Photo by Eric Francis
Nebraska Football

Without Football, Apparently the Ideals the Sport Holds Dear are Null

August 12, 2020
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There has been Cornhusker football in Nebraska every fall since 1890. Time is relative, but in a human frame of reference that’s a long time. As long as Wyoming has been a state. Idaho, too.

Nebraska football is as old as the Sherman Act, a coincidence that at least prompted a smile from me during a sad time. If you need a refresher, that’s the antitrust law that should make capping student-athlete compensation at cost of attendance illegal. But the NCAA has fought hard to maintain that it is exempt from the Sherman Act, and new legal opinions chip away at that bit by bit.

Had the original opinion that the NCAA didn’t violate the Sherman Act—shared in a 1984 Supreme Court case in which the NCAA was found to be violating antitrust laws in how it doled out TV games—maybe the discussion around playing this fall would’ve been different.

Maybe. We never even really got to the amateurism piece of this discussion, but it was always the dangerous undercurrent beneath already choppy waters. But when the boat’s taking on water up on the surface, it’s hard to worry too much about what lurks below.

The more immediate reason we’re here—the reason we can use the past tense now and say there had been Cornhusker football every fall since 1890—is because our nation botched its handling of a pandemic.

That is the root issue here. You can blame the Big Ten or conference commissioner Kevin Warren if you want to. I guess throw Larry Scott and the Pac-12 in front of the firing line, too. For now, that’s it at the Power 5 level. We’ll see what today brings.

The NCAA said as much a month ago when it released this chart, which told you exactly where the governing body stood at a moment when COVID-19 cases were rising rapidly at exactly the wrong time if you hoped for college sports this fall. The NCAA wasn’t going to have a direct say in the fate of FBS football, but the people who did still play by the NCAA’s rules in everything else. The governing body still writes a lot of checks for everything else.

For a line graph, it’s pretty vicious. Note the notations. 

The NCAA points out that it started talking about playing in the fall as the U.S. curve appeared to flatten in late April after widespread shutdowns across the country. Then there were arrows noting where the NCAA thought things could be in July and August. Why did it think that? Other developed nations—Canada, Japan and Europe as a whole are on this chart—had shown it was possible. The parting shot was the note all the way at the top of the chart, the one accompanying a line running up and away from the others like an Alabama wide receiver runs away from a poor safety from Tennessee-Martin. (If that money game scheduled for November hadn’t already been canceled of course.)

“Where we are.”

While there were many other factors in play, both for making the case to play and making the case not to, that is why we’re here without Big Ten and Pac-12 sports this fall. 

Why did the U.S. botch its COVID-19 response? How? 

Hundreds of books and studies are already being written on that topic and plenty more will be on the way. We’re not going to come close to covering it in a sports column. Even if I could I’m not sure it matters, or that those books and studies will matter, in this post-truth world where there seems to be supporting arguments available for any point of view possible. You can always find exactly what you want to hear and rail against that which you don’t.

I hope there’s still room for objective truth in this world, though, based on the last five months, I feel a little like the NCAA looking at the chart in July: Things are not where I’d hoped they’d be.

This feels a little like a Hail Mary, but I want to note here how much I love college football. It’s pointless to try and quantify it, but I think about the sport every single day and that would be the case if it was my job or if it wasn’t. This love always leaves me a little conflicted. Football does a lot of good. The absence of it is going to point this out in alarming ways in college towns throughout the country. It’s also a horribly flawed sport, and that’s part of why we’re here, too.

To love college football is to make peace with or ignore some of those glaring shortcomings, and I’m never quite sure which one I’m doing at any given moment. 

All I know for sure is that I like it. It might be my favorite thing that I can like for purely selfish reasons.

But “I want this thing” isn’t reason enough on its own for there to be a season. Not in these once-in-a-lifetime conditions. That seems like an obvious point, but if you boil down all of the vitriol around the decisions not to play you’re left looking at a lot of “but I want it” concentrate.

You can do a lot of things with that syrup. Rinse a chilled glass with it, add vodka and enjoy a Don’t Tread On Me-tini. Add rum, Coke and a squeeze of lime for a Football Libre. Shake with rum, ice, a splash of maraschino, lime and grapefruit juice, grab a six-foot straw, and have a Socially Distant Daiquiri.

Everything seems to be part of the Culture Wars now, and it’s not a surprise that college football, for now, is one of the most active fronts. The sport sort of lives there permanently. It exists in every corner of the country, not just the major cities, and it’s tribal by nature. Being a fan of State is great, but what really makes the lizard brain fire is signaling that you’re not a fan of Tech. The Tech fans get the same thing out of the deal. Everyone has great jokes about their in-state rival, but they’re all the same jokes just with the names reversed.

College football is better than any other American sport at offering that. It’s dangerous, and, now more than ever, it’s a diversion.

Nebraska took its stance. It played to the base and that worked the way it always works.

But what’s left when tempers die down? They will. Right now it looks like some leagues are still going to play. We’ll see. It helps Nebraska’s case if some do.

Whether anyone plays or not, however, what are the university’s real options here? Leave? Maybe. All of the selling points of the move to the Big Ten a decade ago—the academic prestige, the security and, most of all, the money—are suddenly less important than 10 games (hopefully) this fall.

Maybe you could argue that the past decade has shown that all of those benefits aren’t worth it anymore. That would be shocking determination, but if there’s anything behind Nebraska’s sentiments from the past two days, I guess it’s at least plausible.

That approach is typically frowned upon in football circles. You could then look at Nebraska like a 5-star recruit. It inherited a new coach in Texas with the formation of the Big 12 and that didn’t go so well—though it’s understandable, nobody seems to get along with that guy—so the recruit transfers.

But the recruit doesn’t start playing like a 5-star at the new place either. There may be reasons for that, but as the playing time starts to dwindle, the recruit grows more and more frustrated. Maybe it’s time to look elsewhere again.

It’s rare for a scenario like that to work out. It’s common, however, for such a recruit to be ridiculed and railroaded for not living up to the ideals so often assigned to football with great reverence—the team, self-sacrifice, a greater good, on and on.

Is Nebraska really ready to be that recruit?

It’s acting like it, but we’ll see. We’re here.

Nobody’s happy. I want football, you want football, many players want football, all the coaches want football.

That’s powerful stuff, but you’re not supposed to drink it straight.

 
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