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Where are we Wednesday: College football has won me over

The confessions of a former NFL addict.

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Last Saturday, I watched much of Memphis’ 48-45 win over UCLA. It was one of the most entertaining sporting events I watched all season, the type of football game that gets young fans hooked and sportswriters constantly editing their game stories. The game ended with a costly interception, a botched Memphis fake field goal, and a last-second Josh Rosen drive that came up just short. It was, as they say, good television.

Of course, this was totally optional for me. I don’t even know anyone who goes to UCLA or Memphis, I just wanted to watch football, which makes me the perfect casual television viewer for ESPN’s metrics.

On Monday night, I had the option of watching my beloved New York Giants play the Detroit Lions. Instead, I decided to play Crusader Kings II for two hours and watch some low-level tennis tournaments. This week has been the week for “the NFL is boringthinkpieces, but on a sheer personal level, this was the first time in years that I had no interest in waching nationally televised Giants game.

If you told me the Giants were on MNF four years ago, when I was the pint-sized version of the main character of Silver Linings Playbook, the game would’ve been appointment television. Now, the Giants, who gave me the second-best sports moment in my life when winning the 2011 Super Bowl (a bit too young to properly remember 2007), have become an afterthought. In its stead, Northwestern football is now the football team of choice. In fact, most college football games are significantly more fun to watch than NFL games. After growing up in a land where the NFL reigned supreme, it has taken just two years in the Midwest to become a college football fanatic. Is this because the NFL is bad, or because college football is good?

Reasons why I’m now a college football fan

  • Your Northwestern Wildcats!
  • There’s such a huge difference between rooting for your school and rooting for a professional team. I will intently root for certain Northwestern players because I vaguely know them, and they’re good people. I want the teams to succeed, I have a vested interest in the happiness of others.
  • The key aspect of sports (and maybe life) is empathy and its absence. The basic path to becoming a fan of a professional team has an entirely different empathy structure than college football. In the NFL, when you see a winning team or an exciting team, whether or not they’re from your city, you simply want to share the experience and feel what Eli Manning is feeling as he wins the Super Bowl. Either that, or you want to share the experience of your parent or guardian. This engine has been behind my sports fandom for the last decade or so. I understand it.
  • I would argue the empathy surrounding college football is entirely different. The empathy structure is based on actual shared experiences. It’s tapping into your personal investment in your university, the perception of your university, and it creates the empathy you have when you’re watching a family member compete in some high school sport. Maybe it’s because we all tacitly know these are young unpaid laborers, or because we have fond memories of our college days, but we’re very protective of college football players as a society. The coaches get every bit of blame possible, but the players can be let go because of more personal structure of empathy surrounding the sport. When college football players kneel during the anthem, people don’t boycott college football games. When NFL players kneel, it’s a national crisis.
  • College football is so wildly entertaining because the coaching is just so bad. Take the ending of the Tennessee/Florida game from last Saturday. Butch Jones, a guy who’s there mostly because he says the right things to parents and can raise money, is just repeatedly making awful decisions and there’s nothing you can do about it. Here’s another part of empathy—we feel so bad for the college kids who have to put up with this garbage, we feel so bad that Tennessee is throwing five times with a new quarterback next to the goal line. We feel awful and laugh when the coaching staff draws up a trash Cover 2 that gets beaten by a simple deep ball with no time remaining. We feel bad for Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson when Mick McCall calls a jet sweep.
  • The paragraph above is also why being a college football coach is one of the hardest jobs I can imagine.
  • There are 20-25 college football teams I enjoy watching every week (Alabama, the best team, is not one of them). I’m not even sure Northwestern makes the list. I enjoy weird and unique sports practices, so I may be in the minority, but I love watching Army beat teams with the triple-option flexbone. I love watching McSorley bomb throws downfield for Penn State. I get legitimately excited when I watch Josh Rosen gunsling his way down the field. I really enjoy watching Clemson’s defense (and Northwestern’s, when it’s good), because the scheming is just so intricate and puzzling to me. If empathy is the main course of college football, the crazy strategies and tactics are the dessert. On the other hand, there are about three entertaining NFL teams, especially after Carson Palmer turned into a pumpkin for the fifth time in his career.

Reasons why I think the NFL is bad

  • Sorry, I gotta complain about the Giants again. The New York Giants are actually one of the most boring teams to watch in the NFL. The last phase of the Eli Manning Era has been gut-wrenching, mediocre and incredibly boring. I’d like to refer everyone to the Giants’ performance against the Cowboys in Week 1, a game during which I went to bed at halftime.
  • The watching experience has always not been great. The NFL has done a lot to alleviate the problems surrounding watching football games this season. They’ve shortened some commercial breaks, eliminated the post-kickoff commercial, and even opened up Sunday Ticket to student cord-cutters. But it’s too little, too late. The NFL is reaping the produce from five terrible years of brand and content management. The NFL highlights system was so awkward and unusable for years. The games were not on replay, and the live content was so long and untidy that people understandably lost interest. It has ceded an entire generation of young fans to the NBA and soccer. One of the sports made a conscious effort to make its highlight reels better. Soccer was a crowdsourced melange of “TOP TEN MESSI GOALS PLEASE SUBSCRIBE” videos, but it had the desired effect. The NFL...didn’t really have that when I was growing up on the Internet, and it’s showing.
  • There are better things to do on Sunday.
  • We’ve declined from “peak fantasy football.” There was a time when fantasy football almost became the new March Madness, a sports game that everyone could enjoy casually. Unfortunately, fantasy football is arcane, clunky, and far too time-consuming for the casual fan. Good thing it’s basically the prime form of football analysis we have. As a long-time fantasy football player, the derivative game starts to take a psychological toll on the viewing experience. If you’re not watching NFL Red Zone and getting the rush of archaic point-scoring mechanisms, it gets boring. In order to enjoy a fantasy football experience, you have to have multiple games going on at all times to fill in commercial breaks and entertain the mind. Having a single game on primetime just doesn’t cut it anymore, which is sad, in a way.
  • The NFL is terrible at marketing its players, and its players aren’t helping. I loved watching Randy Moss and LaDainian Tomlinson as a kid, and I just don’t feel the same reverence for Le’veon Bell or David Johnson. Odell Beckham Jr. is potentially as charismatic, but he’s stuck on the offense mentioned above, so his performances lack conviction. Also, since the NFL is now awful at identifying good quarterbacks and offensive linemen, there aren’t any new young recognizable quarterbacks to enjoy.
  • It probably isn’t player safety, because I’d be a huge hypocrite for not watching the NFL for player safety reasons while also consuming college football. It’s definitely something on my mind, but it hasn’t informed my viewing choices yet.
  • It definitely isn’t a political thing. I think Colin Kaepernick should have a job right now, and I don’t understand the people who’ve stopped watching because the NFL has gotten too liberal (if you think the NFL is too liberal, then you need to give me a different definition of liberal). The NFL is a mediocre television product with serious moral issues. College football is an average television product with moral issues that we’re willing to forget. [Kaepernick, incidentally, is actually one of the best-marketed NFL players of his generation, whether he likes that or not.]
  • The offenses are unwatchable. The short pass-heavy games that prioritizes job security over good play are unwatchable. It feels like the standard NFL drive in 2017 has been incompletion-incompletion-holding-five-yard-penalty-first-down-run-check-down-incompletion-punt.