’s personalities, of which one of the biggest resides in Pullman:

These are just a handful of examples from my school — and just in the last five years! Yes, we’ve got the Mike Leach advantage baked into it from the get go (sorry everyone else, especially Tennessee lol, but he’s ours), however, I know any fan from any school can think of a non-zero number of crazy ass plays and games that would go toe-to-toe with these. Any of us could drink late into the night debating whether that time that so-and-so did such-and-such was actually the craziest thing we ever saw.

I mean, there were only two games on Saturday in Week Zero 2019, and we already have been given this:

I can trade similar sorts of stories with my dad about the Seahawks (“Remember The Tip? Boy, that was wild”), but it’s not quite the same as when I do it with my Cougs. Not because the plays are any more memorable or improbable or whatever; I mean, it’s hard to get more memorable than the Beast Quake or more improbable than advancing to a Super Bowl by scoring 14 points in 44 seconds, erasing a 16-point second-half deficit thanks in large measure to a fake field goal and a recovered onside kick.

I was there for all of those! They were exciting! It’s just when I talk Seahawks with my dad, I’m just … talking football. And that’s fine. But when I talk Cougs with my Cougs? Well, I’m sharing a great deal more than that. After years spent on campus, we have an affinity not just for our team, but for the institution that team represents. We walked the same roads in town, attended classes in the same halls, ate at the same local joints, frequented the same bars. It’s not insignificant that the same goes for the football players, too.

When we watch this video together in the stadium at the end of the first quarter, we sing, we laugh … and some of us even shed a small tear as the deep memories of both school and football — impossible for us to separate (as if we would want to) — come flooding back in an instant. (That Steve Gleason wink gets me right in the feels. Every. Dang. Time.) I’m sure it makes no sense to anyone else, why a song about going “back home” would be so damn perfect for us that it became an instant tradition the moment it debuted. But I assure them, returning to Pullman is just like going home again for us — there is no place on earth in which we feel so comfortable, surrounded by something that is so permanent and yet ever evolving.

It’s why, when WSU’s most front-facing tradition — Ol’ Crimson — finally made its way “back home” after 216 appearances on ESPN’s College GameDay, more than 10,000 of us dropped everything to show up at pre-dawn hours to celebrate together:

I canceled a fishing trip with my father in law to be there. (Thanks again, Keith, for understanding.) One of my college buddies flew up from California, slept on the lawn with one of my other buddies in order to have a front-row seat for GameDay, and then they both left before the actual football game. My friend and fellow CougCenter author PJ Kendall flew from Germany, where he’s stationed in the Air Force. All so we — and by “we,” I don’t just mean me and my friends, I mean all Cougs — could share the moment together. I gotta tell you, even though “12s” greatly outnumber Cougs, I have a hard time imagining a non-game event that could draw that many pro football fans together, short of a Super Bowl parade.

Of course, that wasn’t good enough for us; we had to have a party on the field later that night so we could be together, again.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Even if you didn’t attend the school you cheer for, you undoubtedly share in those sorts of traditions as well. Perhaps they were passed down through your family. Maybe they formed through the bonds of friendship. But they’re certainly there — the nature of college sports, with its proverbial pageantry and institutional nature, necessitates it.

In those moments, the shortcomings that are endemic to college football are far, far away. But ... they’re never quite gone; they’ve simply receded to the back of my mind for a while, where they inevitably will be brought back to the front at some point. It’s probably clear that I occasionally feel a small twinge of guilt at all the ways I contribute to the money-making machine — which includes this website, to which I dedicate so much of my free time.

However, if we’re going to reserve our fandom for a sport that passes a purity test, well, we’re going to be waiting around a long time. Not even high school sports can claim that. So if I’m going to wade into some de facto messiness simply by being a fan of sports … well, I choose the thing that brings me joy on all the levels that college football does.

I also reconcile my fandom by using the mechanisms available to me to move the sport in a more progressive direction. It’s pretty easy for me to use this site to amplify messages on behalf of the “student-athlete” — even though I didn’t play football, I knew football players in college; and, as editor in chief of the student newspaper at WSU, I certainly know what it means to be both a full-time student and an underpaid full-time employee.

The football players are me, and I am them. And, ultimately, I care enough to advocate for change within the sport because I love it — not in spite of it.

College football is imperfect. And yes, we should continue to work to make it more equitable. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also have a heck of a lot of fun together in the meantime.

The 2019 season is upon us. Let’s do this.

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