Tuesday, December 08, 2009

still more on college football . . .

Having attended Cornell, and with a son at the University of Pittsburgh, I get to see the full range of college football possibilities. Cornell lost its final game, 34-0, to Penn in a contest that I had the bad fortune to witness with my second child. Pitt was in its way more unfortunate, losing to Cincinnati (the #3 team in the country) by one point in a game that it led, 31-10, in the first half. The Panthers now get to play in a bowl named for an auto repair company while Cincinnati plays Florida in the Sugar Bowl; with a little less voter bias they'd be playing for the national championship.

One of the reasons football is so interesting is that, sooner or later, it raises almost every conceivable intellectual and philosophical issue. For example, why is Cornell football so bad? It's the largest or second largest (after Penn) school in the Ivy League, probably the easiest to get into, and (except for Dartmouth) easily the most rural. So why does it always lose? I've heard all the explanations: fear of success and consequent labeling as not-really-Ivy; emphasis on other sports; a run of unfathomable bad luck. (One successful coach, a previous NFL star, left after an affair with an assistant coach's wife.) Still, it doesn't quite compute, and no amount of Ivy League brainpower seems capable of addressing it.

Ditto for the BCS Bowl System, the holy grail of big-time college football. Pitt lost by one point to the number three team in the country, having pushed them all over the field for thirty minutes or more. So how is Pitt number 17, and Cincinnati number 3? For that matter, how could all the principal polls--people, computers, composites--have ranked Florida ahead of Alabama when the latter absolutely demolished the former in a head-to-head contest? What is especially unnerving about all this is that computer polls, which one would think correct for voter biases, have consistently been more irrational than the human ones, which seem capable of correcting for subjective factors, like the greater importance of late season than early season results, better than their digital cousins. There is a lot of interesting theoretical work on the difference between human and computerized ways of thinking: surely the fear of computers taking over is exaggerated when they can't predict a football game correctly.

Whatever the results, there is always the pleasure of attending a big-time college game, as I did at Pitt in October. Even television doesn't capture the full spectacle of college football, in all its homoerotic splendor. In the Pitt student section an hour before game time, four male Pitt fans, undressed to the waste, lovingly painted each other blue with the letters P-I-T-T stenciled somewhere on their chests. Front, back, sides, they didn't leave a spot uncovered. Not fifteen feet away sat a half dozen attractive females, wearing T-shirts and apparently not much else, whom the body painters completely, totally, and willfully ignored. Pitt won, 41-14.


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