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Original Issue



WE ARE in some sort of unstable period of time right now. Nothing seems solid. Nothing seems permanent. The tectonic plates of our institutions—all our institutions—seem to be grinding loose, and all the questions begin, "How can you still... ?" How can you still ... believe in politics, go to that church, or trust your money to that bank? As author Chris Hayes put it in his book, The Twilight of the Elites:

"We can never be sure just which other business cards are in the pocket of the pundit, politician, or professor. We can't be sure, in short, just who our elites are working for. But we suspect it is not us."

In sports, all those questions now center on football. How can you still watch football knowing what it does to the human body, which it destroys as inevitably as boxing ever did? How can you still watch football knowing that it kills the people for whom you cheer slowly and inexorably over time? How can you still watch football when players are a) denied the right to engage in dignified, peaceful protest, or b) allowed to show such callous disrespect for the flag. How can you still? How?

The questions sharpen themselves differently when it comes to the college game. In many ways it's harder to justify because there are so many ancillary questions for which there are no good answers. Taken academically (you should pardon the expression), institutions of higher learning should not also be vehicles for mass entertainment. If you were starting everything from scratch, the whole idea would be ludicrous.

But we are not starting from scratch. Major athletic spectacle is so deeply entwined within our colleges and universities that, in true parasitic fashion, anything that damages them damages the host institution too. Let us look just at The Ohio State University and the tawdry farce surrounding its still-formidable football team. An investigation into Coach Urban Meyer's conduct in the face of domestic-violence allegations leveled against one of his assistants concluded that Meyer had lied to practically everyone in Ohio about that conduct. That wasn't enough to cost Meyer any more than a three-game suspension, and the report of the investigation dealt with Meyer's deceit in a blizzard of lawyer-speak that would have embarrassed any mob mouthpiece who ever lived:

"We cannot logically square Coach Meyer's responses on Big Ten Media Days broadly denying knowledge of the 2015 events regarding Zach Smith with his extensive knowledge of those events in 2015 and the evident knowledge of AD Gene Smith of the 2015 events reflected in the group text message of July 23 and July 24, 2018 sent to Coach Meyer ... We also learned during the investigation that Coach Meyer has sometimes had significant memory issues in other situations where he had prior extensive knowledge of events. He has also periodically taken medicine that can negatively impair his memory, concentration, and focus. All of these factors also need to be considered and weighed in assessing Coach Meyer's mindset on July 24."

Give them credit. That's only a few feet from actual English.

So that is now the question—how can you still watch, let alone enjoy, a sport in which a largely unpaid labor force risks life and limb under the thumb of petty tyrants like DJ Durkin at Maryland and ruthless tyrants like Durkin's mentor, Urban Meyer. More and more, any answers involving the metaphor of sausage being made sound weak and unconvincing. There's too much obvious evidence piling up that something rank and dangerous has been ground up in the tailgate bratwurst.

So, how? How can you? How can you still?

The simple answer is that I don't know. Whatever is compelling about this display of American excess, hosted all over the country, every Saturday, by institutions where people study Plato, advanced hydrodynamics and quantum physics, by institutions where people are studying the beginning of time and the origins of matter, still maintains a powerful grip on the people in its grasp. The ancient Greeks believed in a healthy mixture of intellectual questing and physical pursuits. The Romans gave us mens sana in corpore sano. But even they couldn't have dreamed of what we have in this country, once a week, for seven months out of the year. Or bowl games. I don't think they could've anticipated bowl games either.

I started in the old wooden bowl of Fitton Field on the campus of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. The Crusaders still played a decent schedule then; Syracuse came in every couple of years to stomp them, and Penn State did as well. My father (class of 1934) saw Jim Brown play at Fitton Field. I saw Floyd Little and Larry Csonka. We would take our seats in the corner of the wooden grandstand on the home side, and I would bury myself in the program. What I remember most is the smell of cigars in the clear, open air. Proust had his pastry. I have the aroma of White Owl. For a long while, we passed on the season-ending rivalry game against Boston College because the tickets were $5, which was a ridiculously high price for a football game.

(HC-BC was a big deal way back in the day. The two schools regularly filled Braves Field and Fenway Park in Boston. In 1942, Holy Cross scored its biggest upset, beating an undefeated BC team 55--12, causing the BC fans to cancel a scheduled victory party at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston. The club caught fire, and 492 people died. My father's brother, a newly ordained Jesuit, was called to the makeshift morgue to give last rites. Every year when the BC game rolled around, people would talk about that night, 20 or 30 years later.) After the game, we would drive home and I would watch games from exotic locales—Norman, Okla.; and Lincoln, Neb.; Ann Arbor or East Lansing, Mich. It always seemed to be snowing during those games and the grand pageant of it seemed like something from another, alien culture.

That is how it started for me, and now, even now that I've been to Norman and to Lincoln and to Ann Arbor and to East Lansing, there is a deep romantic chord that rings in me every fall. It is inexplicable to me, but it's there. Now, though, there's a counterpoint, growing louder every year.

How? How can you? How can you still? Damned if I know.