Discussion Topics: You • The Author’s Inherent Bias • The Author’s Repeated Attempts to Justify the Existence of a Sport That Often Defies Rational Sense • Also, Cows
So maybe you already understand:
Maybe you are nine years old, and your father takes you to a college football game. You reside in the vicinity of a sprawling state university; the stadium looms on the outskirts of campus, a clunky leviathan of exposed steel beams and concrete pillars, surrounded by freshman dormitories and parking lots and acres of muddy agricultural pastureland. The roads are narrow, the traffic is suffocating, and the tailgates go on for miles, tethered to recreational vehicles and trailers and pickup trucks. Everything is so huge; even the air seems weighed down with smells, charred meat, and churned-up dirt and manure of varied origins. You pass into the stadium through Gate E and the ramps are too narrow and the people too thick (both individually, because this is rural America, and collectively, because the game is a sellout), and you stand there and wait for the arteries to clear (both figuratively and literally), and every so often, you hear adults buzzed on cheap pilsner bellow like corralled cattle to pass the time.
Maybe all of this rings familiar to you. Maybe this was your childhood, too.
* * *
For me, it goes back to 1982, when prime-time college football was not yet a regular thing, packaged by cable television into a commodified national experience. For me, it was Nebraska at Penn State, a matchup of top-ten programs in front of eighty-five thousand people, the first game in the history of this particular stadium that required lights (the lights were portable, mounted on trucks, and given to frequent short-circuiting). The home team led 14–0 early, and then they trailed 24–21 late in the fourth quarter, and I could not see most of what happened after that, because I was too small and everyone around me was standing and I was engulfed in a thicket of down jackets and cigar smoke and pocket radio antennas and the voice of a guy named Steve was critiquing the play-calling.
At that point, my memory blends with the television replays, and because I tend to recall my childhood in snapshots, I have retained this photographic image of the stadium clock showing one minute, eighteen seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. And in conjunction with this image, I recall trying to count seventy-eight seconds in my head during the commercial time-out as Penn State awaited the kickoff for the last drive of the game, as if I might somehow be able to slow the progress of time by deconstructing it inside my own head. (It’s almost as if I was already nostalgic for what was about to happen.)
There was a throw to the sideline, to a Penn State tight end who was clearly out of bounds but was ruled in bounds, for reasons that either defy explanation or raise suspicion, depending upon one’s perspective; there was a throw to the end zone, to a klutzy tight end whose nickname was actually Stonehands, who cradled the pass in his arms and toppled to the ground for the game-winning touchdown. And I remember the quake and the aftershocks inside that stadium, and I remember the bacchanalia outside, and I remember listening to the radio broadcast in the car, and I remember watching the highlights on the news and on television the next morning, and I remember thinking that I would never, in the course of my life, see anything bigger than that again.
It’s a difficult thing to quantify: the elation, the connection, the sense of belonging that college football provides. But then, maybe you don’t need me to tell you. Maybe you already understand.
* * *
Or maybe you don’t understand at all:
Maybe you attended a liberal arts college in New England, or maybe you grew up in a city where the athletes were professionals (New York, say, or Boston, or Chicago, or London). Maybe the very idea of college football resided at the far edge of your consciousness, a rural preoccupation like Garth Brooks and Peanut Buster Parfaits and moonshine, the province of southerners and state-school graduates and scrubbed fraternity boys in hooded sweatshirts. Maybe the thought of a university’s morale being tied to its football team strikes you as a fundamental failing of American society. Maybe you hear stories about corrupt recruiting and grade-fixing, and maybe you cannot understand how a sport with a long history of exploitation and brutality and scandal can still be considered a vital (and often defining) aspect of student life. Maybe you see it as a potentially crippling frivolity, or as a populist indulgence, and maybe the threat of football encroaching on the nation’s educational system makes you wonder how someone could possibly write an entire book extolling its cultural virtues.
* * *
And the thing is, I would like to tell you that you’re wrong, but I also know that you’re not entirely wrong.
* * *
I am writing this in the fall of 2013, as college football reaches a turning point: In 2014, a four-team playoff will commence, the most tacit acknowledgment to date from the NCAA that the sport is no longer an amateur pursuit. There are lawsuits pending as to whether college athletes will be able to trade on their name and likeness, and there are debates over whether they should be paid a stipend or whether the sport should be opened up to the free market. All of this is happening at the same time as we ponder legitimate questions about whether the sport of football is too violent to exist at all.
