A Case for College Football

It’s a weird time to be a college football fan.

If you follow the sport, you know it’s changing like wildfire. Two years ago, college football players couldn’t make money while playing or transfer freely between schools. Now they can do both. A coach leaving their team in the middle of the night on the cusp of making the playoff was unthinkable. Brian Kelly (long, exasperated hiss) did just that last December. A conference that started as a consortium of midwestern schools now extends across a continent, with cross-country trips from LA to New Jersey in the near future. Those schools will make up to $100 million annually as a result, very little of which will go to the athletes playing the games to earn that payday. 

And, in perhaps the most bizarre move of all, CBS will be airing Big Ten games instead of the SEC. The world may never be the same. 

In some ways, the game of today is unrecognizable from the game I grew up with. Heck, it’s even unrecognizable compared to the game played when I was in college. College football has always struggled with it’s relationship with money, of course (friendly reminder that the Ivy League only exists because of fears of football’s influence over its member universities), but it feels like things have come to a head recently. While it’s good, and long overdue, that players can finally make money for their talents, it’s hard not to feel like the increased professionalization of the sport is undermining it’s charm. I don’t say this out of an overly sentimental attachment to amateurism — as the college game hurdles ever faster to being a minor league version of the NFL, the money accumulates in the hands of fewer and fewer power players stratifying the haves from the have nots and making it clear that, despite ostensibly playing the same level of the same sport, well over have the teams in the country have no shot of competing for a championship, ever. And as the twenty-four hour media machine emphasizes national titles more and more, the have-nots feel more and more out of the loop. The special thing about college football is the feeling that every team has a shot at something, every year; but if the only thing that matters is the Playoff, are national titles, then the college football we love is slipping away. 

This is all in addition to the usual complaints about football, both about the sport generally — head injuries, toxic cultures, encoded racism, tolerance of abusive behavior — and college football in particular — concerns about the status of student-athletes, nonprofit educational institutions investing millions into sports, and the elitism baked into the sports’ infrastructure. 

So why be a college football fan? If words like “conferences” and “amateurism” all sounded like Greek to you, you might wonder what the point of following this silly sport even is. I’m not sure I have a great answer to that — but I’m gonna try anyway. 

That inherent ridiculousness is sort of the point. College football fandom must begin with the acknowledgement that it is fundamentally silly. “Fan,” of course, is short for “fanatic,” and fanaticism is generally not a rational response to any given situation. It is a game that an awful lot of people take very very seriously, despite ultimately boiling down to a bunch of young men throwing an egg-shaped ball down a field with an maddening array of lines painted on it. The pomp and pageantry of a college football Saturday can rival Buckingham Palace (I, as a former member of the Notre Dame Band, am one of the worst offenders), but this is to be expected from a sport where very serious academics willingly pay sixty year old men tens of millions of dollars to tell eighteen year olds how to run correctly. It’s dumb — spectacularly dumb — but that’s why we can’t get enough of it. 

At its best, college football can rally universities, communities, and even entire states around a team, it’s fortunes lifting spirits and making people dream. It can legitimately help universities present themselves to new audiences — for the team I follow, football is largely responsible for the national profile of a university and its ability to position itself to be a top tier academic institution. The community spirit, the camaraderie, college football creates better than almost any other sport is a true boon to those that follow it. Even when fans argue about which team is better or whether or not Coach X is a cowardly chicken, there’s a unifying passion to it all. College football fans all love fall Saturday and all love the egg-shaped ball game. It adds color, flavor, texture to our lives. 

On the flipside, there’s an oddly purgative effect to the game. There’s no doubt college football brings out the worst in me — I’m a pretty easygoing person, generally, but put me in front of a guy in a USC shirt and I might start a fight. I will laugh out loud when an eighteen-year old kid drops a ball just because he plays for Florida State. If Alabama loses a game it will make my week. And if I find out you went to the University of M****igan, I cannot be held responsible for my actions. It’s a sport built on petty hate, spite, and schadenfreude just as much as it is on tribalism and self-absorbed moral indignation. But I’ll contend this is, on balance, a good thing. Why not direct your pent-up rage at modern life at a silly game with an egg-shaped ball? As long as you don’t become a Nebraska fan breaking his TV and ruining his marriage, there are worse outlets for negative emotions. As long as you keep things civil, don’t harass young men and women, and treat your opponents with grace (in public). Too many fans don’t do this, of course, but for those of us who keep a strong wall up, why not use the game — not, I cannot emphasize enough, the players — as an emotional punching bag?

It’s the quintessential American sport, really. It brings out the best and worst in us, simultaneously. It can bring us together, unify us, and split us apart all in the same moment. So many states and cities in this country are divided by college colors; Alabama or Auburn? A&M or UT? Trojans or Bruins? But there is a unifying principle to all this — a love of community. We detest the red team across the square because we love the blue team. We love our neighbors that root for the blue team. We love what the blue team represents and don’t understand anyone who doesn’t. This boils over on Saturday into passionate, fraught games, but, come Monday, we merely good-naturedly rib the red shirt across the water cooler or take our licks from the purple shirt who is better than us both put together. In the end, we are all college football fans, all devote a lot of our time to egg-shaped balls. In an era of rampant tribalism, college football appeals because it’s a benign tumor, not necessarily helpful, but certainly not harmful. It’s a game of contradictions to its core, and that’s the best thing about it. 

