The Mercy Rule

Welcome to College Football

By David Roth

Because he is a professional, and because he has maybe actually trained his palate to enjoy pickled elk bung or Filipino noodle dishes built around embryos and carpet, Andrew Zimmern doesn't close his eyes before he takes a bite of anything. Instead, as anyone who has squirmed through an episode of the Minnesota chef’s traipsing/gluttony show Bizarre Foods can tell you, Zimmern describes the smell of the horrifying delicacy he is about to consume—"It definitely has that classic porpoise-ovary smell, but there are some caramel notes, some notes of hot urban garbage"—and then he digs in, and he makes some sort of "umph" sound and only then does he describe what is happening to his body and gag reflex what he just ate.

There is only one moment, maybe, when it is plainly visible Zimmern knows that what he's about to eat, while more common than Munchos and just as delicious to his bemused-polite hosts, is hugely strange and a little scary to those not raised on it. A faint smile pulls at his face without ever quite surfacing; it's easy enough to read some fatalistic amusement into this. "Thank you," it says, "for sharing this carp-anus recipe for me." There is a world of difference, of course, between what basic-cable professional eaters like Andrew Zimmern do for a living and web sportswriter like me do for a (um) living, and not only because I am less likely to get heartworms from something I eat than he is, and he is more likely to have health insurance than I am. But the only time that something like Zimmern's thanks-for-the-carp-anus half-smile is on my face when I'm doing my job is when I'm watching college football.

Which is not to compare watching college football to Zimmern's regular diet of skewered capybara testes and lamb eyes. College football is, by and large, a flubbier and less virtuosic version of the complicated, violent, vexingly watchable game that's played—much better, and much differently—in the NFL on Sundays. College football's great players, of which there are some, are still great to watch, and the dominant teams, of which there are fewer, are all the more awe-ing because of the depth and breadth of their talent relative to their competition. To watch the University of Alabama blast through non-conference opponents isn't exactly fun for a disinterested fan, given that those outcomes are never in doubt. There’s an absence of meaningful counterpoint between two teams when one isn’t anything, and the dearth of tension besides fear that one of the players on the opposing team might get very badly hurt. (Some people may have felt anxious watching Saturday's Bama-Michigan unpeeling, but it'd be hard to picture a scenario.) It's less like a football game than a Blue Angels flyover with concussions and super-fast linebackers, but there's still something impressive about it. Which is a long way of saying that college football is generally enjoyable enough to watch, provided you like football and are willing to watch that sport played and coached less well than it will be a day later, when professionals do it. The difference, though, and the reason for the wince and the quease-smile from those of us without a passionate rooting interest in one particular team, is that college football isn't just a sport. It's not even mostly a sport.

College football is an astonishingly lucrative business, of course—it helps a bottom line immensely not to pay players, but even without a non-profit designation, ten-figure television contracts are ten-figure television contracts. While plenty of cynical shitheels are getting rich off a sport played by unpaid teenagers, though, college football is still arguably less of a value-free racket than the NFL; money-making college football programs can generate enough revenue to keep the rest of a school's sports teams afloat (or keep a school functional through budget cuts). But college football is more than that, too, and this—the moment when it is clear that this sport embodies and enfolds something way deeper and maybe darker than anything having to do with football—is where things can start seeming foreign to unaligned fans.

In Alabama, college football has more or less replaced politics as a place of popular engagement, and is pretty much the only thing citizens of the state are happy to see taxpayer money spent on; in Florida, college football functions as a reflection of the state's proudly crass, hugely huge fucked-ness; in Texas and Oklahoma, it's a public religion enforced by a Basiji army of weepy-mean boosters; in Ohio and Michigan, it's a deep, churning, endlessly refreshed bile-sink for a region that sits atop one of America's greatest natural loathing deposits. And so on, throughout college football's burned-over regions: college football, in a way that no professional or college sport is, works as a sort of ornate, long-running ritual, but with the aforementioned concussions and super-fast linebackers.

There's nothing wrong with this, really: sports are what we make of them, and are honestly pretty boring if we're not investing them with something of and from ourselves. It might not look quite right, from some cosmopolitan-liberal futon in Brooklyn, to see petro-billionaire T. Boone Pickens donate $136 million to a cash-strapped state university with the caveat that all of it be used on sports, and $120 million be used for football. But T. Boone Pickens doesn't care about what you think, and also thinks your haircut looks faggy. He is doing his thing, and you are doing yours.

As a mostly exploitive and entirely projection-based regional dominance ritual—in other words, a tradition—college football serves all kinds of purposes. But if you're outside of that tradition, all that fervor and emotion and wild, wide-swing overstatement looks and feels as foreign, overdetermined and just fucking weird as any sports thing being broadcast on ESPN, in English and from the United States, possibly could. The bigger college football gets, the richer it gets, the stranger and more localized and fiercely its weird self it becomes. And so fans trying to understand why college football—the less well-played and more neurotic of our football options—is the biggest deal in American sports find themselves in a weird position: being served a plate of some very expensive regional delicacy—Squirrel Carpaccio with a fingernail flan and a drywall gravy—and being told that it's apple pie. Best to do with it, finally, what Zimmern does: smile, and take a bite.

@David_J_Roth

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