I sometimes refer to it as the double curse – a progressive-minded individual with a love for college football. It seems I’m always swimming against the mainstream and cheering for an underdog. Being a progressive in today’s political environment (dominated by those who preach intolerance, hatred, war, and a self-centered approach to much of life) is hard. So too is hanging on to the ideals of a game you loved as a child amidst discussions about paid athletes, concussions, and multi-million dollar TV contracts. Despite all of that, I hold out hope for a return to progressive ideals for our country, and a reshaping of the college football game back to its origins (which coincidentally, both share roots to the wave of immigration at the turn of the last century).
I have often maintained that sports imitate life. How much difference is there really between a Donald Trump and former Los Angeles Clipper owner Donald Sterling? The win-at-all-costs philosophy that now saturates all of sports — from youth to pros — is not that far off from the Wall Street greed that permeates our entire culture.
So, I find it interesting at this time of year when I listen to the college football talking heads as we move closer to the College Football Playoff Selection Committee’s (which this year includes 11 men, and a woman named Condoleezza Rice) final decision on which teams advance to this year’s version of “Who’s In?”
Let’s set aside for the moment the many other valid discussions regarding the status of college athletics. I want to focus on just one topic that again dominates radio and TV this time of year as it pertains to college football. It’s the non-stop conversation – whether it’s from fan bases or talking heads – that tries to create a ton of “gray space” when justifying whether a team should be “in” or “out.” Early season losses are forgiven; strength of schedules are cut and diced to fit whatever statistic someone wants to show; “ifs and buts” are used to justify just about anything. In other words, life in college football land is no longer “black and white.” The concept of “gray” has entered the discussion.
Talk to any Alabama fan, and they’ll justify that scheduled game against Charleston Southern as part of their won/loss record. So, it’s the spread offense of the Big 12 that is really what’s keeping them out of the top four not their non-existent non-conference schedule? It can’t be held against Iowa that their schedule is weak; that’s who they play. And my personal favorite: One team’s 1-loss is better than another team’s 1-loss. They begin to argue who has the better loss. No matter what team or conference, lots of gray area sneaks into the conversation about who deserves what.
I’m always struck by those who so easily find gray areas in sports sometimes have a difficult time finding gray when discussing social and economic justice issues. Too often we don’t cut people slack for extenuating circumstances. Nope, you’re either lazy or you work. Where’s the gray area for those who lost a job at age 62 because a multi-national corporation shipped their IT job to India, Manila, or Brazil? Or you’ll hear those who want to deny people health insurance because somehow they believe a job is supposed to determine whether you have access to health care. Or the always popular, “I did it on my own. I didn’t need anyone’s help.” Black and white. No mention of the gray areas such as public school teachers who went the extra mile, or a public library that was open to give you access to educational materials, or public roads that allowed you access to broaden your horizons. Gray areas.
Funny, I say to myself, how easy it is for a lot of people to overlook coaching mistakes, missteps, and things “out of their control” when it comes time to ranking college football teams. Every benefit of the doubt will be given to a team; every fan base will cry “foul” should their team somehow be slighted. How could anyone not see their team in the same light as they do? Surely, everyone’s view of college football is just like theirs?
The simple reality is that life and college football is full of lots of extenuating circumstances that make both difficult to squeeze into neat little boxes. Rarely is either black and white. Much of both are lived in gray areas – with various degrees of gray. A good thing to remember when the Selection Committee announces its final choices on “Who’s In?” as well as the next time we feel we have all the answers on someone else’s life and try to decide if they are “in” or “out” based on our purview.