If football were canceled, would America go insane?

JON RAPPOPORT–College football is a frenzy of student fans and local supporters, who in some cases extend to a whole state (e.g., Alabama).

The players are heavily recruited, and most of them hardly qualify as “student-athletes.” They’re at the school to play football and they hope to enter the NFL, where the money is.

The players make extraordinary amounts of $$ for the colleges, but none for themselves (excluding under the table cash and gifts).

The illusion is: the players are part of the college or university.

They’re not. They’re budding professionals who, because of the rules, aren’t paid salaries or bonuses.

But the fans think of them as “their own.”

“The players on my team are mine. They’re my school.”

No. Not really.

But no one cares. Through a combination of idol worship and “school spirit,” the illusion holds.

And holding that symbol in the mind is everything.

A loss on a Saturday afternoon is like a rebuke from a priest who supposedly holds the keys to the gates of heaven.

And what about school spirit? What does that actually mean?

If a student is there to learn, does he automatically develop pride in his college? How does that follow?

There are, in fact, a whole series of illusions that pile up. Some students, after graduation, donate money to their alma mater. For years on end. They become boosters. They join alumni associations. They come back for football games and wear school colors.

The football players come and go. They are the college’s hired guns, on zero salary.

Consider the situation at U Cal Berkeley. Recent insane politics aside, the school had to renovate its football stadium, because the State Regents determined it was “seismically unsafe.” It sits on an earthquake fault. The project blossomed out to a 300-400 million-dollar effort, depending on whose estimate you believe.

The chief minds at Berkeley asserted that a major football program was essential to corralling future donations and philanthropy. The University’s overall budget wouldn’t be met without those donations.

Now, with the new stadium, college officials are trying to figure out how to pay off the long-term debt. Lawyers, financial wizards, and faculty argue about that. “Our plan is foolproof.” “Our plan is a hideous unworkable mess.”

Must have football, though, come hell or high water.

That’s called a bind.

If securing philanthropic gifts to the University depends on maintaining a high-profile football program, it’s a testimony to the mental status of the donor alumni. What did they really learn while they were there as students?

Were the illusions of team, spirit, hired hands (the players), wins and losses on the field their main takeaways from four years of education?

As the NFL kneeling story expands, some teams’ fans, enraged, are burning their jerseys. Their identification with “team” was total, and so the downside is bitter. The players wouldn’t stand for the National Anthem and the flag. Betrayal. The team was supposed to be patriotic. But they aren’t.

Lack of patriotism cancels out total undying fan loyalty.

How shallow are those ideals?

Many of those enraged fans have been paying tax dollars that helped build the stadiums their holy teams are playing in. That’s an acceptable trade-off?

What would happen if, magically, football in America disappeared overnight? Would the whole country go stark raving mad?

Is identifying with a team that powerful?

“My life and sanity depend on having a team to root for. If you take that away from me, I’m lost. I have nothing left.”

What’s wrong with having heroes to look up to? Well, the whole idea of having a hero is: inspiration for the individual, so he, like his hero, can dream his own dreams and rise up and strive to achieve something great in his own life. If it turns out the inspiration isn’t there, and the striving isn’t there, and hero worship is the entire story, now and forever, then illusion is king.

There are football illusions and political-leader illusions and religious illusions and romantic illusions. They all share the same element: “I give you everything and I have nothing.”

“The power I give to you could be my own, but it isn’t. I surrender it. I invest it all in you. I wouldn’t know how to use it myself.”

On the great gridiron, the teams march up and down, the heroes execute dazzling plays, they kneel for the Anthem or they stand up and salute, they protest or they don’t protest, and whatever they do triggers automatic reactions in the fervid parishioners in the stands and at home. And the meaning of this Pavlovian exchange is meaningful and profound.

Or so we’re told.

Alabama won this week. The Dallas Cowboys won. I’m inside the pearly gates. I’m walking on clouds. But next week, we will once again “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor,” in the hope we will succeed.

We pray for that success.

THIS is what we kneel for.


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