On a personal note, college football is simply in my blood. My family has pulled for the Irish basically as far back as memory goes. Some of my earliest memories involve Notre Dame football, whether happy or not (Bush Push anyone?). I’ll write more on what Notre Dame football means to me at some point (probably for a post I have in mind later this fall), but family history, attending the school, and playing in the marching band have made me a lifelong fan, whether I like it or not. When Notre Dame takes the field against Ohio State on Saturday, I’ll be somewhere between a proud family member and a screaming ball of angst. 

Speaking of which, let’s turn our attention to Columbus. 

Notre Dame opens its season in a snake pit of a venue, home to one of the few other true college football powerhouses, and one that’s had a much better run of success in recent years. It’s a particularly bad matchup for the Irish on top of all that — the Buckeyes are particularly strong at wide receiver, while the weakest part of Notre Dame’s defense is its secondary. The last time the Irish offense played against a Jim Knowles-coached defense, it was nearly shut out in the second half, and this time they’ll have better players. I can’t remember an opener that’s scared me as much in my lifetime of Notre Dame fandom. 

At the same time, optimism abounds in South Bend. After over a decade helmed by a coach that might generously be described as “irascible,” Notre Dame is now led by a young, energetic, handsome, smartly dressed man with a million dollar smile. Even his name bespeaks good feelings — Freeman. As if the crushing weight of climbing an ever-growing mountain towards a national championship was suddenly lifted off our collective soldiers. In an era where recruiting is king, Freeman is crushing this part of the game. The promise of a return to the summit is right there for the taking. Dare we say visions of national championships dance in our heads?

It’s a weird, quintessentially college football dilemma — to be at the start of a new era filled with so much optimism and promise, and to be so certain that that era will start with a thorough ass-kicking. Is it possible that yet another brutal loss can be the launching pad for an area of tremendous success. 

This is kind of a microcosm of Notre Dame football as a whole, really. Notre Dame is a very odd position for a sport’s most traditional power, at once the sport’s standard bearer and somehow, a perpetual underdog. Imagine describing the Los Angeles Lakers or the New York Yankees as “perpetual underdogs.” Notre Dame is often compared to these teams, but where you would get laughed out of any sports bar on Planet Earth if you called the Yankees underdogs, the description couldn’t be more apt for the Fighting Irish. 

Notre Dame has often been at its best when it is doubted in all corners. The Fighting Irish, itself a nickname born out of ugly stereotypes of Irish Americans and skepticism of their “Americanness,” have always had to fight to garner respect. In the 1910s and 20s, it was being blackballed from the Big Ten and forced to play a coast-to-coast schedule when the speediest transportation was the steam locomotive. In the 50s and 60s, it was the postwar shift of power away from Notre Dame to public schools with veteran-stacked teams. Nowadays, Notre Dame constantly deals with accusations of being overrated or a has been. And of course there are the ever present heckles about remaining independent, as if every other school wouldn’t do it if they could. At every turn, Notre Dame has rising above it all to become the winningnest program with the most successful players and the most national championships. (All of these records are disputed, of course — it wouldn’t be college football if everyone agreed on basic facts.)

It really is the most bizarre and unlikely occurrence in a sport defined by them — a small Catholic school in northern Indiana, a hundred miles from everywhere, becoming the king of a sport otherwise ruled by large, mostly public schools. Where other powers have names like Alabama or Texas or Southern California, names that link them to a place and a geographic, concrete identity, Notre Dame does not. Sure, there’s the thoroughgoing Catholicism of the place, but there are only so many Catholic football players. If you had to find Notre Dame on a map, where would you look? If you had to guess what Notre Dame was known for, would you ever guess it would be the best college football program around?

That attachment to unlikeliness, to winning beyond all reasonable belief, defines Notre Dame football. It’s why the Irish stubbornly refuse to join a conference. It’s why we remember games like the Game of the Century and Catholics vs. Convicts more than blowouts of rivals. It’s in the words of the Victory March, the greatest fight song in all of sports — “What though the odds be great or small, old Notre Dame will win over all.” Those words resonate because Notre Dame has faced some long odds in its history. We celebrate the teams that show determination, a will to win, first and foremost. That spirit of determination is why we watch sports, after all — against all odds, human beings do the impossible. The story of Notre Dame football is the story of doing the impossible. 

So please, keep doubting us. It’ll make victory all the sweeter. 

Maybe that starts Saturday, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe Notre Dame does the impossible and beats Ohio State. Or maybe they lose in crushing fashion, only to rise from the ashes to new heights. Either way, it’ll write the next chapter in an already impossible story. 

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