Some Light Entertainment from the College Football Scene
Because this is almost certainly my final Dorf on Law column of the year, it seems like a good time to lighten the mood and turn away at least briefly from the litany of tragedies in politics, higher education, foreign policy, and everything else that has consumed my time in 2023.
So why not talk once again about college football, the one socially destructive topic that is truly optional in my life but from which I cannot break my addiction? Yes, even this topic has a true downside, but in the spirit of the season, my focus here is on three silly things that became big stories in the soon-to-be-completed college football season.
Coaches Make a Lot of Money (and think they deserve it):
The least important (with huge air quotes around that adjective) among these three examples of sports inanity was a mini-controversy at the end of October surrounding the head coach at Clemson, Dabo Swinney, who had led his team to a couple of national championships in the last decade but was presiding over a 4-4 team at the time. On one of the standard fan call-in shows, some kid criticized the coach and asked how he could justify his salary of approximately eleven million dollars. (Yes, that's right. $11 mil.)
Swinney went ballistic, swearing at the caller and saying idiotic things from the "Oh, so you think you could do better?" playbook of clueless entitlement. Fine. Sports dudes are often moronic, and head coaches can be the worst. (See also my next example below.) Swinney is known for being a Christian right, Trump-friendly type, and although he might be among the worst in that category, there is hardly a lack of toxic masculinists in sports who are openly authoritarian.
Surely I jest? Hardly. Bobby Knight and Woody Hayes, two big deal college sports coaches from my youth, were misogynistic right-wing bullies who made their political views known. Last season, one of the assistant coaches of the newly renamed Washington Commanders (Go Commies!!) in the NFL not only kept his job but caused only a one-day controversy by referring to the January 6th storming of the Capitol as a "dustup."
Swinney might be in the higher percentiles of sports types whose social and political views are repellent to me, but that would not be sufficient reason to bring him up here. Again, he is only worse than the norm by a matter of a few degrees. Instead, the part of the story that I found most grimly amusing was Swinney's defense of his eight-figure annual salary -- part of a ten-year, $115 million salary that does not include endorsement money and the near-certainty that the contract will be rewritten with higher numbers before it expires.
So this is a moment when the highest-paid (by a long-shot) employee of a public university might take a breath and count his blessings. Instead, Swinney said: "I started as the lowest-paid coach in this business [and] I worked my ass off. I'm not going to let this smart-ass kid get on the phone and tell me how to do my job." Punching down? Sure. Immature? Definitely.
But that "lowest-paid coach" thing? From ESPN: "In his first season at Clemson, in 2009, he was paid $816,850. He had been hired after being an interim head coach and had no prior coordinator or head-coaching experience." Adjusted for inflation, that is more than $1,150,000 in 2023. Won't someone spare a thought for this downtrodden, put-upon man? He "worked his ass off" for what was literally minimum wage (in his business). How dare anyone criticize him for making up now for all of those years of eating from dumpsters!
My Team's Situation Continues to Be Cringe-Worthy
My Michigan Wolverines are the top-ranked team in the country. Woo! For the third year in a row, they are headed to the playoff, and they are favored for the second straight time. That they are overrated and will probably lose yet again (perhaps badly) is a given for grizzled old-timers like me, but that is hardly something to feel bad about. Unlike Swinney when it comes to whining about his salary, I am aware how good I have it. We Michigan fans are among the group of super-entitled, spoiled brats (along with the fan bases of Alabama, Oklahoma, USC, Ohio State, and ... eccchhhh ... Notre Dame) who think that going 10 and 2 is a terrible year and 9 and 3 can get the coach fired. Northwestern and Kansas can only dream.
No, when the guys wearing the Maize and Blue almost certainly disappoint in the Rose Bowl, that will not be what makes Michigan fans (at least the thinking ones among us) cover their faces. The problem is that our head coach, Jim Harbaugh, is frankly a jerk. Even by the extreme standards of his profession, Harbaugh stands out as being an absolute ass. Not on political matters, where he is apparently a mixed bag, but as a coach and leader. He is a serial violator of the rules -- not the rules that "everyone knows that everyone else is breaking, but my guy got caught" kind of rules, but rules that Harbaugh alone has been willing to flout. Worse, he responds to anything and everything with defiance and self-righteousness.
This season began with Harbaugh serving a three-game suspension imposed by the NCAA for recruiting violations. Then, a few weeks into the season, a scandal broke regarding a ridiculous and blatant rules violation involving spying on other teams. At first, even many non-Michigan people tried to dismiss the matter by saying, "Well, everyone tries to gain an advantage," which is simply stupid. Defendant: "I tried to rob a bank? Well, everyone who goes to a job tries to get more money, so what's the difference?"
