Wherefore Art Thou, College Football?

By Posted on: February 20th, 2013 in Featured Article, Football 11 Comments »
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As my previous articles have shown, I’m not a very knowledgeable football analyst, so I tend to write more about what I know, such as my own experiences as an Auburn fan. Now that the rock-‘em, sock-‘em orgy of analysis and prognostication that is National Signing Day has come and gone, I thought that I would offer some observations on a more philosophical topic. Thus, I ask and seek to answer (with my usual horrendous case of “tl;dr”) what I feel are these fundamental and essential questions:  What is this thing called college football; why do we love it so much; and what does it means to be a fan?

One of my first sports related posts was on an AOL message board discussing the 1994 baseball strike, where I posited that game+fan=sport. My premise was, and still is, that a team is more than the players, coaches, and front office: that the team truly and essentially includes its fans.  Furthermore, fandom and sportsmanship must include the concept of loyalty, where one doesn’t seek to Bask In Reflected Glory nor Cast Off Reflected Failure (BIRG and CORF in contemporary sports psychology), and where one cares about the team for more than the mere entertainment value of the game.

I really enjoyed Ken Burn’s Baseball series because it reached into the very root of the first real spectator sport.  Yeah, the Greeks and Romans were big into the Olympics, and there were followers of particular runners, wrestlers, and eventually gladiators. But there were no fans as we now think of them until baseball became a sport people paid to watch.

So, what were these patrons of the ballparks watching—just a bunch of overgrown boys chasing a horsehide sphere? Heck no, they were watching THEIR representatives go up against THE OTHER. And thence, once people determined that “WE” were part of this enterprise, in a different role yet with the same objective and efficacy as if on the field itself, spectator sports were born.

 

The same course was taken with other team sports, especially college football.  The nature of college sports has always been tied to the deep sense of community, loyalty, and representation, along with the concept of the fans being part of the team.  It started as “we’ll take OUR best and throw ‘em agin’ YOUR best and find out who IS best”— best, both at the game itself (the direct logical conclusion) and regarding the institution at large (an arguably valid extension).

Subsequently, that extension to the institution itself became the thing of value, and a “W” in the scorebook, no matter how obtained, became the stick of measurement. Heck, the first recorded act of “cheating” in the Auburn-Alabama game was in the 1895 Iron Bowl—18-freaking-95—where Bama paid four football players from Wesleyan (two of which were professional boxers) to play for them and notch Bama’s first victory against the “cow college” that had stomped their sorry behinds the first four times. This was a hollow victory to be sure, but more importantly, the whole idea of “yours agin’ ours” went right out the window in the vain chase of a win.

But, if the “yours agin’ ours” concept can be maintained in reality and in spirit, then the extension of the players as representatives of the institution is also maintained. You can even extend that representation beyond alumni to everyone who identifies with the culture—the essential nature—of that institution, not just the colors of the uniforms.  As long as the institution itself is fundamentally involved in the definition of the team, we, as true fans, can be a real part of the team. That seems to me to be what is unique to and nigh magical about college football.

I’d like to proffer a thought I developed that probably isn’t original, but one that struck me as somewhat revolutionary. I feel that the simple concept of recruiting players has served to weaken the notion of OURS and YOURS, since the kids being chased by the coaches are basically ANYBODY’s and NOBODY’s until they sign on the line. This environment was institutionalized long ago by the NCAA with their definition of the “student-athlete” and all the related rules about recruiting them.

Now, where there are rules, there are those who would bend or break them, and we have seen the ill effects of high-powered boosters across the country chasing the almighty “W” at all costs.  Of course, actual cheating can be controlled (but never eliminated) through proper enforcement of the rules, as long as those rules are clear and reasonable. But it seems to me that the rules themselves, or rather, the institutionalization of the concepts of recruiting, the student-athlete, and “institutionally-sponsored” sports, actually create a divorce of college sports teams from the real representation of their own institutions and, eventually, from the fans themselves.

This divorce certainly embodies itself in those certain boosters who treat a college’s sports program like their own toy. However, I think the most egregious personification of this separation are the “sidewalk alumni” who are simply interested in grabbing the BIRG that backing a winner gives them, along with the shifting “loyalties” (if there ever was any) that kill true fandom. Short of college sports returning to a club-sports model, which isn’t going to happen our lifetimes, what can the real fan do to reclaim their rightful place as a part of the team?

