The Empty Bowl
State of the Union: College Football’s bowl season has lost some of its magic.
Today, I’ll be drinking to California.
The California Golden Bears take on the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the “Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl” in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Bears are 3.5 point dogs in the game that’ll close out the first Saturday slate of bowl season.
My grandfather who passed almost a decade ago now used to organize a pick’em pool for bowl season. I knew more than the average middle schooler about college football, but that’s not saying much and I was never really in competition—some of our relatives and friends are real sharks. Nevertheless, I looked forward to making my picks every year (and my mom always forked over the $20 entry fee for the both of us). I’d scribble down my picks for the Holiday Bowl, the Alamo Bowl, and, of course, I’d always pick the PAC10 in the Rose Bowl.
This year, I’ve decided to restart the tradition this year with some friends, but some of the magic is gone. Of course, I miss my grandfather, but it’s not that. It is college football itself. Not all that long ago, college programs actually developed their players. Fans supported them throughout that process. Teams were actually teams, each formed by their unique campus life and regional culture. Their style of play reflected that—beyond scheme or system.
The old era is ending thanks to the marketization of college football.
College football has always been the most conservative-coded sport in America. The fans, especially the current student bodies and recent alumni, might not always realize it, but it’s true—it is also why their participation comes so naturally. Tradition, pageantry, community, duty, hierarchy, honor, victory—these are the virtues of college football. But the market doesn’t take these virtues into account, and college football fans are feeling it. Many on the right either didn’t realize or chose to ignore that fact.
What is happening to college football now, and the right’s response to it, parallels what has already happened all across America. Many who embraced market über alles thinking forgot a central tenet of the economic ideology they espoused: there is always a trade off. Sometimes those tradeoffs aren’t purely economic. Cheaper prices at the Walmart doesn’t just cause Main Street stores to close, Walmart winds up replacing Main Street as the center of community life. When the unrestrained market takes over, it completely takes over. And it has completely taken over college football. Naturally conservative college football fans are realizing something has gone awry.
As a youngster, I don’t remember picking a winner for the Roofclaim.com Boca Raton Bowl, the Pop-Tarts Bowl, or the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. There were not nearly as many players opting out in anticipation of an NFL rookie contract as there are today. Others are opting out not because they’re going pro but because they’re entering the transfer portal. Centralization is occurring around a few major conferences; the PAC-12 will be no more.
But, today, they’re having a little party down in Shreveport. I’ll watch the Golden Bears, or those who have decided to play, suit up with PAC-12 patches on their uniforms for the last time. And, as the song goes, when the game is over, we will buy a keg of booze, and drink to California ’till we wobble in our shoes.