Too Big A Lie

When the suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy something I love is too great.

To be a college football fan you either have to be okay with certain things, or you have to be okay with lying to yourself.

Most of us choose the latter; I always have.

I love the sport deeply, and I know that’s a problem. I know that the sport is built upon a fundamentally exploitative structure designed to generate massive profits for everyone except the young men who make it possible. I know the dangers the game poses to those young men, from the potential for immediate injury to the decades-long degenerative impact on their cartilage, their bones, their hearts and their brains. I know that the things they are offered in exchange are not enough—an education that the demands of their sport make highly difficult to fully avail themselves of, fame that they are barred from profiting off of, a chance to be well-compensated playing on a highly competitive larger stage that most of them will never see.

And so I lie to myself. I speak openly—as I am doing right now—about how I disagree with these things. I say I think the players should be paid, I say I think they should be able to profit off their image and likeness, I say I think we should treat a professional developmental league as what it is and not officially compensate a Heisman Trophy candidate less than I made in college as a surly, half-attentive teaching assistant. I do think these things, but it doesn’t stop me from watching. I don’t vote with my eyeballs, because my eyeballs love the sport.

I have loved college football for more of my life than I have not. There is no time of year I look forward to than this time right now, when the muggy pall of summer finally breaks and the world reorganizes itself, with college football providing a drumbeat for it all. I love the immense span of the game, the sheer size of it all, the fact that there can be thirty games happening at once full of the sort of wild, unpredictable results that you can only get when the talent pool is so broad, diverse and inexperienced.

I love watching a hotly contested shootout, a tight defensive struggle, and I really, truly, honestly love an absolute 84-0 shitcanning, those travesties of mismatched games where the sheer math of it all seems impossible and beautiful, like watching a Lamborghini crash into an art gallery. I love the tailgates and the marching bands and the fight songs and going back to campus and wondering why the students are younger than we were when I was there. Taking my children to the their first game was something I looked forward to since before they were born and was absolutely as delightful an experience as I hoped it would be.

Beyond that, finding a community of like-minded college football fans on the internet has, without exaggeration, been one of the most important developments of my adult life. It has brought me joy, it has helped me develop a writing career, and it has introduced me to some of my nearest and dearest friends. I cannot imagine my life without the things college football has brought me.

So I take the lies.

I couldn’t do it this weekend. I’ve been in denial all summer that we would actually get to this point, steadfast in my belief that the conferences that had cancelled their games were doing what everyone would end up doing eventually, that no one would be crazy enough to try to have amateur students play in a time when colleges can barely stay open for their alleged primary purpose. It was one of the strangest feelings I’ve had as a sports fan to see Saturday’s games take place as though nothing were wrong.

Of course, plenty was obviously wrong. 6,000 people in a stadium here, 12,000 there. Some schools made real efforts to enforce social distancing guidelines; others did such a poor job that it was clear they never intended to abide by them, only having announced them in the same spirit in which you would agree that yes, I am taking these fireworks out of state and yes, this elaborate glass pipe is for tobacco use only. I recoiled at local news coverage of a game happening just miles from my house, fans tailgating against the rules with masks hanging off their ears, fans boasting about being “die-hards” as though devotion to one’s team could be measured in willingness to risk the well-being of yourself and others. It was too much. The lies were too big.

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This breaks my heart. The team I root for, my alma mater, the Cincinnati Bearcats, should be very good this year. They’re coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons, with a number of returning starters and an in-demand head coach who’s loaded them with quality recruiting classes. In the new AP poll released this weekend, they’re #13, their highest ranking since they played in the Sugar Bowl 11 years ago, a game I drove 1500 miles to witness in person. Of course, it’s easier to be ranked higher when 54 teams aren’t playing, but coming into this shrunken field, their goal can realistically be bigger than just a conference title. They could make the playoff. I should be thrilled.

I am not thrilled. I am that GIF of Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm: uneasy, unsure.

I genuinely do not want to come off as a buzzkill or a scold here. This isn’t about you, it’s about me. I have a good many friends whose livelihoods depend directly or indirectly on this sport, and my heart aches for them. I do not begrudge this season to them, nor do I begrudge it to anyone else for whom it is a needed bit of normalcy. As long as you’re doing the other things you should be doing right now, you watching or not watching a football game has no bearing on the actions of a government with no national testing policy or mask mandate, a government that gave people $1200 150 days ago and told us to make it last—the kind of math that only works if you can invest that money in stocks based on information you receive in closed-door congressional briefings—no bearing on the refusal of so many people to admit we have a problem, no bearing on the spread of this virus or on of any of the other horrible things happening right now, from the poisonous skies in the West to the wrecked homes in Louisiana and Iowa to the failure of justice in places like here in Louisville, Kentucky.

I am serious; if you can enjoy the games right now then by all means do, unless you’re one of these idiots.

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I can’t do it, at least right now. Perhaps my tone will change if things are more under control at some point and teams are no longer cancelling games on short notice, or simply if the Cincinnati Bearcats are 8-0 in a few months and I don’t want to miss out on it. I’ll be a hypocrite for saying this now and doing that then but my fandom has always been based in a degree of hypocrisy.

For now, I’m mourning the feeling that this was essential; mourning the sense that no matter how stifling the summer, football would feel like a refreshing cool breeze in the fall, the feeling that nothing could ever break my enthusiasm for it.

That feeling was an illusion, and that illusion is lost, for now.

I miss it.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)