It’s the dawn of the 2017 Ole Miss Rebels’ football season. This is the least enthused I’ve been about an Ole Miss football season since I matriculated in the fall of 2004.
I can’t say that this so is because of the time and distance that separates me from Ole Miss, because I became a much more devout football fan after graduation. Nor can I say that this is the case because of some sort of not-so-positive outlook on the Rebels’ season because this team might actually be good, and will almost definitely be interesting.
And this newfound “meh” towards the game isn’t exclusive to Ole Miss. While the rest of the college football-loving world was tuned to Indiana’s plucky attempt to dethrone Ohio State on Thursday night, I was at a movie and didn’t feel like I was missing anything. Friday night I watched, I dunno, maybe three drives of Wisconsin vs. Utah State at some point. And that’s it. College football has been here for a week now, and I’ve watched but a few minutes of it.
So what the hell is my deal? The simple answer is that I cannot heed Jason Kirk’s first piece of advice on how to better enjoy college football.
The first part is to make whatever kind of peace you can with the sport’s endless list of problems.
That’s the struggle.
Football has a shitload of problems. It’s dangerous and violent, and its effects on the brain are felt long after the athlete hangs up his cleats for good. It is overwrought with rules and regulations, the details of which change every season for flimsy or vague reasons (folks, it’s no wonder lawyers really like football, am I right?!). Advertisers and broadcasters have rendered much of the sport unwatchable due to bizarre kickoff times and a game punctuated by excruciatingly long commercial breaks. The fan culture of the sport is simultaneously charming in its idiosyncrasies as it is bothersome and embarrassing.
And, in college, the players don’t get paid.
This point is particularly salient for Ole Miss fans, as the last couple of years have been particularly draining on us. The Rebels’ football program has, for nearly five years now, been under intense scrutiny for what ultimately amounts to minor fringe benefits. And if you want to tack on what is yet unproven vis-a-vis Ole Miss’ recruitment of Leo Lewis, you’re still left with the task of justifying a program-crippling investigation into transactions that are still way, way less than what these players would make collecting a salary in a more just universe.
Of course, Ole Miss is not exactly a victim here, but neither is the NCAA, nor those who carry water for them a league of heroes. You can simultaneously say that Ole Miss boosters and coaches, in knowing the rules and regulations to which they have agreed, should rightfully be investigated and punished accordingly, while believing that Ole Miss has been disproportionately scrutinized by the league, sports media, and the entire sport’s zeitgeist.
Even if you do not believe any of that to be true — and you are 100 percent correct to reserve your right to be skeptical and circumspect here — the seeming endlessness of it, and its serving as a gargantuan distraction from actual football is enough to be draining on any Ole Miss fan. That distraction is the result of institutions and their interests, people and their biases, and the decisions rendered by both. These people and institutions, including us as oh-so-very-biased Ole Miss fans, all exist in a context.
Hugh Freeze, Matt Luke, Laremy Tunsil, whoever deliberately attempted to sabotage Laremy Tunsil, Steve Robertson, Steve Robertson’s bad book, NCAA investigators, Lindsey Miller, Ross Bjork, institutional controls and lacks thereof, Dan Wolken, Egg Bowl Twitter, bullshit sanctimony, exemplary cooperation, faux-gentility Grove behavior, bagmen, the notion of there being a “right way” any and all of this — it all exists in a context.
That context is one where the strenuous and dangerous labor of football is not compensated in a way that neither conveys the unique difficulty of the labor nor the vast profits it yields. That context is one where this notion of amateurism is rendered sacrosanct by some totally bogus notion of the virtues of “student athletes.” That context is one where the players are shamed into attempting to capitalize on their work and fame, and accused of greed or laziness or — gasp — being thankless for the compensation of a college education. That context is one that is completely unnecessary and unparalleled by any other major sports league anywhere in the world.
Tonight, I’ll head to a bar just a few miles southeast of my home in DC. I’ll meet up with other Ole Miss alumni living in the Beltway. We will drink beer and watch Ole Miss football together. We’ll say things like “man the ball just jumps out of Shea Patterson’s hands, huh,” and “wow that referee is a dumb piece of shit, huh?” It will be fun! And I’ll feel like a total hypocrite for doing all of that while having just written this. Hey, I never said I was a hero here; I just want something better for the schools, the fans, and — absolutely most importantly — the players. They are ultimately what make this sport the fun it is, and even if they’re getting the rawest of deals, the least I can do is support them and their exploits while yelling into the void that they deserve something much better than this.