In a year defined by uncertainty and incongruity, the top three teams in the preseason Associated Press poll all wound up making the College Football Playoff: Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. The surprise was Notre Dame, which rose from No. 10 in perception to the fourth and final seed. That’s pretty standard for college football, and in a weird way, it’s refreshing to witness a norm that the coronavirus did not ruin. But if you think of the pandemic as an unflattering mirror that has a habit of exposing societal inequity, it’s hard to look beyond the conclusion that programs suffered through thousands of virus cases and did their best to manage chaos just so the superpowers could remind us of what we already know one more time.
It feels like college football’s version of watching billionaires multiply their net worth while others are left to worry about stimulus checks and emergency rent assistance. For the majority, this season has been an aimless endeavor. For a few, it has been an opportunity to swell in supremacy.
“Hey!” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney exclaimed Sunday, beaming during an ESPN interview. “Hey! Isn’t this great? It’s awesome.”
Swinney referenced the Tigers’ customary playoff celebration of devouring pizza. He talked about enjoying Krispy Kreme doughnuts. He was the Dabo we have come to expect: happy, folksy, back in the show. Then he tried to inject some perspective.
“There’s a lot of people out there hurting,” Swinney said. “And I know that football brings joy to a lot of people.”
Swinney is a brilliant coach. He is fairly high on the list of people I would love to talk to over beer or pizza or both. But it wouldn’t be all light conversation, because the man has some limited, even cringeworthy, takes on life beyond the fun and competitiveness of football.
During this time of racial tension, he blew numerous opportunities to prove he understands and appreciates the very Black players who have made his career. His pandemic opinions have been just as bad. They’re not Mike Gundy bad, but he still can’t see beyond the game, whether he’s ripping Florida State for using the coronavirus as an “excuse” not to play his team or needling Ohio State for making the playoffs with only a six-game sample size.
Swinney is not on an island with his views. He is just one of the few coaches honest enough and confident enough in his down-home delivery to say these things out loud. His candor provides a kinder entrance into what a good number — a troubling number — of these coaches have proved about themselves in 2020: They are often considered teachers, but they have little to offer if it doesn’t involve attempting to compel people to do things their way, no matter the cost.
There is no great honor or value in playing more games through a raging pandemic. There is no disgrace in failing to do so. There is only the effort to make the best of a terrible situation. I have questioned many of these efforts, and, yes, I’ll admit to veering into sanctimonious territory at times. But in general, I don’t think about the issue of whether to play entirely as a right-or-wrong proposition. It’s more a question of logical or illogical, of considerate or selfish.
In the con of major college football, the “why” of this season cannot be denied: A sport that fiercely protects its amateur status needed to play survival ball and get through something resembling a season for the same reason the NFL or other professional leagues are playing. It needed that television money badly. It makes college football — and college basketball, for that matter — more of a business than it has ever admitted.
It’s fine for businesses to try to salvage as much revenue as they can. But do so with honest motives. And during this struggle, look at the image in the pandemic mirror, consider the inequity of profiting off these amateur athletes and develop some urgency about re-creating the model before some unwanted force shatters it.
Schools have done well in lauding their players for their determination and resiliency. But they have been duplicitous in using their desire to play as reason to be reckless in blind pursuit of finality.
Did college football programs overcome adversity? Yes.
Did they accomplish this by ignorantly circumventing the severity of the adversity? Sadly, the answer is also yes.
In an epic rant last week, Mississippi State Coach Mike Leach called the season “joyless.” He finished 3-7 in his first year in Starkville. In every way, he’s the anti-Swinney. While some of his remarks carried the tone of complaining about not being in control, Leach was closer to the truth about the experience of fighting through this mayhem.
“And anytime you get committees involved in something, it’s going to be convoluted, twisted up,” Leach said. “And the politicians are trying to beat their chests and maximize on this at every step. And in the end, together with all the commotion and clutter, we’ve created one of the most joyless seasons on earth. And hopefully we have the presence of mind not to repeat it this way again.”
It was a joyless, empty year. It was a year in which some of the sport’s biggest rivalry games had to be canceled, including Ohio State vs. Michigan. It was a year in which Oregon, technically the second-place team in the Pac-12 North division, ended up winning the conference championship game because of the coronavirus’s havoc. It was a year in which Nebraska, among the most stubborn and irritating play-through-it schools, decided not to pursue a bowl game, finally bowing to the virus.
But for Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame, there is joy. For the SEC and ACC, adamant about not delaying the season too much, there is joy in dominating the playoff field. For the Big Ten, wishy-washy but blessed with the Buckeyes, there is joy in maintaining its place. And those College Football Playoff checks will clear for the schools and conferences. And while the season was a disaster, the system remained intact. An undefeated Cincinnati team led the non-Power Five schools that gave it a good challenge, but it remained intact.
The truest and most depressing fact is that, deep down, that’s all the sport really wanted out of this difficult time. The churn continues. With so many marquee teams and great players in the playoff, the most exclusive tournament in sports will provide enough entertainment for some to declare it was worth it.
The games will go on. So will The Game. For some callous reason, that’s supposed to make the collateral damage seem understandable.