I may be the last person who should write a preview of the first ever “College Football Playoff National Championship,” as it is officially called, coming up Monday, January 12. I never played the game, I rarely go to games, and don’t even watch the sport that much on television anymore.
But maybe I shouldn’t be so reticent. I found myself gravitating to the inaugural edition of the college football championship playoffs on New Year’s Day, and I began to wonder if a sportswriter was necessarily the best person to cover the games or to preview the big game at AT&T Stadium in Texas next week. An editor could be pardoned if he turned the assignment over to some of the other beat reporters:
The religion writer. Why not? People tuning into the first of the two college semifinal games, Florida State against Oregon, and watching the video and photo montage that introduced the game on ESPN, might have thought they were witnessing a religious revival rather than a football game:
What places stir us? What sights stun us? What moments move us? It’s why we watch and who we tell, and what we might hope to come true.
A miracle at its core is a violation of the rules of experience and the laws of nature. If faith is belief in things unseen, sports is the marvel of what we can see. So we watch — not for the fact of what happens — but for the magic of what might.
We watch for the urgency of how and the prayer of what’s next. We watch for the wishing more than the knowing and the belief beyond proof.
My jaw dropped and I damn near fell to my knees as I heard this solemn consecration. I always thought a “miraculous” play was something that just happened for some extraordinary player who was in an extraordinary position at an extraordinary time and, yes, also happened to be extraordinarily lucky.
Listening to this ESPN homily, I thought back to the Redeemer Lutheran Church in Vineland, NJ, on Christmas Eve, when I improbably found myself in church because my two boys were performing in a brass quartet and needed a ride back to Princeton. Improbable or not, I listened to the minister’s sermon, which maintained that God chose to present himself to mankind not as some bellowing, flame-throwing creature from above but rather as a helpless infant. That babe in the manger, the minister suggested, should make us think of the down-and-out people living among us at that very moment, even in bucolic little Vineland.
Judging from the ESPN video, the marvel (if not an actual miracle) of college football is still the work of muscular gladiators in helmets. Hallelujah.
The police reporter. Before the Florida State-Oregon game was over, one of the announcers appeared to offer an excuse for the relatively poor performance of the Florida State Seminoles quarterback, Jameis Winston. “He’s had a lot of off-field distractions,” the announcer stated.
Off field distractions? Sports fans must hate that: An athlete encumbered by some uncaring professor, demanding that the player’s term paper be handed in on time, bowl game be damned.
That, of course, was not the distraction that the announcer was talking about on New Year’s Day. More likely it was any one of the stories following the Heisman Trophy quarterback around: December, 2012, an accusation that Winston raped a woman at his off-campus apartment; July, 2013, an accusation that Winston helped himself to soda at a Burger King in Tallahassee and walked out without paying for it; April, 2014, an accusation of stealing $32.72 worth of crab legs from a Tallahassee supermarket; September, 2014, observed by several students screaming a sexually charged phrase; and October, 2014, an investigation by Florida State’s compliance department into whether the young star, who just turned 21 on January 6, accepted money in exchange for autographs.
But football is a team sport, and Winston didn’t grab all the headlines. The New York Times investigated the conduct of Florida State players in a lengthy story on October 12, 2014. “Last year the deeply flawed handling of a rape allegation against the quarterback Jameis Winston drew attention to institutional failures by law enforcement and Florida State officials. . .
“Now, an examination of police and court records, along with interviews with crime witnesses, has found that, far from an aberration, the treatment of the Winston complaint was in keeping with the way the police on numerous occasions have soft-pedaled allegations of wrongdoing by Seminoles football players. From criminal mischief and motor-vehicle theft to domestic violence, arrests have been avoided, investigations have stalled and players have escaped serious consequences.”
But, as the Times also noted, “Florida State football players have not always sidestepped prosecution. Over the last three years, at least nine players have been arrested on charges ranging from sexual assault to being an accessory to a fatal shooting.” You win some, you lose some.
Business reporter. God may or may not be on your side, your favorite player may or may not be a bad sport (or a common criminal), but that still leaves another part of the college football story untold: Who is making money off this unprecedented spectacle?
Some of us remember when bowl games used to be named after fruits and flowers. If that were still the case you would need a botany textbook to come up with enough names to go around. Happily for all these money-hungry college football programs, there are plenty of commercial sponsors to lend their names to the games:
Bitcoin had its bowl, as did Belk, a Charlotte, NC-based department store chain. Rutgers made it into the Quick Lane Bowl — named after the chain of tire and auto centers. Trivia fans may know that the Gator Bowl was the first college bowl game televised nationally. But only die-hard college football fans would know that it is now the TaxSlayer Bowl. And add some Idaho potatoes to this commercial stew: It’s the “Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.”
Don’t forget the Duck Commander Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana. That’s right, those bushy beards of the Robertson clan have parlayed their Duck Dynasty cable television show into a bowl game. Check out the duckcommander.com website and scroll through the section called “products we use.”
And the new playoff system is already yielding a big return for ESPN, which is in the first year of a 12-year, $7.3 billion deal to televise the playoff games. The sports business writers are already predicting that the current system of four teams vying for the final spot could soon give way to eight teams and an additional round of games. The big question: Will the “College Football Playoff National Championship” eventually exceed the Super Bowl in prominence?
A sportswriter. Let’s not forget those scribes toiling away in the press box and asking all those inane questions.
Right now the sportswriters are reporting that Oregon is favored by seven points over Ohio State. But this old and tired writer (who hasn’t covered a football game since 1973) will offer his own prediction. Ohio State (led by third string quarterback Cardale Jones, who seemed to grow up before our eyes in the Alabama game on New Year’s Day) will upset Oregon, 35-31.