Of Posturing, Politics, Predators, and Power Grabs

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How's that for some alliteration?  Or should I say, "obliteration?" I am now going to write on a topic I know virtually nothing about: college football.  Though it's probably invisible to those who live well outside of the heart of flyover country, a major athletic conference here is currently imploding at the behest of powerful and greedy folks all over these United States.

And in its wake, this implosion will leave local and regional economies in tatters and major university brands tarnished.  Wait, institutions of higher learning have brands?  You bet they do in this day and age.  And in this day and age, it’s dawning on me how so very far we have not come.

Believe me when I say I am an outsider to the discussion of league loyalty and the revenue-generating behemoth that is now college football.  I still don’t get the game and don’t even care that I don’t get it.  No one ever wants to sit next to me at a game because I ask a lot of questions. And just when I think I’m starting to get the hang of it, some bizarre play goes down, evoking an obscure rule which is then trotted out as evidence that something quite complex is going on down there in the gladiator pit where people are pushing and shoving and grabbing each other.

Tennis is my true love, if you must know, but I like lots of other sports as well: volleyball, swimming, skiing, track.  Basically, the kind of strategy-based athletic engagements where nobody hurts anyone else except through the accrual of points and where there is some personal best at stake in the competition. 

For purposes of full disclosure, I will confess that my husband and I met at an MU-Texas gridiron dust-up 32 years ago, when the two colleges were tossed together as a non-conference event back when Mizzou was a member of the collection of Midwestern colleges known as the Big Eight.  I don't even remember who won because, well, I might have had my mind on something other than the game.  Like, I don't know, a handsome, dark-haired, newly-minted Missouri grad who was working at the game.  I do know, however, the Tigers vs. Longhorns game on September 29, 1979, drew the biggest crowd ever recorded at Faurot Field in Columbia, Missouri. 

And it was definitely recorded---by my future husband, who, as a University employee and rookie in its police academy, hung out of the open door of a Missouri Highway Patrol helicopter as it circled on its side around the stadium, shooting photos of that packed venue that were used by the university in postcards and posters for the next 15-20 years.  Be still, my heart.

Mizzou

Football Fever by timsamoff via Flickr

And, of course, I’ve had great fun throughout my life as a spectator at football games.  The best parts for me were the social contexts in which these games were mired.  The Friday night lights of games at the local all-boys Jesuit high school my brothers attended where girls would flock to see and be seen and the mixers that followed the games.  The fabulous tailgate spreads provided by my dear friend Linda’s parents on football Saturdays during my college years.   And even the handful of games each subsequent year my husband and I have attended with friends on crisp October Saturdays.

As Irish Catholics and with a Jesuit Notre Dame grad in the family, my parents were avid supporters of Notre Dame.  My dad tracked their seasons and watched all of their games and my mom and her friends cooked up casseroles and sundry hors d'oevres for local alumni fundraisers.  They even had an enormous set of china (known as "the Notre Dame plates") they hauled around for these frequent gatherings, which perfectly integrated several areas of their lives: religion, football, and socializing.

My parents and a group of their friends also religiously followed the Kansas City Chiefs in their heyday and the early days of the Super Bowl.  They sipped thermoses of  hot chocolate spiked with vodka to keep themselves warm on bitter cold Sunday afternoons in December on the bleachers of the old Municipal Stadium.  So even though I was hardly the greatest fan, football was a constant in the sports background of my life.

A highlight of each collegiate football season culminated in the game between two old rivals, MU and KU.  I am one of the select few who attended both schools, so I’ve always been somewhat bemused by the contest called the Border War.  The state line divides this metropolitan area roughly in half, and team loyalties with it.   The rivalry dates back at least 118 years in football seasons, but most people believe it arose out of Civil War battles.

People from both sides have been known to engage in pranks and goofy behavior in support of their preferred team.  My friend Linda’s brother-in-law, for instance, gave her dad, a die-hard Mizzou fan, a ransom note tied to a miniature stuffed version of the KU mascot when he married her sister.  A police officer I worked with at a department in Kansas locked a tape player in his locker for days blaring the Mizzou fight song (on a continuous loop).