After the Penn State child sex abuse scandal broke in 2011, I wrote some words that got circulated online and I somehow briefly became a de facto spokesman for my hometown; in the process, I had people asking me multiple versions of the same question: Why does college football exist? It came from graduates of East Coast private schools that did not field football teams, from hard-core academics who saw college football as anathematic to their own purposes, from writers in Brooklyn who viewed college football as a simple-minded “southern thing.”
So this book is an attempt to convey why college football means so much to me, and maybe to you, if you grew up in a place like my hometown of State College, Pennsylvania, or if you graduated from a school like Michigan or Ohio State or Alabama or Texas, or if you are one of the roughly 50 million Americans who attended a college football game last season. It is a cultural history and a personal history and it is an exercise in nostalgia; it is a lamentation of the sport’s enduring stubbornness and a celebration of its enduring innocence. It is a sentimental defense of college football from an obsessive fan who still lulls himself to sleep by thinking about the end of that ’82 Nebraska game, and it is an attempt to detail how college football’s long history of scandal and politicization and bureaucratic infighting have led us to this point. It is an exploration of the varied meanings that college football holds for so many otherwise rational Americans, and it is an exploration of the ways that college football, in arousing such passion (and such unabashed hatred), has come to reflect our national (and regional) identity. No other nation in the world can even fathom the notion of attaching a prominent moneymaking athletic operation to a university; the fact that college football has existed for nearly 150 years, and the fact that it remains one of the most popular sports in America, must say something about who we are.
I grew up with college football in my blood. I am not so blinded as to fail to recognize its inherent hypocrisies, and yet I still enjoy it more purely and completely than I enjoy almost anything else in my life. I don’t want it to die. I don’t want it to fall victim to corruption and violence; I don’t want it to wither in a courtroom due to the failures of bureaucrats. I want it to find a rational path beyond this point of crisis. I want people to understand.
What follows is my attempt to explain.
Revue de presse
“This book is really two books, interwoven into one. The first is an entertaining history of America’s most interesting game, described by someone who knows. The second is the story of a man trying to work through his deepest fears and insecurities by sitting on the couch and watching TV (and—in all likelihood—caring too much about what he sees). But the reason the first book matters is because the second book explains most people who love college football.” (Chuck Klosterman, author of "Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs" and "I Wear the Black Hat")
“Michael Weinreb journeys through the black and white college football world of the nostalgia junkie and the cynical critic and finds both of them wrong: college football, like America, is a culture of troubling, electrifying gray. This is our story.” (Wright Thompson, senior writer, ESPN)
"No sport explains America quite like college football, and no writer explains college football with more passion and insight than Michael Weinreb. Season of Saturdays is both fun and insightful, and belongs on the shelf of anybody who loves the sport." (Michael Rosenberg, author of War as They Knew It)
"A passionate defense of college football... entertaining and enlightening for both rabid fans and newbies." (Kirkus Reviews)
“A discursive, informative, sardonic, and often hilarious account of a sport attended by 50 million colorfully dressed fans every year. The book is being published at a time when the game is, as it often has been, in transition and under considerable scrutiny…questions of race, corruption, amateurism, trickery, hypocrisy, and hyper-aggressiveness are integral components of this absorbing book.” (Booklist)
"[A] beautifully written mix of memoir and reportage that tracks college ball through 14 key games, giving depth and meaning to all." (Sports Illustrated)
“[A] beautiful meditation….well-researched….studded with sharply distilled character sketches….an intimate and deeply personal rumination on the sport’s meaning.” (The Boston Globe)
“Wry, quirky, fascinating….This surely is one of the most enjoyable books of the college football season….Weinreb wrestles in captivating prose with the violence, hypocrisy and corruption that are endemic to the sport at its most cutthroat level.” (The Cleveland Plain Dealer)
“College football is a confounding sport with an arcane history at the intersection of higher education, the twilight of adolescence, and semi-professional football, all institutions of questionable integrity. The mix is captured and explained beautifully in Michael Weinreb’s new book 'Season of Saturdays'….required reading.” (Washington Free Beacon)
“A must-read for the college fan.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
“Snappy and well-written.” (Portland Oregonian)
“[An] engaging and entertaining read.” (Penn State News)
"Every college football fan needs this book...Weinreb is such an entertaining writer, even those who hate the sport will love this book." (The Florida Times-Union)
"This cultural history of the game belongs on the shelf of every hardcore college football fan. [Weinreb's] candor and passion are displayed on every page." (Publishers Weekly)
"A must-read for any acolyte of Saturday football." (Newsweek)