Bernstein: I Guess I Won't Really Miss College Football

The exploitation of athletes and ugly headlines can take a toll on you.

Dan Bernstein
August 10, 2020 - 3:52 pm

(670 The Score) At the time I write this, it looks like we're watching major college football begin a slow-motion shutdown for 2020. The MAC has banged the season, the Big Ten has reportedly voted in favor of doing so and the Pac-12 is said to be next to follow. The three remaining Power 5 conferences will likely drag their feet until their respective lawyers explain potential liability, and then they will make a similarly prudent decision to limit their exposure.

And the more I think about it, the more I realize how negligible the effect of that will be on me as a sports fan.

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This sport is a particularly cultural and geographical one, either handed down generationally  -- the old "My daddy loved 'em, his daddy loved 'em" responsibility to not break the chain -- or as a product of what's in the surrounding tribal waters that leaches into one's identity. The major league pro sports deserts are now fewer and further between due to expansion, but their history still explains many an emotional connection to Dear Old U.

College football was on in my childhood home all the time, especially the Cornhuskers from my father's home state. His parents, aunt and uncle and other relatives were indeed rather prominent boosters in Omaha, classic "friends of the program" in the heyday of Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne.  My parents never had reason to mention their own alma mater's football history, at least not until Ed Marinaro popped up as officer Joe Coffey on "Hill Street Blues."

So my first ever college game was taken in at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, but that was long after I had imprinted on Walter Payton and the Bears, with our regular fall Sunday being the family trek downtown to watch.

It was fun with all the red sweatshirts and tailgating, but it wasn't the NFL. Decorations on the bedroom walls in those days were more likely to be clipped newspaper photos of Doug Plank or Dan Hampton than they were Jarvis Redwine.

And when it was time to decide on a school for myself, it happened to be one that was at the time developing into something of a basketball success. Steve Spurrier's progressive offensive thinking made for a successful and entertaining gridiron product, but not many of us had our hearts in any of the outcomes, as evinced by less-than-capacity crowds even for two winning seasons.

Nothing ever really caught me forcefully enough to earn a piece of emotional investment on Saturdays, but it hasn't ever kept me from often enjoying and appreciating exciting games or outstanding individual play, especially relative to future projection for the NFL. I've been proud to be a Heisman Trophy voter in large part because of the freedom to assess my annual ballot dispassionately, unburdened by youthful bias or any other deep-rooted regional politics. LSU, Washington State, Wisconsin or Florida all mean the same to me in that regard, allowing for a clear-eyed opinion.

I've also realized over time spent covering college football two aspects that have continued to keep me at arm's length.

First is the inherent lie that underpins the entire enterprise, the one that's being exposed starkly by the COVID-19 pandemic in a way that makes it obvious even to the willfully ignorant -- this is minor league professional football that uses free labor to make millions of dollars for everyone but the players. It's a grossly overgrown boondoggle that has allowed coaches and administrators to amass the outsized power of emperors while keeping players disenfranchised. It demands intellectual contortions to justify enjoying it, and that's even before the truth of the game's physical dangers is considered.

Staying with the NFL is hard enough with what we know about brain damage and other bodily harm borne by players, but that's mitigated some by the fact that they're well-compensated and represented by a union that bargains for them collectively. It's still fundamentally inhumane to take pleasure from it, but it's not as clearly exploitative and queasily racist as the NCAA's business model.

What's more is that so much of the major news around college football seems to involve things that are genuinely awful. Rampant child rape over decades under Joe Paterno at Penn State, the entirely avoidable on-field death of a student videographer at Notre Dame, years of rape and violence facilitated at Baylor by Art Briles, Maryland's culpability in a player dying at practice, two separate inquests confirming endemic racial mistreatment at Iowa, a psychopathic Ohio State assistant kept close despite multiple violent incidents and so many other individual cases of sexual assault and other violent crimes as to blend sadly together.

The ensuing response wave from each of these stories only provides further evidence of toxicity, with the anonymity of social media catalyzing the most repulsive voices and fostering a hive mentality of defensiveness and retaliation. The reactions are from people whose own selves have been twisted grotesquely by college football fandom, so much so that they have cashed in some of their humanity.​ It's always reptile venom, sprayed toward any eyes perceived to be looking askance.

Some time away might be a good thing, in fact.

I would really have missed baseball, the leisurely soundtrack of summer and fall evenings. The NBA's squeaking sneakers mean dramatic playoff series loom, and postseason NHL hockey is locked and loaded. While the NFL's return remains daunting, its planning and resources have to this point given enough reason for optimism that I still may have my needed three-hour weekly therapy session of primal screaming.

It may even be on a Saturday, now.

Dan Bernstein is the host of the Dan Bernstein Show on middays from 9 a.m. until noon on 670 The Score. You can follow him on Twitter @Dan_Bernstein.