On "Rooting Against Football"

I'm not rooting against college football. But I can't look at what we're seeing now and pretend everything is okay. Does that make me the bad guy?

Photo credit: Getty Images

Good morning, and thanks for your continued support of Extra Points. 

I learned a lot from my years working with the SB Nation college football team, but perhaps nothing resonated with me more than just how much my colleagues loved college football. 

Our crew didn’t just love the Ohio States, the Michigans, the Alabamas and the Clemsons. Our editorial ethos was to preach a love of the entire operation. A whole hog approach to loving college football. To really understand and appreciate this game meant to love the Sun Belt. It meant to love the deeply regional, provincial and bizarre history of the sport. It meant that we shouldn’t excuse or run away from the corruption, the inconsistencies, the inequalities, and everything else broken about the entire enterprise. We should take the good with the bad. 

A major part of that ethos informs why Extra Points exists. To me, a deep, whole hog approach to loving college football also means a need to understand and appreciate college. To care not just about the men playing on Saturdays, but the institution behind them. We cannot have healthy college football without healthy colleges. 

We do not have healthy colleges right now. We do not have a healthy college athletic ecosystem right now. 

And so I’m really conflicted. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the common charge from fans, and occasionally (and disappointingly) from other reporters, that journalists who have written critical stories about the wisdom of playing college football right now, or even just about how doing so would be difficult, insufficiently love the game. Anybody who isn’t 100%, full-speed ahead, or sharing cheerleading news reports, simply doesn’t love football. They want football to be canceled. They’re Corona-Bros

It’s a stupid argument. After all, nobody complains that the newspaper courts reporter doesn’t sufficiently love the legal system. A deep passion for aldermen is not required to cover local politics. In fact, a healthy skepticism of power-brokers on other beats is usually viewed as an asset, not a liability. 

There is a level of boosterism and paranoia in the college football media universe that could even make some hardened political pros blush. If you’re a journalist, even one on the college football beat, the priority is to report and explain the news. Subject matter expertise is required. That isn’t the same thing as unconditional love. 

It’s also not lost on me that the reporters who tend to face this criticism the most, again, even from other reporters, are women. 

But the charge admittedly does bother me because I actually DO love college football!

I wrote an entire dang book about the nitty-gritty history of college football, and would love to do another, because I find it so endlessly fascinating. I have an office plastered with vintage pennants, programs and iconography. I realize that loving this sport requires a degree of cognitive dissonance, but I love it all the same. I love watching a triple option team suffocate a physically superior opponent like an anaconda might to an unsuspecting capybara. I love staying up until 1 a.m. with a bunch of my online degenerate friends to watch Hawaii. I love screaming for a Sousaphone. 

I am a son of Columbus, and despite moving away the day after I got my diploma, this stuff is in my blood. 

So what am I rooting for?

That’s a complicated question, and it’s getting more complicated, which means it’s a terrible question to answer on Twitter.

Based on reader surveys, I think it’s pretty clear that I would sell more Extra Points subscriptions if college football was being played by everybody. I gotta be honest, writing Extra Points would be more fun if college football were safely being played by everybody. I’m sick of writing about COVID! I’m going to continue doing it, because it’s a massive story that impacts every single athletic department in the country, but transitioning away from the will they/won’t they conference votes and more into other stories would be more fun to write

And hey, after the absolute garbage dump of a spring and summer this has been, who wouldn’t want some semblance of normalcy? I sure would! Sitting down in my office, cold beverage in hand, staying up late, telling jokes and watching Ohio State smack some hapless Illinois squad back into the Paleolithic era would be a Saturday well-spent under normal circumstances. In 2020? That sounds like almost manna from heaven. 

But I can’t tweet normalcy into existence. 

This isn’t a normal year. My children are not in public school, because the global pandemic has moved Chicago’s public schools offline. I haven’t been to an in-person church service since March. Almost every other facet of my everyday life, from going to the gym, to hanging out in a coffee shop or library, to sending my children to a friend’s house to play, has been interrupted thanks to this public health crisis. Returning to normal activity, right now, simply is not safe for our community. 

That’s true for college football too. Or hell, college, period.

