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Theirs Not To Reason Why

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NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Nine years ago, Spencer Hall wrote the single best thing anyone has ever written about college football in its 150-year history. It was called “God’s Away On Business,” and the text for today’s sermon is this critical excerpt:

“There is no one in charge in college football. There likely never will be. One lie leading to another forms the bridge the present takes to the future, and your steps don’t lie: it feels as solid as truth, and holds up for far longer in some cases. The editing matters so much here. You can say the sport is rife with filth, and you would be right. The negligent policemen of the sport strike intermittently at thieves. One side makes up the law as they go while the other politely ignores it. Bowl games grease the palms of venal public officials. Television networks buy off longtime allies and reconstruct the map as they fit, as drunken in their excesses as the mustachioed cartographers of any careless empire.”

The buck gets passed constantly in college football. Schools abjure their responsibilities and fob them off on the NCAA, which fobs them off on the conferences, which fobs them off on ESPN as often as not, which fobs them off on the schools, and round and round we go. The B1G and the Pac-12 chose not to pay football, and then fobbed off the decision on the school presidents, and then suddenly changed their mind, because things are different now because [FILE NOT FOUND]. The NCAA probably could have shut all this down, but fobbed the decision off on the conferences. And the individual schools, for the most part, could hardly argue that it was unsafe to play football but perfectly safe to ask Colton and Kayleigh to come back to campus, paying full freight for dorms and tuition. The plan in a lot of places seems to have been: cash the checks, bring everyone back, put on as much sanitation theater as possible, and then blame the kids for getting sick. We’re still waiting to see how this will play out, but preliminary indications from places like Tuscaloosa and Knoxville aren’t promising.

I still haven’t found a single preseason SEC forecast that doesn’t have Vanderbilt in 14th place, and mostly at 0-10. You could argue all day about the appropriate number of wins it’s worth asking players to risk their health for - more than they usually do, anyway, which is something we have to just sort of live with in this game - but I am almost positive that number is somewhere greater than zero. You could win zero games with no players at all. Or no coaching staff, which I don’t mention by accident - there is a very dark cloud hanging over this program, and the University and most of the media has agreed to just pretend it’s not there, but we’re going to have to reckon with that eventually. It doesn’t make me feel any better about trying to get this season in, though. I personally am of the opinion that there were ample grounds to fire Derek Mason by summer and that there exists no reasonable expectation for that to change based on this season. Others argue that given 2020, you can’t reasonably fire anyone for the on-field results this year, with the implication being that Mason will be here for the 2021 season and possibly beyond. The only thing you can say is that we’ll almost certainly win more games next year, if only because we’re more likely to get to play non-conference games.

Then again, in a typical year, Vanderbilt fans generally don’t expect to win more than a third of our games anyway. A really good year is one where we reach .500 in the regular season. Better than .500? Only twice in the 21st century, back-to-back, and five times total in my lifetime. We’re not in this for wins. We’re in this for the game day experience, for the tailgating, for the prospect that maybe it’ll be different this week or this year, for pausing the DVR until we can mute it and sync the audio with Joe Fisher, for putting the game on the car radio and taking off for a three hour ride-around pausing only to go through the drive-thru at Milo’s or In-N-Out or whatever you have handy. This is the point where I usually exhort the freshmen to show up and show out, to arrive early for Anchor Dash and stay through the final gun, to sing loud and sing proud - but this year they won’t even be allowed in the stadium for at least a month. Joe will do yeoman’s work, as he always has, but this year’s Vanderbilt football experience for most of us will be staring at a TV where someone’s fourth crew of announcers is even more dismissive of us than usual.

So then here we go, on the road to potentially the worst football season in 130 years of Vanderbilt football, with a shorthanded roster and increased health risk and an ethically suspect coaching staff...why? Why are we doing this? Well, that’s an easy one. Over half of Vanderbilt’s entire athletic budget comes from the SEC television contract. If the SEC goes through with football, we’re going along, because opting out of that money equals a mortal blow to the entire athletic program that even David Price’s remarkable checkbook can’t bail us out of. We are playing a possibly morally and mortally compromised football season because we literally cannot afford not to.

So be honest: what really makes this year any different? With the possible exception of a brief window we’ve come to call Brigadoon (and maybe sorta for Dinardo in the early 1990s as well), Vanderbilt football after the Watergate era has been something the university does as a condition of SEC membership, making the minimum required effort to ensure we keep getting our cut of the money. Football hurts so that baseball can win two national championships. Football bleeds so Jim Foster can take women’s basketball to the Final Four and so Festus Ezeli and John Jenkins can hoist an SEC tournament trophy. Football suffers so women’s tennis can be a national power and men’s golf can compete at the highest level and women’s bowling can bring McKendree to heel.

This is the price of membership. We’re competitive in literally every sport we compete in…except for the only one that actually matters in our conference. All this pandemic has done is shine a brighter light on that process. If it seems as though Kirkland Hall is sending our football players out to be a human sacrifice for cash...well, that’s every year. The only major difference in 2020 is that you can’t get drunk playing bags in Dore Alley first. Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same story as when Coach Art Guepe said “there is no way you can be Harvard six days a week and Alabama on Saturday.” We’re doing what we always do; only the details are different.

Being a fan and supporter of Vanderbilt football is basically the opposite of self-care. It’s asking to have your heart broken over and over, to be frustrated and enraged in equal measure, and far too often lately to have a vaguely unsavory feeling about the people in charge and the consequences for those who participate. God knows I’ve tried to detach. I’ve tried to push it into the back corner of my mind when I’m not outright wishing it into the corn field. But the bottom line is this: our players have once again been handed a hopeless assignment by indifferent leadership, and left to hold the line against superior numbers with no hope of relief. The least I can do is pay them the respect of not looking away.

Anchor Down. Sink the Aggies.