My younger brother hasn't missed an MU-KU football game in 33 years.  We figured the rivalry was intense when, on one of his first visits to MU, we attended the game and soon witnessed the bands getting into a tussle on the field.  He flies in from California to make the games these days.  Honestly, the most fun has always been when MU's basketball team was good enough to give the Jayhawks a run for their money or the nail-biters where KU's football team had the moxie to beat the Tigers.

These gentle pokes presaged a rougher era to come.  The football game used to be held at each campus as part of their regularly scheduled play.  But somebody realized they could make a lot more money if they held it at a professional stadium in KC and drew from the larger metropolitan area instead of just the colleges, so they abandoned the tradition of fans from each college trekking to the other’s campus every other year and wittingly let the local merchants in the two college towns lose money those weekends and kept a generation of college students from experiencing the Border War culture firsthand.

The first year, no one bothered to divide the gigantic stadium parking lot by school and the game was held late in the evening to maximize TV revenues, never minding that it also maximized the amount of alcohol that could be consumed by people tailgating since daybreak.   Behavior inside the stadium turned ugly and the walk back to the car in the dark was more than frightening. 

Broken bottles, smoldering embers, and tailgate trash were strewn from one end of the parking lot to the other and people old enough to know better were staggeringly drunk and aggressively combative.  I clutched my young daughter’s arm with both hands after my husband's college roommate deftly pulled her out of harm’s way when an intoxicated adult saw that her fan garb was not displaying the colors he preferred and began to charge at her.  Not exactly a family entertainment venue I would recommend. 

Moving the game to this new site was a telltale sign of things to come.  In recent years, the taunts and antics of rabid fans and the contrived narratives of this longstanding rivalry with roots traced to the Civil War ramped up significantly---on both sides---to, at best, insipid and juvenile profanity (Muck Fizzou) and, at worst, sheer viciousness and racism.  For what you may wonder?

Based on all of the sports columns and articles I've digested the past few days, at the end of the day, it is, indeed, all about the money (See Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski's brief history of the Big 12 or any of KC Star sports writer Sam Mellinger's insightful columns covering the demise of the conference and its impact.)

College football is so much about the money that it has now become about absolutely nothing else except the power and greed that money fuels.  Playful rivalries, tailgating traditions, silly pranks, the agility and prowess and lives of the young athletes, the spirited cheering, championship seasons, and the nature of the game itself all now rendered quaint artifacts of a bygone era and evolutionarily inconsequential. 

Don't think for a minute that this phenomenon is confined to MU or KU or even the Big 12.  All conferences and athletic programs are complicit.  And if the mirror isn't registering any vestiges of fog at this moment, take a last look in it and ask yourself: who buys the outrageously priced tickets? 

An interesting rhetorical and freedom of information angle to all of this is the fact that sports bloggers, assumed to be independent, are breaking all of the juicy stories well ahead of traditional sports media.  That presumed independence is evidently a farce in many cases as colleges and their minions manipulate the bloggers and the series of unfolding events by feeding them tidbits of information, often untrue, to force discussion and then events down other paths that favor their agendas and goals and permit these officials to claim Pollyanna-ish naivete and--laughably---innocence. This plot thickens like the oil in the gulf and is propelled by precisely the same  motors as the BP leak: money, power, greed.

Some of the simplistic narratives of the implosion created so far by the power players and the media desperate to document them are worthy of study if only for their amazingly shallow nuances invoking all kinds of archetypes with metaphors mixed six ways to Sunday.  You've got your scapegoat, your hero, your back-stabbing BFF, your chess game, your card game, your poker face, your all-dressed-up-with-nowhere-to-go dance card holder, etc. 

So on the heels of Enron and Goldman Sachs and BP, the Midwest offers up the collegiate version of cataclysmic corporate volatility carefully choreographed by the power players through the waving of wads of cold hard cash and promises of personal cable networks and endless air time and myriad streams of revenue, revenue, revenue.  Color me disgusted.  And very, very sad. 

Is there anything in our culture that's not for sale?  I'm guessing folks were asking the same question when the last gladiator was left standing, right around the spot where archaeologists recently unearthed the remains of about 80 of those mighty warriors in what appears to be a gladiator graveyard.   

The fallen were last seen on TV this past week with scientists dusting their bones as the lead researcher affiliated with a British university speculated on how they'd likely met their rather gory deaths at the mouths of predators.  Of course, he couldn't help but marvel at their considerable brawn.  That much of their story was revealed quite clearly through their well-preserved remains.

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