Colleges across the country are struggling to remain open, as they face COVID outbreaks, especially in fraternity housingTexas Tech, Texas A&M, Alabama, Georgia, East Carolina and South Carolina have all reported over 1,000 cases. Colorado State’s football program is under investigation for, among other things, trying to cover up potential COVID cases. A kicker at Eastern Kentucky quit the team out of concern that the team wasn’t taking COVID safety seriously enough, and the school admitted that compliance has not been 100%.  Basically the entire Texas Tech football team tested positive. And a recent survey of athletic trainers showed that over half were not fully confident that their working environments were safe, as non-compliance with COVID procedures was common.

Thankfully, we don’t have any confirmed deaths of college football players due to COVID, although it’s possible COVID played a role in at least one. But the virus has done a real number on multiple healthy athletes. And we still don’t totally understand exactly what the long-term implications are for a young athlete who gets the disease. 

Any plan, be that for a football team, athletic department or university, that relies entirely on 19-21 year olds always making the correct, socially responsible choice, is not a plan at all. It’s rote paperwork that you file even though you know nobody will actually follow through with it, like when you solemnly promise your internet service provider that no, of course you wouldn’t download music without owning the correct copyright. 

If you don’t think COVID is a big deal at all, maybe you’re okay with this compliance theater. Thousands of college football fans certainly are. 

But that isn’t where I am. 

To be fair, I realize my position gives me a little more flexibility to feel this way.

Extra Points doesn’t need college football to happen this fall in order to function. I have other stories to write, other sources to talk to, and my audience doesn’t demand game recaps, previews, or gameday news. I’m not a recruiting message board. I do not own broadcast rights. Yet.  

I also freely acknowledge that I don’t talk to coaches, players or parents of recruits nearly as often as I do administrators, athletic directors, consultants and academics. When it comes to shaping the off the field forces that control what we see on the field, and especially when it comes to public health, coaches simply don’t play as large a role. If my sourcing was nearly 100% dependent on assistant coaches, high school coaches or recruits, perhaps I might feel differently. It’s no accident that the loudest voices advocating to play football, or in downplaying concerns, are voices most plugged into the status quo. 

I’ve already lost a job because of uncertainty around football season. I know how scary that can be. I understand folks wanting to prevent that.

I can’t tell you how to feel. But I know how I’m feeling when I watch these football games. And it isn’t the same kind of joy.

The first D-I football game of the season was almost certainly decided because one FCS school had all of their long-snappers in quarantine.The first big prime-time game, BYU/Navy, was decided in the first 10 minutes after it became clear one team didn’t practice any blocking or tackling due to safety concerns. Early season play is typically sloppy, and it’s fair to point out that most of these early games aren’t featuring 2001 Miami or 1995 Nebraska, but the quality of play is especially choppy, especially with special teams. That’s what you’d expect after an offseason full of position groups thrown into quarantine and with practice constantly stopping and starting.  

So the games themselves aren’t great. But we’re also missing all that extra stuff that makes college football so compelling. The stands are either completely empty, or just full enough to remind the viewer that any social distancing regulations or mask orders have all the intended seriousness of a promise to not transport fireworks across state lines. The bands are either at home, or spaced apart far enough to dilute any sound. There’s almost no tailgating. There are no College GameDay signs. No homecoming parades. None of the stuff that separates this beautiful, stupid sport from the sanitized NFL. 

It isn’t the same. Whether it’s good enough is a question of personal taste, I suppose, but it isn’t the same. 

Do we trust that college athletic departments and coaches, groups that shouldn’t have earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to protecting athlete safety, will finally figure things out, and won’t fudge the numbers to make sure football continues? Do we trust that college students, both athletes and general student populations, will sequester themselves enough to limit potential outbreaks? Do we just that decree this product, this furious attempt at something resembling a football season, will be close enough to the real McCoy to convey some sort of historic legitimacy? 

I can’t speak for everybody else, and I can’t speak for you. But I know I’m not rooting for or against football. 

I’m rooting against the virus. I’m rooting to limit harm to college athletes, other college students, and to the colleges themselves. I’m rooting for institutions and those with meaningful public power and influence to engage with the truth, even when it isn’t what we want to hear. 

Maybe, sometimes, that looks like rooting against football. 

If it does, it’s only because I love it too much to want to sacrifice it on the altar of this season. I love the whole damn hog.

Even the ugly parts. 

Thank you again for supporting Extra Points. I can be reached at MBrown@TheIntercollegiate.com, or @MattBrownEP on Twitter dot com.