Michigan scandal shows why college football is America’s true national sport

The NFL likes to style itself America’s sport, and sure, the NFL is what America would like to be: all-encompassing, inescapable, and brand-managed with military precision. But with all due respect to The Shield, the sport that most clearly mirrors America isn’t the NFL, but rather its rambunctious, troublemaking, the-car-is-in-a-tree younger brother.

Here, I’ll prove it. Picture a college football Saturday in your mind. An American flag flutters in the early morning breeze as fog wreathes a silent, pristine campus. A line of alumni returns to their alma mater, tents and camp chairs in hand. You can hear a distant staccato of drums as the band begins to warm up. The scent of the first meat on the grill wafts through the air, and before long, you hear the crack of the first beer of the day. Sure, it’s not even noon yet, but game day rules are different.

Soon enough, the satellite dishes are in place, the TVs fired up. The cackling and preening on “College GameDay” and “Big Noon Kickoff” give way to the day’s first wave of games. By now, some tailgaters are on their second plate, some are on their second nap.

Eventually it’s time to make the pilgrimage to the stadium — it’s not hard to find, it’s just the biggest building on campus, and maybe even the state. You can see the smiles of the cheerleaders, the bellows of the frat bros, the entire crowd lustily singing along to the school fight song, even — especially — those lyrics school administrators tried to stop. You know the lines I’m talking about.

And then the team runs onto the field, and the kicker sets the ball on the tee. The tension cranks higher and higher, until you can feel it in your bones, your chest, your soul. The stadium — maybe it’s 10,000 strong, maybe it’s 100,000 — joins as one to hoot or growl or bark or roar, growing louder and louder as the kicker approaches the ball, until it sounds like a jet is flying directly overhead.

And then, at last, the moment you’ve awaited for a week or a month or an offseason has come around again. The ball is in the air. It’s game time, baby!

Magnificent, right? That’s half the reason why college football is America’s true national sport.

‌Camaraderie, singalongs, field-storming, cold beer and grilled meat … college football is America as it wants to see itself, bathed in golden sunlight and nostalgia.

But there’s another side to college football, a seamy, sleazy, money-crazed, conspiracy-wracked side that’s every bit as alluring as all that sentimental hogwash up there … maybe even more so.

This is a sport where fans throw toilet paper into trees that a fanatic poisons, a sport that lionizes coaches who get paid tens of millions and demonizes players who get free burgers. It’s a sport that pinballs between being too slow to embrace societal change and leading the way in changing the perspective of its most stubborn fans. It’s a sport where fans traffic in conspiracy theories that make flat-Earthers step back, coaches challenge talk radio callers to fights, money cascades in waves high enough to block out the sun, and live tigers and steers patrol the sidelines.

College football is as messy, chaotic, gossipy and scandal-ridden as America itself. Its most hyperventilating, overwrought fans have lost touch with everything but the love of an institution they hold more dear than their own families. And every scandal reveals a bit more about ourselves than we’d like.

MADISON, WI - OCTOBER 28: A fan dresses up as the Michigan Film Crew for halloween durning a college football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Wisconsin Badgers on October 28th, 2023 at Barry Alvarez field at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, WI. (Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The sport’s current epicenter of chaos is Ann Arbor, Michigan. On Friday — strap in for this sentence — a court will determine whether Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh will remain suspended for a sign-stealing scandal involving a former member of the coaching staff who bought tickets (and, allegedly, disguises) to steal the signs of other schools, a scandal that Michigan says isn’t nearly as bad as the one involving three other schools who conspired to beat up on poor Michigan. Whew. (For a complete timeline, .)

This is a scandal with enough heat to be seen from orbit … and yet there’s absolutely no victim here. Oh, sure, maybe some program was a little less competitive in a game thanks to some stolen signs. Maybe Michigan’s precious pristine reputation took a hit. Maybe someone didn’t adhere to the precepts of (haughty aristocratic voice) Sportsmanship and Integrity that the NCAA claims to cherish so dearly. So what? None of that rises to the level of a serious crisis, none of it warrants the involvement of law enforcement and the American judicial system. The only winners here are billable hours, and friend, that’s about as American as it gets.

So yes, when Jim Harbaugh says Michigan is “America’s Team,” he’s exactly right … but maybe not in a way he meant. The Wolverines are just the current high-riding horse in the wobbly, speeding carousel that is college football. Long may it reign.

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