Well, this season didn't go as we'd hoped it would and it sure didn’t end as we would have liked: losing 38-25 in the Peach Bowl. Losing the game, losing a chance at becoming the first and only team to win all six of the New Year’s Bowls and adding that notch to our storied program.
James Franklin explained the loss away in several ways but the one that feels most true is that there were too many moving parts in terms of players and staff. I can only shake my head at this ending to a season that raised more questions than it answered.
I have to admit that I don’t know how much I understand about college football anymore. In the time between the bowl game loss and the writing of this post, I have read endless takes on the opt outs and the NIL and the state of college football. I don’t feel any closer to a landing place than I was before; if anything, I feel it's more nuanced and ambiguous than I’d imagined it could be.
On the one hand, this is a student-athlete sport. The whole idea is that you use your athletic talent as a means (a scholarship) to an end (a degree at a good school you’d otherwise be unable to attend). And if a player is committed to a team, he should finish the season because he has a scholarship or he’s loyal to his teammates or both. What is different about a bowl game? Why are you too valuable to play now but not during the regular season? Why not skip the final game of the regular season? Maybe the last two even? What is the point of being on a team if you’re too valuable as an individual to even play?
On the other hand, it’s kind of like minor league baseball and if a player gets called up to the major league team, he’s not going to say: ‘Oh sorry I have to finish this minor league season first because I really like my teammates’. The players whose bodies are used for our entertainment justifiably want a share of the massive amounts of money made from their performance. There’s lifetime and generational wealth on the line. An injury gets an athlete a pat on the back and a chance to use that degree he hopefully took the time to earn. Not necessarily a bad scenario at all, but when you’re staring down millions, I understand how that feels like a massive risk.
And does it even matter? What is a bowl game worth now that there are so many of them? Maybe a bowl game is nothing more than a postseason exhibition game.
Maybe meaningless bowl games and opt outs and NIL are the least of the problems.
It seems to me that college football is no longer about the magnificence of the struggle. It's no longer the competition that gives us pleasure. Instead, rabid fan bases demand gladiator type wins in which opponents are destroyed and humiliated. Where is the thrill of the competition? Where is the happiness for a win rather than frustration that the win was not a good enough win? Where is the love for “a hard-fought, well-fought, hairline-close game” that “is as classical in sports as tragedy is in the theater,” as Paterno said, where “victory is contained within defeat, and defeat is contained within victory”? Gone?
Gone and replaced with what? An NFL Light league run like a business. And businesses demand accountability and how we hold teams accountable is with wins and championships and covering the point spread.
If I sound disillusioned it's because I am. At the ripe old age of 40 the game has passed me by, and I teeter dangerously close to one of those fans who pine for the good old days. Because where does college football as a business leave us as fans? Lining the pockets of executives somewhere with ever increasing ticket and merchandise prices? My dislike of the NFL is no secret and if college football is going that way, I’m not sure I’m coming.
I am fiercely loyal to our Nittany Lions. I still maintain that James Franklin is the best coach for us right now. I will forever bleed blue and white, and I am hook, line, and sinker on the Penn State ideals. How can we, the loyal and true, keep our heads when all about us are losing theirs? How can we support our football program which is built on success with honor when the business of college football is entirely antithetical?
And where do we go from here? Will we spend the off season wondering what could have been? Or, what could be?