The second installment in my look back at the 2014 season. In this section I fly west to Seattle, visit one of the winningest Division 2 programs at a small town in Northern Missouri, watch 4 games in 24 hours in Texas, and tailgate with the Tuohy family (of Blind Side fame) at The Grove. Along the way, I further explore the ways in which money is impacting the college football experience and have my first real encounter with the terrifying reality of concussions.
In case you missed it, Saturday’s game between Stanford and Washington was a great one. Stanford outgained the Huskies by over 200 yards, but four Cardinal turnovers, including a fumble near the end of the first half that was returned for a touchdown, kept the game close. Every time it looked like Stanford was poised to take the lead, the Huskies came up with a big play. A 13-13 halftime score held up until midway through the fourth quarter when Washington’s failed fake punt led to the decisive Stanford score.
If you tuned in on television, you may have grumbled about the lack of scoring, but you were probably otherwise entertained. This was a classic college football game between two old school rivals – another great Saturday in the books.
The TV broadcast, however, likely hid a troubling reality: the stadium experience didn’t feel like college football at all, it felt like the minor leagues of the NFL. I’m sure Fox Sports 1 showed shots of screaming fans, chest-painted students, and dressed-up band members. They probably avoided shots of empty seats, corporate giveaways, or constant in-game advertisements.
When I visit games, I often focus on the positives. There are a lot of writers out there discussing the demise of college football – talking about how money and greed are transforming the sport. These writers have their place. You see the change everywhere – conference realignment, the addition of Thursday and Friday night games, the increased cost of tickets that are pricing long-time fans out. In part, I decided to go on my trip this fall because I feared the speed at which the game was changing. I was afraid that if I waited, I might miss the opportunity to see the raw spirit of the game before marketing departments seeking a profit turned tradition into a commodity. But my goal is not to unearth a scandal or lament about the golden ages of yesteryear. I’m trying to document a snapshot in time – what college football is like in 2014. Most of the time, it’s not hard to look past the corporate side of the game.
At some point in the first quarter, however, the business aspect became impossible to ignore. Every stoppage of play the booming voice of the PA announcer was describing some product I should be buying or event I should be attending. Advertisements ran throughout the game on two electronic displays that wrapped around the stadium. On key plays, I had to struggle to keep my attention on the field as ads for Boeing, McDonalds, Lexus, and others flashed on the screens. During one play, there were still camera crews filming some announcement on the ten-yard line when the play started. They ran off the field, hoping beyond hope that there wasn’t a turnover that caused play to shift their direction.