College Football as an Addiction

I was not a fan of Deion Sanders during his playing days, which is not to say that I was unaware of his talent. Along with Bo Jackson, who also played professional football and baseball at a very high level, Sanders was clearly a great athlete. But being a two-sport phenom was hardly a sufficient basis for anything beyond my grudging respect. Danny Ainge played professional baseball and basketball, but I despised him as a player.

Maybe my admiration for Jackson but disdain for Sanders and something-bordering-on-hatred for Ainge reflect the fact that Sanders and Ainge played for rivals of the New York teams (Ainge for the Celtics; Sanders for a key period for the Cowboys), whereas Jackson did not. And maybe that bias led me to regard Sanders as a brash showboat and Ainge as a crybaby. After all, you can find as many pictures of NBA great Tim Duncan looking outraged at what he regarded as bad calls as you can find of Ainge, but except in the 1999 Finals, when the Knicks were clearly over-matched anyway, I didn't have occasion to hate the Spurs in the way I hated the Celtics.

But I digress. Back to Sanders, who is now the head coach of the University of Colorado Buffaloes football team. As it happens, my older daughter is a senior at the University of Colorado. Because it coincided with family weekend last year, I was in Boulder for, and thus we attended, the Buffs' home game against Cal. Coming into that game, the Buffs were winless in their first five games and had just fired their coach. Under the new coach, they managed to win in overtime. The fans (mostly students, some family members like me, and various local fans) stormed the field as though Colorado had just won a national championship. But then reality set back in and the team ended up 1-11. In an effort to revamp the program, the school brought in Sanders, who had remarkable recent success as head coach at Jackson State.

"Coach Prime" (a term derived from the moniker "Prime Time" that Sanders had during his playing days) almost immediately courted controversy by effectively firing most of the existing Colorado team, urging them to transfer to other colleges if they wished to continue to play. True to his word, his nearly hundred-man roster contains only ten scholarship players from last season. Last year's seniors graduated or ran out of eligibility; the rest transferred or were cut, replaced by freshmen Sanders recruited and a whopping 53 transfers. Nothing Sanders did in turning over the Buffs' roster violated any rules; indeed, he took advantage of the "transfer portal" that the NCAA initiated about five years ago to simplify the process by which student-athletes could transfer; even so, Coach Prime's unabashed use of the transfer option made even more obvious the already-obvious fact that big-time college football has very little to do with the academic mission of the colleges and universities at which it is played.

The distaste at the firing of all those players added to my other reasons not to pay attention to or care about how the Buffs football team performed this season. I regard big-time college sports as generally bad for higher education. And football in particular is especially problematic, given the long-term health risks it imposes on players, the vast majority of whom will never see a big payday.

And yet, last Saturday, when I saw that the opening game against TCU was close at halftime, I found myself watching the second half. After all, TCU played in the national championship game last year and was a nationally ranked team coming into the opening game. As anybody who usually reads this blog for its legal analysis and has stayed through this essay to this point knows, Colorado won in a thrilling back-and-forth shootout. The team was led by two-way superstar Travis Hunter, freshman Dylan Edwards, and quarterback Shedeur Sanders (Coach Prime's son), who set a Buffs record for passing yards in his debut. None of those players would have come to Colorado if not for Coach Sanders.

Thus, despite the fact that I regard Division I college football as bad on multiple grounds, I find myself keenly interested in how the Buffs will fare in their home opener against Nebraska tomorrow and during the rest of the season. Do I have an excuse? Not really. As the title of today's column suggests, I regard my interest in college football (and the NFL for that matter) as a kind of addiction. In just the same way that a cigarette smoker knows the cigarettes are harmful and wants to quit but can't, so there's something addictive about American football--at least for someone in my demographic.

When it comes to the NFL, I find that in years in which the Giants are terrible, I lose interest by about Week 6. Accordingly, my rational self hopes that the Sanders experiment fails. Colorado will play Oregon (currently ranked 15th nationally) in week 4 and USC (currently ranked 6th) the following week. Losing both of those games and maybe others would restart the critical discussion around whether the cost of hiring Sanders was too high. And yet while I have a meta-preference for the Buffs to lose, I will surely cheer for them in individual games.

Finally, a note to readers: I'll be riding my bike for 102 miles much of the day tomorrow (to raise money for the Southern Tier AIDS Program), so I'll watch a recording of the Cornhuskers vs. Buffs only after the game is over. No spoilers please!