September 16, 2019

Sports and fantasy more than a game

Since the Bangor Daily News is unlikely to offer me a sports column, I have decided to treat myself to a holiday gift. Today’s column will be devoted solely to sports, or more accurately, it is a rant about how major media cover football.

In early December, I watched the last real student athletes playing big-time football, the 104th Army-Navy game. A badly overmatched Army team, going into the game with an 0-12 record, managed to stay close until the fourth-quarter. Army vs. Navy is an increasingly atypical football rivalry. Off the field, these players really do study.

On the field, Navy’s deployment of a triple- option offense gave the quarterback numerous opportunities to exercise both judgment and skill. In much of the modern college game, the quarterback is little more than a cipher for an offensive coordinator.

With rare exceptions, none of these players can look forward to a career in the NFL. Not since the days of Roger Staubach have either of the service academies been able to send a great player into professional football.

In other ways, however, Army vs. Navy sets the rhetorical standard for college football. In watching this telecast, it was hard to determine whether it was a game or a celebration of the United States role in the world. Interspersed throughout the telecast were videotaped messages of support to Army or Navy from personnel stationed as far away as Iraq and even Australia. The joyful faces of young men and women obviously riveted on this game would almost allow one to forget the desperate binds in which they are trapped.

Football commentary often blurs the distinction between war and sport. Games are treated as though they are war on which the future of civilization depends. And national affairs commentary often does its part by taking metaphors drawn from sports to describe military encounters. The Army-Navy game, of course, was no exception.

Play-by-play analysis was rife with talk about the game as a no-holds- barred war between archrivals. At one point in the telecast, the network even slipped in the video of a former Army quarterback now serving as a platoon commander in Iraq. He suggested that the tension and anxiety he felt as he got going in the morning reminded him of his feelings before big football games.

Nonetheless, with some of these players actually headed to a real war it was hard to sustain the typical metaphors all the time. Periodically the commentators seemed to realize what they were saying and quickly added the disclaimer that of course these young man were headed to far greater and more real dangers once the game was over.

The rest of big-time college football is wrapped in its own nostalgia. If the cadets and midshipmen graduate with degrees in academic subjects, other big-time sports programs are an embarrassment.

Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson does an annual analysis of the graduation rates for successful bowl teams. He demonstrates an inverse correlation between graduation rates and success on the field. Those schools with the most shocking academic performance often have the most success on the field. But you would hardly know any of this from the telecasts. We hear about those student athletes with a 4.0 average or the young man nearing completion of his pre-med requirements. And every broadcast contains a brief commercial for the university, celebrating its distinctive academic niche. Hardly a word is said about the real financial costs of big-time football programs or its role not only in exploiting student athletes but in degrading curricular standards as well.

During this bowl season, sports fans have once again been treated to the endless proliferation of largely meaningless games leading up to the quest for No. 1. Of course, even that quest is tainted by nostalgia. If No. 1 were ever to be something more than a computer’s fantasy or the idle reflections of coaches in the media, a playoff system with extra games would be needed. Yet we are told that the season is already long enough for the student athletes.

Administrators could consider treating the sport for what it is, minor league pro football. They could have a longer season and pay the players at least a living wage. But college alumni love the fantasy that these are really student athletes. Many would not come to games if the players were seen as pros, especially minor leaguers.

And I must confess the spectacle of college football grips me. I will be glued to the set on New Year’s Day watching Michigan, my grandfather’s alma mater, “battle” the University of Southern California in the game that I have deemed the national championship game. The Michigan band, the nation’s best fight song, the distinctive Wolverine helmets, and the sheer spectacle all hide the pathologies, at least for a few hours.

John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers wishing to contact him may e-mail messages to

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