There are different degrees and ways and reasons to watch sports. Watch professional athletes, and you’ll see the best players in the world do the thing that they’re best at, which is reason enough. Watch college sports, and you tacitly choose undergraduate emotion over professional-grade execution, which means that you’ll watch a lot of ultraflubby games played with the kind of headlong determination that defines college-kid things, and which has its own appeal. Watch SEC football, and you probably use those games as miniskirmishes in a sozzled proxy war with a nearby right-to-work state or land-grant school, and you'll obviously have a blast with all the benefits that choice brings to your life. None of which is to say that these are bad choices. We’re all free agents, and can and should do what we want.
But then there’s high school football, where very young people make mistakes and older people sit in the stands and yell the worst things they can think of at other people's children. Again, it’s your life and your thing, and if confessing in a scoutish, authoritative tone to a bleacher neighbor that some 15-year-old you’ll never meet “kind of fagged it up” on that play is what you need to do, then certainly good luck getting well. But if we’re going to draw a line, we might as well draw it here. Or maybe slightly further out, somewhere around the increasingly overstated and reliably depressing stretch that culminated earlier this week with college football’s National Signing Day.
In the most basic sense, National Signing Day can’t help but exist—all those linebackers and running backs and people named Dreamius can only become indentured servants for one football program apiece, after all, and there’s no harm in announcing their decisions to the public. Where National Signing Day gets weird is in its scope and scale, the way it metastasizes into the disconcerting and crazy-creepy thing it has become—a giddy beef auction presided over by the psychotic golf dads who coach high-level college football, covered as if it were a moon landing. As with the NFL draft—the three-day national celebration of white men speaking eagerly into phones about defensive tackles that ESPN has improbably turned into a television spectacular—National Signing Day is hilariously, impossibly untelegenic. Most letters of commitment between players and programs arrive via fax, for example, and all of the 18 commitment events that ESPNU televised this week amounted to a teenager putting on a baseball hat while a bunch of defeated-looking white guys pointed digital recorders at him. The exceptions to this—Tennessee hiring a bikini-clad model to update its list of recruits in what looks like a decommissioned Bass Pro Shop, whatever nightmarish Muppet seduction is happening in this photo—are not what you’d call attempts to restore dignity.
More exhausting than that, though, is the simultaneous exhaustiveness of the coverage and the misty concern that the true meaning of National Signing Day—and some essential important thing about college football, the most sentimentally regarded feudal concussion-farming enterprise imaginable—has been lost amid the hype. The Miami Herald, for instance, devoted seven pages of its print sports section to National Signing Day and ran a column by Larry Blustein, the paper’s recruiting correspondent, wondering if students aren’t “going to schools for the wrong reasons.”
Leave aside the hilariousness of 18-year-olds—let alone 18-year-olds who have been treated with celebrity-grade deference by adults since the moment it became clear they could be effective three-technique defensive linemen—ever doing anything for anything but the wrong reasons, and there’s still plenty amiss here. But while there’s nothing much to like about National Signing Day as a media event, or as a manifestation of any number of fucked priorities, it does fit in admirably well with college football’s interlocking strains of bombast. Teams get their players, and fans get to shout about which team got whom and shout about how it all used to be better, back when there were values, back when college football was college football. Yes, National Signing Day is bloated and contradictory and crass and increasingly crazy. That’s how we know it’s working.
Previously: Why Breitbart Sports Will Fail, I Hope