HERE is where we can fight back as real fans, as real adherents to the institution. HERE is where we can take a stand and defend our true fandom. How do we do it?  DENIGRATE the other team’s fanbase on blogs! Talk about what it means to be a TRUE AUBURN MAN, sticking with the (Burnt) Orange and (Navy) Blue through all the ups and downs, versus an “Updyke” Bama “fan” who only gets on board for the rush that the BIRG of the umpteenth national championship gives him. Above all, assault the opponent with the charge of having NO CLASS. (I should point out that my tongue, or at least the tip thereof, is in my cheek at this juncture.)

Now, believe me, I am not stating that wholesale disrespect of rival fans is the essential nature of our role as fans; if that were the case, then “Al from Dadeville” would be the paradigm. But there is something of value in distinguishing ourselves from other fan bases, as long as the distinctions made are true ones. I mean, if we aren’t really part of the team, then tell me, wherein lies the magic that I hope still exists in this beautiful thing we call college football? What is the worth of our traditions, like Toomers Corner or Tiger Walk? Are we just deluding ourselves by attributing any significance whatsoever to a bunch of young guys running around an oblate spheroid?

Actually, my last point was subject to a debate on our earlier incarnation of TET, with most of you folks stating that it is ridiculous, pointless, and irrelevant to discuss the “classiness” of Auburn/Alabama fans. I seem to have lost that particular argument at that particular time, and that is one reason I am re-formulating and re-presenting my argument within a theory of the meaning and value of college football.

Whether or not I have strengthened my argument, I leave to you, oh pundits of the gridiron. I just hope these ideas I have presented get us all to think a little more deeply about football and our place in it as fans. In any case, I think we can all agree that there is a legitimate reason why we give a flip about college football, that there is something of value in the sport and institution we love, and that it is, and always will be, great to be an Auburn Tiger.

Michael Val

(who tempts a haunting from the Bard by writing “For never was a story of more woe / than the 2012 Tigers, that saw Gene Chizik go”)

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  1. wpleagle says:

    For those of us who love the game but can’t recognize a Tampa Whatever, this is a great post! I’ll never have Acid’s or Sully’s ability to recognize a formation or break down a play, and it’s great that we have both their ability and that of Michael’s.
    As an aside, it is a joy to read such a beautifully crafted essay. Not a single spelling or punctuation error, and the writing flows beautifully. Not to take anything away from those who don’t know a split infinitive from a split end, and who could not care less, but kudos to Michael.

    • KoolBell KoolBell says:

      If it were not for spell check, I would prove beyond a shadow of doubt just how ignorant I am. I take no ill feelings in the way you presented that comment, and actually appreciate it.

      While you may not have directed that directly at me, I am guilty as charged, and happily admit that I am. I have too much else in my life now, to work feverishly at becoming a skilled writer.

    • Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

      …..I have to second the “essay” portion. That’s a challenge I’m still trying to master. I basically do lists, and try to format ‘em up. (Yep. “format ‘em up” would make every English teacher I every had cringe!)

      …..I used to obsess over the English portion of writing posts, but I’ve relaxed greatly in the past half decade. If you’re lucky, I’ve proof-read my post once. I typically am pushed for time, and I let at least one of four main posts go with no proof-reading. I look to see if the picture showed up, and if there are any horrible spacing problems. Then it’s part of history.

      …..Tampa Two is basically a variant of “Cover Two.” Basically in cover two, each corner is responsible for covering receivers in his half of the field, with several “help” provisos. In a cover-two scheme, both safeties stay back, and they each provide help on their respective sides of the field, or take tight ends or backs if they run a route more than five yards downfield over the middle. Your biggest concern if you play cover two is not letting anybody get by the safeties. They must be deeper downfield than the deepest receiver.

      …..In both the Tampa-Two scheme and general Cover-Two, it’s generally conceded that guys will make catches underneath. The emphasis is flying to tackle, with an emphasis on stripping the ball. What separates the Tampa-Two is that the middle linebacker drops deep, and takes away that big “cave” in the middle of the defensive formation. Sometimes, he fakes blitzing, then drops back. Your conventional Cover Two middle linebacker is a run support guy, looking to chase any runner sideline to sideline. Many quarterbacks have trouble seeing over the middle of the line, and they’ll dump the ball over the middle on timing routes without being able to clearly see everything. In 2010, we ran a lot of Tampa-Two late in games. Josh Bynes led the team in interceptions, because he’d hide back there, and not be seen by the QB.

  2. sullivan013 sullivan013 says:

    Very thought provoking. An excellent article.

    But I did have one small objection to “But there were no fans as we now think of them until baseball became a sport people paid to watch.”

