Can College Football Reclaim Its Fun?

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HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – The proverbial elephant in the room at Loews Hollywood Hotel’s Dolby Theater proved too big for Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott to ignore.

In his opening address to open Pac-12 football media days, Scott thanked reporters on hand for attending in difficult times for the industry. The commissioner had no need to elaborate — the unusual number of empty seats said it all.

The unofficial beginning of the college football season often brings with it an enthusiasm difficult to describe. Players and coaches exude optimism about their teams’ prospects for the coming season. Working media is buzzing in anticipation of the unpredictable and entertaining four months the autumn is always sure to provide. It’s an aura I struggle to give tangible representation, but it’s antithesis is easier to describe.

It’s evident in the dwindling amount of journalists on hand plying their trade. I sat literally shoulder-to-shoulder with others at past media day events; this year, I had an entire row almost to myself. Perhaps more unnerving than the sheer decrease in quantity was the quality conspicuous in its absence. To not see fixtures of Pac-12 football like Ted Miller, Lindsay Schnell, Aaron Torres and Kevin Gemmell — people much better at this than I — drove home the stark reality of recent layoffs at ESPN, Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports.

Do not misinterpret that as a commentary on the reporters in attendance this week. Great college football journalists like Michael Lev of The Arizona Daily Star and Jeff Eisenberg from Yahoo! Sports and others continued producing work well worth your time.

Who is still covering college football isn’t an issue. That there’s fewer outstanding journalists doing so is troublesome, and major media outlets seem to offer little solution. No one reads more than 1,000 words! We’re pivoting to video! Fans want strong opinions!

Such changes have made the presentation of college football less informative, less entertaining and less fun. That third element stuck with me on my drive home from Hollywood, as I gave the ESPN college football podcast — retooled for the fourth time in as many years — a try. Two co-hosts argued about Jim Harbaugh and wondered aloud if perhaps he would be on the hot seat by the end of the 2017 season.

Jim Harbaugh is 20-6 in two seasons at Michigan.

This particular podcast is an interesting microcosm of college football media’s (d)evolution in recent years. Before his death in 2012, Beano Cook co-hosted the original ESPN college football podcast with ace reporter Ivan Maisel. Theirs was a light-hearted show that approached the sport with an attitude befitting it, celebrating the achievements and stories.

Coverage of college football — and sports in general — feels less fun than it did not so long ago. That could be because fewer Beano Cooks inhabit the space. There are certainly fewer Ivan Maisels, with an influx of aggregators replacing journalists.

Aggregation plays a role in sapping fun from the game, replacing it with an increasingly mean-spirited tone. It’s a constant cycle of Purple Monkey Dishwasher.

Perhaps the perfect example came up at Pac-12 media days. Stanford head coach David Shaw made a comment in April 2016 that’s demonstrably true — traveling the country to hold satellite camps isn’t logical for his program, because it’s rare for Stanford to sign more than one player out of a state in a given recruiting class, save populous football hotbeds like California and Texas.

The quote gained renewed life in the college football echo chamber this week.

“It’s unbelievable,” Shaw said. “It was a follow-up to a question, so I answered that question. It got used out of context, I clarified it, then I wake up last week and it was used again out of context a year later.

“It had nothing to do with the South, it had nothing to do with the SEC. Paul [Finebaum] and his crew decided to use it for their own purposes,” he added. “They created something that made them upset. And I told him: My mother’s from Alabama. My dad’s from Louisiana. Why would I bash the South?”

Alas, this is the cycle that’s been created: A journalist reports, a pundit offers a take, aggregators spread. To Shaw’s point, it’s manufactured rage. And why are we manufacturing rage over an avenue that should be a fun diversion from the things in life more deserving of real outrage, of which there are seemingly more every single day?

But then, there are discussions to be had around football more pertinent to the game itself that bring into question the joy of following it.

Pac-12 media days commenced one day after The New York Times published a breakdown what is one of the most damning studies to date on the possible neurological repercussions of playing football.

The optimism team representatives exude concerning their teams ahead of any season was again prevalent at Pac-12 media days. Players asked their thoughts on CTE offered similar optimism, though it’s difficult from an outsider perspective to share their confidence.

“The problem is you can’t see it,” UCLA head coach Jim Mora said of a concussion. “When somebody sprains an ankle or hurts a shoulder, you can see it. You can monitor a recovery. With a head injury, it’s more difficult. But once again, at UCLA we’re dealing with some really great and innovative things when it comes to analyzing head injuries.”

Mora cited his work with VICIS, the organization behind an extensively tested new helmet designed with the goal of preventing head injuries.

Increased attention paid to concussion prevention, diagnosis and long-term effects have also made players more conscientious of their own play. Arizona defensive tackle Luca Bruno, for example, said: “It comes down to how you hit. You’ve got to be smart about how you hit…As a defensive lineman, you should have those techniques down. And we really do work on that. And it’s not just tackling on the run, but tackling properly.

“And on top of that, the helmets, in comparison to what they were, say, 10 years ago, they’re amazing now,” he added. “I’m not too worried.”

If the player isn’t worried, and if those involved in the sport like Mora are actively participating in solutions, should we as consumers worry? Is manufactured outrage a mask for these more legitimate sources of concern? Can college football reclaim its fun?

None are questions I can even attempt to answer in this space at this time. Finding the fun is to pursue the intangible — but that intangible does still exist, and it’s evident in those who like the game.

“Change the question to ‘Why am I in love with football,’ because it’s not just a like anymore: It’s a passion,” said Stanford defensive end Harrison Phillips. “It’s one of those things that’s just extremely hard to describe. It’s a feeling, and it’s hard to describe feelings in words. But I just say it’s given me so much. It’s gotten me to Stanford. I’m going to graduate from Stanford. It’s given me lifelong friends I would die for, who would die for me, who are going to be the best men in my wedding — whenever that day comes.

“And then the sport itself,” he continued. “I don’t think any other sport or activity or career can really teach you the lifelong lessons, and have as much fun doing it.”