April 24, 2008

When tickets to the Nebraska spring football game hit $95 on the open market (the day the earth momentarily stood still) it seemed almost inevitable that other things would start going haywire. Sure enough, men are now getting pregnant, Southern Illinois is experiencing earthquakes, and, worst of all, racy photos of Miley Cyrus are, again, infecting the Internet.

Great googely moogely. Now would be a great time to build that bomb shelter you've always wanted.

Sure, it might be a little, if not totally, unfair to pin the blame on spring football for a bizarre state of world events, but quite honestly, there might not be another explanation. If it weren't strange enough that 92,000 fans showed up for Nick Saban's Alabama debut last April, that Penn State has a carnival (with a Ferris wheel!) outside Beaver Stadium during its Blue-White game, and that ESPN sent its entire College Gameday crew to Gainesville for Florida's spring contest, now we've got this. Now we've got knuckleheads willing to pay more for a game that doesn't matter rather than for one that does. What's next, Bobby Petrino living out a contract?

For whatever reason, fans melt over these spring games like they're David Archuleta. Actually, they evaporate into giant clouds of enthusiasm. Why? Because it's the only game of the year that their team cannot, under any worldly circumstance, lose! Hey, quarterbacks can't be hit, starters pound anonymous third-teamers, coaches reveal nothing ... it's like Ohio State's non-conference schedule, but for everybody! I guess there are worse ways you could spend a Saturday.

Every college program has some semblance of a spring event, and many of them are gaining in popularity. This year, the entertainment industry -- a sector that would suck blood out of a stone for prospective revenue -- even caught wind and tried arranging something called a "Gridiron Bash." The plan was to feature a variety of big name musical acts in select college football stadiums on the same weekends as spring football games. Ultimately, it failed because organizers overlooked an NCAA rule forbidding athletes from promoting events or attending them for free. (Or they killed it under a clever guise of poor ticket sales.) But it'll be back at some point, and you just know it'll make some serious coin. If people are wacky enough to shell out cash for a spring football game, clearly they'll pay top dollar to see an artist like, say, ZZ Top.

Of course, none of this is all that horrible, (on some level, it's probably a fine testament to the pageantry of college football) but gosh, it sure feels overdone. Coverage is splattered throughout the web, radio and television. It feels like ESPN boosting its coverage of the National Spelling Bee, even putting Erin Andrews on the sidelines. Where does it stop? How close are we to reaching that dangerous point of saturation at which so many other sports entities eventually arrive?

Last time I checked, spring football had more to do with the events outside the stadium -- drinking cold beverages and studying the effects of warm weather on female attire -- than those taking place inside. The implications of such a scrimmage were supposed to be more like, "Yup, we'll be fielding a team next season" and less like "If we run this playbook against State, we'll be unstoppable." The notion that spring games were nothing more than glorified practices was assumed like a dealer face card in a hand of blackjack. Now, our perspective seems more skewed than ever. To some degree, many of those old beliefs are still true. But there's no question they've been somewhat weakened over time. Because for some people, the game now has actual strategic importance. And I've got to say, that feels all kinds of Tom Cruise-crazy.

If you needed any more evidence, spring football is proof that our world takes a lot of things way too seriously. The problem isn't that people care -- it's that many care too much. There's nothing wrong with watching Florida play, uh, Florida, if you're interested in the sheer novelty of the event. Or in a bunch of students racing the speedy Chris Rainey. (That was the best television event since Man vs. Beast.) Or if you've got nothing better to do. But there's cause for concern if you TiVo'd the game, watched it in slow motion, and analyzed the team's tendencies. That'd be a prime indication that you've lost all context, common sense, and perhaps even your mind. Something tells me that this act is more widespread than it should be. Somewhere, even John Nash would be appalled.

More specifically, there's nothing wrong with going to the game and enjoying a nice football-themed spring day. That is, as long as you keep your spring scrimmages in perspective. Remember, in most places these events are free to the public. In others, it only costs a nominal fee. And there's a good reason: nowhere does the game actually count.

Ty Hildenbrandt writes regularly for SI On Campus. E-mail Ty at tyhildenbrandt@gmail.com with your comments, questions and random observations.

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