Let’s talk about college football, specifically, my team, the University of Tennessee Volunteers.
Now, I don’t normally wade in to such contentious debates, as I typically try to stick to less alienating topics like politics, religion, and millennials' penchant for daring to brunch as hard as they can in a flaming hell-scape of college debt created by cantankerous boomers with pensions, Facebook accounts they don’t know how to use, and state-funded healthcare.
However, yesterday, after recently putting the final touches on the worst season of Tennessee football in 121 years, the favored football team and alma mater of at least three generations of my extended family attempted to replace a middling offensive-minded coach with a middling defensive-minded coach.
This isn’t particularly newsworthy for everyone who isn’t “your friend’s dad” desperate to talk to you about 4-3 defensive fronts, and the importance of changing the blade height on your mower between uses.
What is newsworthy is that said middling defensive-minded coach was a defensive assistant for 5 years under Jerry Sandusky at Penn State. Yes, THAT Jerry Sandusky. Also, said middling defensive-minded coach was named as someone who “witnessed” the actions of Sandusky roughly 10 years before he was finally exposed (according to an unsealed court deposition reported on by the Washington Post in July of 2016).
Naturally, the middling defensive-minded coach denies ever knowing about the ongoing child sexual abuse of his boss that regularly took place in a complex where he worked 20 hour days for 5 years. I suppose that’s just the kind of laser-like focus we should all be looking for in the next person the state of Tennessee is willing to pay roughly 4 million dollars a year to convince adolescents that CTE is just a fad.
All of this is just the buildup to a much more interesting story about how 16 to 66-year-olds not only found out that their ancestral sports patronus was attempting to hire the aforementioned middling defensive-minded coach with baggage, but that they were supposed to “be grateful” that he was “willing” to come coach their football team for roughly 20 million dollars over 5 years. So they googled, and became incensed, and then righteously indignant, and then took to Twitter, and Facebook, and message boards, and eventually to the parking lot outside the Tennessee football complex, and even to historic pieces of granite that have graced the campus for decades in an effort to express their fundamental displeasure in hiring this particular middling defensive-minded coach.
Regardless of the fanbase’s motivations for self-immolating at the news of Greg Schiano being named as the next Tennessee football coach, they did. And, for maybe the first time in college football history, a cabal of aloof, wealthy white people who run things for the rest of us plebeians paying 100 dollars for the pleasure of sitting inside wet plastic bags during a monsoon while our team loses by 3 touchdowns, relented.
Immediately, pundits representing the interests of the college football industrial complex came to the defense of a middling defensive-minded coach possessing sterling character references from Urban Meyer, Bill Belicheck, Joe Paterno’s son, and (I'm assuming) Jerry Sandusky. College football's best and brightest minds spent the afternoon excoriating an angry fanbase for their delusional “mob-like” behavior; demanding their order, calm, and quaking gratitude at the mere mention of Greg Schiano’s bowl-record at Rutgers.
"Let them eat cake!”
-Kirk Hebstreit (paraphrased)
Tennessee fans were called stupid, backwards, out-of-control, completely off-base, and “just mad that they couldn’t secure a better coach,” because why shouldn’t they be happy with a no-nonsense, definitely not paying attention to historic amounts of abuse occurring in the showers down the hall kind of coach? If he can finally give us a less-porous run defense, and a bit of whatever the inchoate word “toughness” means to men who wear ties on the weekend and talk about mascots and Chevy trucks for a living, then it’s all worth it, right?
“What good will it be to gain a top-5 run defense and high QBR, but forfeit your soul?”
-Jesus (calling in to "John & Jimmy in the Morning")
I’m a pastor, so I know religion when I see it, and smell it, and tithe $8.00 for a tolerable hot-dog in its honor. The hardest thing about life in 2017 is coming to grips with the fact that just because we believe, and pray to, and hope in the best self of an institution, game, person, or deity doesn’t mean that the minute we look away, that institution (or game or person or deity) won't sacrifice anything and anyone on the altar of its own survival.
If you disagree, I encourage you to open your web browser.
One thing all of these recognizable college football personalities were right about is that college football at Tennessee is broken. Not because we haven’t been able to field a functioning offensive line in over 4 years, but because we were so desperate to remedy our perceived football weaknesses that we offered to pay Greg Schiano 4 million dollars a year because he knows how to coach defensive backs and ignore everything else going on around him (including 45 counts of child sexual abuse occurring over decades, and allegedly covered up by the only saint college football ever prayed to, Joe Paterno).
Perhaps, I should’ve simply said that when the highest paid state employee in almost every state south of the Mason-Dixon line is a white dude with bad knees in a visor, whose entire worth is based upon his ability to convince (predominately) African-American adolescents to sacrifice mind, body, and spirit (for free) on the altar of his $4 million dollar contract and the displaced hopes of all of us screaming from the (not-so) cheap seats, college football is horrifyingly broken, and impure, and delusional, and out-of-control, and mob-like.
We’ve all got blood on our hands.
Football's outsized place in the hearts, and lives, and wallets of so many of us willingly enduring televised small talk between men with too many hits to the head before noon on the weekends (not to mention the endless scandals accompanying our favorite players and coaches) is laying waste to all of us. The minute we begin to realize the power we have in putting an end to the vice-grip these institutions, games, and people (desperate for our free time and demographic information) have on the “purity” of a game my great-grandparents used to watch without interruption from advertisements for erection medication, all bets are off.
Sometimes fan-based self-immolation and mattress fires are short-sighted and pointless, signifying nothing more than the petulant rants of “your friend’s dad” mad at someone he’s never known for doing something he never could in a game he paid too much to watch. Occasionally, however, the fires have a way of catching and spreading to things and places we didn’t quite expect.
At the end of the day it won’t much matter that Tennessee will probably win more than 4 games next year, or might even return to the SEC Championship Game (sponsored by Dr. Pepper) in the distant future, or that her fans might one day cheer on the reincarnation of Peyton Manning in a stadium whose renovation price-tag could more than defray the cost of adequate healthcare for every child in our state, if we willingly forfeited the last remaining shreds of our individual and collective dignity on the altar of a middling defensive-minded coach.
Tennessee fans might be wrong, and petulant, and foolish, and motivated by the wrong reasons, or, they might finally, in their own imperfect and earnestly enraged way, be right about something. Even if it’s the former, wouldn’t the latter do a world of good for a broken system filled with broken bodies and broken souls?
College football needs Tennessee fans to be right about their rage.
So, let’s believe they are, and let’s believe that our collective rage at what has become of all of us, in the service of ancestral deities drunk on power and TV deals, can finally set fire to the rest of what needs burning.
*photo courtesy of Deadspin