But what made this all so difficult to watch was when the Big Ten conference (currently made up of fourteen teams, soon to be eighteen, but I digress) imposed a suspension on Harbaugh for the final three regular-season games of the year. I am neither surprised nor embarrassed that the players rallied around their coach and started wearing "Michigan against the world" merch. Come on, what else are they going to do? That the interim head coach responded to their first win without Harbaugh by breaking down in tears over the injustice of it all was admittedly unnecessary and difficult to watch.
The most ridiculous moment, however, was when former Michigan great Desmond Howard defended his alma mater, saying that "[t]he [Big Ten] commissioner is actually treating them unfairly. He’s circumventing due process by the NCAA. [T]his would never happen in the SEC. Are you telling me they would do this to Nick Saban and Alabama? Hell no!"
So Howard's argument is that Michigan's own conference is out to get his team, which is good for the conference how, exactly? The SEC is famously corrupt, so it might well be true that it would not act in the same way, but how is that a defense? More to the point, as I put it to a friend and fellow jaded Michigan fan, one major difference between Alabama's Saban and Michigan's Harbaugh is that our team's coach is "a serial violator and general dickhead." And again, if there were as much evidence against Bama of a clear rule violation as there is against Michigan, the other teams in the SEC might very much want their commissioner to impose penalties. How would that not be good for Georgia, for example?
Howard is not on TV for his brilliance. He is generally an affable guy who won a Heisman Trophy and gets along well with the other guys on his show. In that sense, criticizing him is a bit unfair. Even so, he did not have to weigh in at all, and when he chose to do so, he was not required to go full false-equivalence.
Even so, I will be cheering for the guys wearing the blue laundry on January 1. They are currently favored by 2 points. My predictions: Alabama 31, Michigan 13; and Harbaugh signs an NFL contract the next day. And it will all somehow continue to matter to me.
An Entire State Goes Insane (but not in the usual way)
The biggest story at the end of the season has been that Florida State was not included in the four-team playoff. (Disclosure: I am employed by arch-rival Florida. But see above re how much I am likely to care about this as a fan.) This was understandably disappointing to FSU fans, but the reaction has been hilariously extreme. Florida's attorney general has announced an investigation of the committee that determines the playoff lineup, and it seems that everyone in my state's government wants to pander to their voters even more shamelessly than usual.
What is different about this year, compared to any other team that ends up being ranked fifth and thus misses the playoff? After all, last season Alabama was out and Ohio State was in, with decent arguments to be made for both. Even though I am a Michigan fan, I thought Ohio State was the right call, and the Buckeyes' one-point loss to eventual champion Georgia made that case stronger. When there are only four slots, some teams that have had great seasons will be left out.
Oh, but this year is different. You see, for the first time in history, an undefeated champion of one of the five most powerful conferences was left out, and one-loss Alabama is in. The perfidy (not a word that sports fans usually use, of course)!! The problem is that "history" in this case is exactly nine seasons long: 2014-2022. It reminds me of the years after a friend and I co-founded the Harvard Speech and Parliamentary Debate Society, when at one point I heard an undergraduate earnestly argue that we had to do one thing or another because of "tradition." Not only did I know that the supposed tradition was an entirely ad hoc decision that we had made after drinking many beers, but it had happened only three years before.
So the appeal to history is a bit thin, to say the least. More to the point, the committee is supposed to pick the four "best teams" in the country for the playoff. Sure, "best teams" is not self-defining, but "best record among the traditionally most successful conferences" is only one possible definition. Another, and to me more obvious, definition is "most likely to win against every other team." And that is not only sensible, but the rules that the committee is supposed to use explicitly say that absences due to injuries or other reasons should be included in the assessment. Crucially, FSU's best player suffered a season-ending injury, making him unavailable. Among other things, that explains why FSU is a 14-point underdog in its bowl game against lower-ranked Georgia.
Because they played a relatively weak schedule, being undefeated does not prove that FSU is among the four best teams in the country -- again, even if their best player had not suffered an ugly leg injury that ended his college career. I honestly would not have picked FSU over Alabama even with both teams at full strength, but FSU would almost certainly have ridden the "undefeated conference champion" thing into the playoff under a committee vote. And as a side note, when people say how great it will be when the playoff expands to twelve teams next year, that only means that more players will have suffered debilitating (and potentially lifelong) physical damage by the time we get to the semis and finals.
In any case, there are people who are absolutely livid about FSU's "historic" snub. Part of this is hype culture in US sports, where outrage is manufactured for fun and ratings. As an aside, a Canadian friend told me about a TV interview in which an American sports reporter tried to get a Canadian hockey coach to trash-talk his upcoming opponent. Despite repeated coaxing, the Canadian kept saying things like, "Oh no, we respect those guys, and we look forward to a great game." Politeness, eh?
What makes the FSU situation so different is that the reaction has continued for weeks. People, again including politicians, are losing it. I wish I could say that this was a uniquely Florida Man thing, and maybe it is. Mostly, it is just "grab the popcorn"-level entertainment.
I wish all Dorf on Law readers a happy holiday break as well as peace and happiness in the new year.