    Google the ‘Nika Riots’ between the Greens and Blues of the 6th century Byzantine Empire and realize that annoying Giants and Jets fans have been around for a while . The divisions pervaded their political structure and led to a wholesale revolt. You can’t even add the caveat of ‘in America’ as the Native American Lacrosse matches and the Aztec ball courts belie the idea.

    • mvhcpa says:

      Sully,

      Thank you for that reference to the Nika Riots–I was fascinated by learning that episode in ancient history. I think there might be a key difference between those “Constantinople Crazies” and the modern fan in that I think that the Blues and the Greens defined themselves by their political attachments first, then linked up with the chariot teams’ “nations” that shared their views or contained the people with which they agreed.

      But you may know more about this, so I certainly defer in my ignorance to your knowledge.

      Michael Val
      (who remembers that the only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know!)

  3. AubTigerman AubTigerman says:

    Good article Michael – Food for thought.
    Also …”It is, and always will be, great to be an Auburn Tiger.”

  4. KoolBell KoolBell says:

    You said:
    “As long as the institution itself is fundamentally involved in the definition of the team, we, as true fans, can be a real part of the team. That seems to me to be what is unique to and nigh magical about college football.”

    To that I say this: I have and always will feel an alignment with Auburn. A part of Auburn is in me, and part of me is Auburn. Therefore I have no reluctance in saying “We” for after all is said and done, We are family! To deny that is to deny the very essence of the Auburn spirit.

    You said:
    “Now that the rock-‘em, sock-‘em orgy of analysis and prognostication that is National Signing Day has come and gone”

    And all I could do was laugh.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. MVH you are a gifted man, God bless!

    WAR EAGLE!

  5. buddy Ro shaka4244 says:

    Absolutely exhausting to read this post. I enjoy the sustained thinking challenge of opinion-mapping framework philosophies attached to sociological paradigms, but football is first a game, and last…only a game. Everything in between is still… a game we’re all playing. Loyalties, Traditions, Spirit,… fans, obsessions… there are a host of drivers all along the way. The team, game, fan relationship might well have some heavy layered up relation, but to analyze that is futal. What would be the intent? To bunch it all up in a neat solvable package and affect the outcome in some way similar to a gardening almanac? People(fans) would have to “worship” the same way to effectively summarize the condition as a whole… and make the entire effort worthwhile. I would consider someone even considering such research much more an interesting piece of the puzzle. I wonder why we always feel like we have to solve the “problem” for everybody, when most don’t see a problem to begin with. It comes across as a sort of perpetual insecurity, vulnerability, or instability. What resonates instead (for me) is the intensity of the passion involved… which so often exists outside my own comprehension.

    • mvhcpa says:

      Shaka4244,

      Thank you for your pertinent observations. Your opinion that football is “just a game” represents the alternate side of my premise which is that sports, and college football in particular, “mean something” beyond the game itself. Your position is certainly a possibility–it certainly is what my mother always said when I was painfully distraught over any defeat for the Tigers. And that also seems to be the most obvious and simplest answer.

      What I was really trying to figure was why intelligent and rational people feel an attachment–more than an attachment, an identity–with 22 guys, who they don’t even know, who change every year, running around a football field. The answer sure isn’t obvious, and in the lack of an obvious answer, having such an attachment seems absolutely insane (and you may have espied that fact).

      However, to paraphrase an old saw, forty-bazillion Tiger fans (and Tide fans, and Yankee fans, and Red Sox fans) can’t be wrong when they invest so much of their very being in being a fan (and I don’t mean to the extent of tree-poisoning). It appears to me that unless we who call ourselves “fans” are all pompous morons or deluded suckers, there IS something there, as hard as it is to understand, yet as easy as it is to feel. And since I consider myself a rational, logical person who decries self-delusion, I wanted to find that elusive, yet reasonable and logical answer. I think I did.

      Michael Val
      (who is honored you found my post worthy enough to spend the exhaustion by reading and commenting on it)

  6. wpleagle says:

    We all have different gifts. Without the eye, the hand would be nothing. The writing comments were not directed at anyone, KB, and I’m happy that you read my comments constructively. I’m grateful for the opportunities to learn from those of you who are gifted with more game knowledge that I. We can all make this world a better place.
    War Eagle! Go Big Blue.

  7. mvhcpa says:

    Thank you all for all of your more than kind compliments and/or additional ideas. Most of all, thank you for finding my scrivenings worth your whiles to read and reflect on.

    Michael Val
    (who loves Auburn football, but mostly Auburn itself)