November 11, 2015

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On Monday, America’s undergraduate college system melted down in three humiliating incidents.

At Yale, in a brouhaha over Halloween costumes that has been dragging on for a week and a half now, a distinguished professor apologized for defending freedom of speech and thereby triggering a black coed to screech obscenities at him. This sorry incident called to mind the struggle sessions of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, when the national leader encouraged self-righteous young nitwits to force scholars to wear dunce caps.

At the U. of Virginia, the fraternity libeled by Rolling Stone‘s Sabrina Rubin Erdely last year in her wildly popular but demented fable about a fraternity-initiation gang rape on broken glass filed suit against the magazine and author for $25 million. The national excitement generated last November by this story that a teenage girl actually dreamed up to make another boy jealous may make for an interesting legal battle. Is it okay for Erdely to not notice that Jackie’s tale about her pretend boyfriend-rapist Haven Monahan was absurd because the reporter (and, evidently, millions of other people) really wished this Night of Broken Glass were true?

And at the U. of Missouri, the college president and chancellor resigned in the face of a strike”€”backed by coach Gary Pinkel”€”by black football players agitated over Ferguson and similar racial pseudo-events.

“€œAmericans love a winner. And the easiest way to win at college football is to recruit violent young men other coaches wouldn”€™t dare bring on campus.”€

The football coup at the U. of Missouri was particularly intriguing because the sport has such power in American universities, but much of it plays out beneath the surface. For example, a few years ago, the president of Ohio State, E. Gordon Gee, was asked if he was going to fire the Buckeyes”€™ scandal-plagued but victorious coach Jim Tressel. “€œI just hope the coach doesn”€™t dismiss me,”€ he replied.

Football players themselves tend to defer to adult authority figures. They are organization men, not rebels. For instance, there hasn”€™t been an NFL strike since 1987, which explains a lot about why professional football players are poorly paid relative to baseball, basketball, and even hockey players. And college football players aren”€™t paid at all, except under the table.

So my initial guess would be that the Mizzou uprising reflects a power struggle that remains opaque to outsiders.

But the recent history of Missouri football ought to teach us something about America in 2015.

Americans love a winner. And the easiest way to win at college football is to recruit violent young men other coaches wouldn”€™t dare bring on campus. For example, although Coach Gary Pinkel is being praised for backing his players in their crusade to have the college president fired for being white, he’s presided over at least two major rape scandals.

When his star running back, Derrick Washington, was accused of rape during the 2008 season when he scored 19 touchdowns, Coach Pinkel let him stay on the team until he was arrested just before his senior 2010 season for assaults on two more women (one of them his university-provided tutor).

As the initial acclaim for Erdely’s concoction demonstrated, many Americans desperately want to believe in tales of white frat-boy rapists. In contrast, practically nobody is happy about documented cases of black football-star rapists.

For the benefit of readers from the rest of the world who don”€™t understand the peculiar nature of American college football, let me explain that American football is a game built around what 1960s science writer Robert Ardrey called the territorial imperative.

Football teams act out a very literal metaphor of military conquest, struggling to conquer terrain from each other with the percentage of the 100-yard field left to subjugate immediately calculable.

And as with almost all team spectator sports, territorialism is at the heart of college football’s appeal to rooters. While satirists have long prophesied that sports teams would soon be named after corporations rather than places, examples, such as the Nippon Ham-Fighters, remain strikingly rare. (No, this Japanese baseball team doesn”€™t fight ham, they are owned by the Nippon Ham conglomerate.) Instead, corporations attempt to latch onto preexisting regional loyalties by buying the naming rights to the stadiums of beloved local standard-bearers.

Very few college football teams have national appeal: Notre Dame, with its “€œsubway alumni“€ among Catholics of Eastern cities, is close to being the exception that famously validates the rule. Conversely, colleges with national academic ambitions have largely de-emphasized football (such as Harvard and Yale) or dropped it altogether (U. of Chicago).

With its immense local wealth to draw upon, Stanford has recently returned to the ranks of football powers. But even in Silicon Valley, college football has a blood-and-soil tie: The key donor behind Stanford football’s rise, John Arrillaga (who has given Stanford $251 million), isn”€™t a tech billionaire, he’s a real estate man.


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