Since I first started paying attention to team sports, I have had a poor opinion of college athletics. I started out from the benighted position that college was supposed to be primarily about education, and that any diversion of a school’s imperiled budget towards athletics was both a waste and a concession to the baser instincts of alumni, who took greater pride in the athletic achievements of their school than in its academic renown. My own alma mater, Seattle University, was a national basketball power in the 50s and 60s, but the threat of financial insolvency forced the school to withdraw from the higher reaches of college athletics, a decision I regarded with smug, Puritanical pride.
From a gaming standpoint, as well, college athletics suffers from a lack of balance. Players only stay with a team for three or four years, and the contortions required by the notion of "academic eligibility" inhibit coaches from fielding the strongest possible team. Due to the relative inexperience of the players and the varying observance of the principle of amateur sportsmanship, play quality is wildly inconsistent. It seemed to me far more rewarding to follow a professional team than a collegiate team, and alumni loyalty seemed the only understandable motivation for caring about college athletics. I later came to appreciate that sports fans without a local professional team would naturally follow their local college team, but I continued to regard college athletics as an inferior product.
My grandfather has been a season-ticket holder for the University of Washington Huskies football team for several years, despite the fact that neither he nor his children nor his grandchildren ever attended the University of Washington. Two weeks ago, he had a spare ticket to the last Husky home game of the season and he invited me along. I had never been inside Husky Stadium and accepted readily. From my limited attention to the subject, I recalled that the Huskies have been a relatively dominant team within the PAC-10, and I was surprised to learn that this year they had fallen below .500 in their win-loss record and were not expected to defeat that Saturday’s opponent, the Oregon State Beavers. Also without academic association with the UW, my parents are also season-tickets holders (they almost missed the birth of their grandson due to their attendance of a Husky game), and they sat with us as the weather went through its November routine of first balmy, then windy, then rainy while the Huskies handed a surprising 41-29 defeat to OSU. Yay. In previous years, I had only witnessed Husky post-game traffic from the perimeter, where it wreaks the most havoc. That Saturday however, trudging through the downpour to University Village past the ocean of RVs and people firing up their grills for tailgate parties, I was in the eye of the storm, and I felt oddly contented.
One week ago, my parents were scheduled to come by our house on Saturday afternoon to babysit, and in anticipation of their likely viewing preference I switched on the Husky game, that week in Eugene against the "hated" Oregon Ducks. I was unaware of this new rivalry, but my parents quickly brought me up to speed on Oregon’s increased athletic budget (those bastards!) and "dirty" coach and fans in recent years. The Huskies were again underdogs, and indeed, by the time Nathalie & I had left to see Huit Femmes, Oregon was up 14-0. We returned, however, to learn that the Huskies went on to score 42 unanswered points. Almost as surprisingly, my parents had mixed emotions about the victory, as they feared that the momentum might allow the Huskies to defeat the Washington State Cougars in the Apple Cup the following week [sic].
Apparently, this year the Cougars have done extremely well, not only vying for the championship of the PAC-10 and its Rose Bowl berth, but also contending for the truly byzantine Bowl Championship Series, with which I hope to remain only passingly familiar. Were the 5th-ranked Cougars to lose the Apple Cup to the unranked Huskies, the Cougars would almost certainly drop in the rankings and lose their shot at winning the national championship. (Predictably, the practice of voting for national champions was another reason for me to scorn college athletics.) My parents, whose philosophy in such matters often seems derived from a bland, Chamber-of-Commerce sensibility, contended that if a team from the state of Washington won the national championship—even if it wasn’t the Huskies—the whole state would have cause to celebrate.
Now, I might not have much native loyalty to the Huskies, but even I know that if being a Husky fan means anything, it means hating the Cougars. I can recall more than one anxious November in which a Husky Rose Bowl campaign was ambushed by a Cougar victory in the Apple Cup, bringing a smirk to the face of even the most phlegmatic of Washington State alumni. Piqued by this unilateral disarmament on the part of my parents, yesterday afternoon I sat down to watch my first Husky game all the way through.
It was exactly as amateurish as I remembered it. Huge gains were followed by truly inane losses. The offense would march down the field, seemingly uncontested, only to turn the ball over or miss the field goal (can someone tell me why college football requires the ball to be snapped from those absurdly off-center hash marks?). I found myself wondering, How did that team get ranked fifth in the nation? By rights, the game should have embarrassed anyone associated with either school. And yet, drawing on my healthy reservoir of prejudice against eastern Washington, I affected to rejoice in Husky gains and rue Husky losses. Regulation time ended with the score tied at 20-20, and although I maintain a soccer fan’s stoicism regarding ties, I approved of the newly-instituted overtime rules for college football. As Oscar’s bath time (and my presumed participation therein) approached, each overtime snap became fraught with more and more tension. The game finally ended as clownishly as it had been played: with the Huskies leading 29-26, the backup Cougar quarterback threw what clearly looked (to my purple-and-gold-limned eyes) to be an interception, which was subsequently fumbled and then recovered by the Huskies. The players and coaches clustered about the referees as they conferred, eventually ruling that it had been an interception/fumble resulting in the end of the third overtime. The Huskies weren’t atop the PAC-10 or the AP Poll, but they had won the Apple Cup, and as Oscar was dressed for bed that night he was soothed not by "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" but by a song previously only notable for having been my introduction to the geographical import of the Dardanelles.