The Mercy Rule

Someone's Super Bowl

By David Roth

Like all profoundly mainstream things and thus, most sports-related things, college football is always strange and not infrequently insane, although it does its best not to acknowledge it. In the case of the NFL, it's the sheer baroque grandiosity of its accessibility that makes it weird—NBC's neutered-robot good-timey Faith Hill theme song for Sunday Night Football, or the crazy-eyed cackle-shouty halftime shows, for instance, or the fact that NFL players and coaches read the fucking Declaration of Independence before Super Bowl broadcasts. All that median-aimed Americana is so rigorously normal that it can't help but scan as stupendously not-normal and Romney-ishly false—Dean Stockwell singing into a lamp in Blue Velvet at its more rococo extremes, and corny-obvious the rest of the time. In the case of college football, though, which functions as a louder and more violent substitute for politics and/or civic life in those states where it matters most, this psychotic mainstreamness is more complicated.

Where the NFL's self-presentation is a brand-managed attempt to be For All Americans, college football reflects some narrow, localized and, mostly batshit regional American norms. This is a very good thing, for the most part: As I wrote earlier this season, at least college football comes by its particular if mostly-morally-fucked essence earnestly, and remains very much to its credit defiantly foreign, uncompromising, and weird. The strange part is that all of that college football stuff—inexplicable blood feuds enthusiastically explained in impenetrable dialect by some red-faced man who is shitfaced on liquor he made himself—is then presented to us by its sports media sellers as nothing more, or less, than The True Soul of American Sports. College football hands us a squirrel sandwich and insists it's apple pie from the same recipe Norman Rockwell's mother used. This is how we wind up with something like Saturday's SEC Championship Game, which is an orgy of crass bloat and khaki-clad excess to some, something much more important than the Super Bowl to a great many others, and objectively a good deal stranger a thing than we're supposed to notice. The Southeastern Conference—the bestriding colossus in college football, but the sort of colossus that is flipping double fuck-all-y'all birds and wearing a frat-casual tucked-in/bloused-out shirt—is a very big deal to the people to whom it's a very big deal. Which is the fundamental tautology at the heart of all sports, but also only true as far as it goes. In the Southeastern Conference, and in the other big-ticket college football conferences to an only slightly lesser extent, it goes a long way: Programs are funded by millions of tax dollars and private donations. The athletic department at the University of Alabama, last year's BCS Champion and the favorite in this year's SEC Championship, is a massive economy in its own right—one rich enough to pay puckered-soul coach Nick Saban over $5 million a year, in a state with a median annual income around $42,000—that is more or less independent from the school itself.

This is impressive, if also a little perverse on its face, and is replicated across the SEC. The result is a strange and feudal parallel universe and economy in which an astonishing percentage of the well-compensated men in charge are white, a great number of the uncompensated young people in their charge are not, and the frankly transactional nature of the whole thing—while clear enough to the notional student-athletes on the field—is wrapped in dozens of soggy layers of pomp and sentimentality for sale to the public. If it seems like the talk about tradition has gotten more overdetermined, overdramatic, and overtly manic in recent years—"Let's say Katrina never slams the Gulf Coast on the last days of August in 2005," Elizabeth Merrill writes in an issue of ESPN the Magazine from this month dedicated entirely to another SEC game, "Would [Eddie Lacy] be the starting running back at Alabama?"—it's probably because the contradictions themselves have grown along with everything else, which requires more corn syrup, gauze, and overstatement.

Ew.

This is, to be fair, not monolithic—SB Nation's college football coverage, for instance, is proof that it's possible to care about the amateur game without crying fat tears at the majesty of it all; college football's message board culture is proof that many fans care less about flag-waving pomp than they do about calling Auburn fans faggots. The joke at the heart of all this is that most SEC football—like most college football in general—is pretty terrible to watch. This is less true for lovers of overthrown passes and glowering-coach reaction shots than others, maybe, but close to inarguable on aesthetic grounds. Alabama, the defining SEC program, plays a grinding, grunty, impossible style of football—NFL-grade players near-flawlessly executing a game plan and still delivering an experience which is essentially a sinus headache that has somehow learned to miss field goals. Even for football fans, the average Alabama game is not much fun; it's difficult to imagine a football experience less likely to convince a football skeptic. The way Alabama plays when it's at its best is the way that all football must look to people who hate watching football.

For all the high-decibel insistence that it is somehow a representation of yeoman virtue and Some Essential American Truth, college football is basically, and finally, a weird thing that certain people in certain parts of the country like. That college football reflects that particular and peculiar set of predilections—in the same way that a lot of college basketball flatters a certain more city-fied set of preferences—is mostly to its credit, especially in contrast with the NFL's goofy-patriotic mass-production mayonnaise. That college football works for some people is a testament to enduring regional tastes, which have thankfully survived the broader homogenization of the sports-watching experience. That it's sold as some punt-intensive manifestation of Real America is mostly just hilarious, if not necessarily more hilarious than the idea of one, singular, Real America.

@David_J_Roth

Previously: Miami Blues

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