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Monday, September 19, 2011

The Age of Insecurity: A Meditation on College Football Realignment (and Stuff)

I'm a Syracuse University Orange fan.  You may know that as of yesterday my school is partly responsible for blowing up Division I Football Bowl Subdivision conference affiliations (and goodness knows what else). I say "partly" not only because they were joined by the University of Pittsburgh in their move from the Big East Conference to the Atlantic Coast Conference, and not only because the ACC accepted them, and not only because Texas A&M started the latest round of tremors by seeking to leave the Big 12 for the SEC, and not only because last year the Pac-10 became the Pac-12 while Nebraska made the Big 11 (I mean, 10) into the Big 12 (I still mean 10, or do I mean the B1G, however you pronounce that?), etc.

I also say "partly" because media giants, most prominently The Worldwide Sports Leader, ESPN, will not stop fidgeting until they find the most lucrative way to present college football to the consuming public, which is to say never.  And I say "partly" because such media giants looking to sell more "news" to an already supersaturated public will report any speculation via unnamed sources or outright opinion to get another view, listen, or click until such speculation comes true.  And I say "partly" because I'm one of the people who keeps clicking.

(Incidentally, I think conference realignment should be reclassified as a metasport, that is to say, a sport about a sport.  It is its own competition with its own fan base and definition of winners and losers.  It actually could gain enough of a following to make it attractive to keep going year after year [I mean, season after season].  One could even imagine a fan who cheers on his favorite school in the metasport without ever watching a game in the actual sport.  The games on the field would really just be practice for the real thing of jockeying for position to be the school with the best affiliations.)

The weird relationship between the desires of the schools and the desires of the media that broadcast and promote the schools seems to me to represent perfectly the overall life of our civilization, probably in more ways than I know.  Simply stated, perception is reality: confidence produces the conditions that confidence should be based on, and lack of confidence does the same.  In this case, the administrations of Syracuse and Pittsburgh believed their conference to be unstable.  As a result of their belief, the conference became unstable.  I don't mean by this that they had no sound reason to believe that their conference was unstable, but I do mean that if they had drawn the opposite conclusion from the data at their disposal, they might have changed their environment by making it more secure rather than less.  In the same way, they believed that the ACC was more stable, and now, thanks in part to their action, it is.  Prophecy fulfilled, wish granted.

Our entire communal life is dominated by the same principle at work.  If actors in financial markets believe the economy to be stable, their consequent actions cause it to be stable.  If they believe it to be unstable, their actions destabilize it.  If businesses believe that there is rising demand for their products and services, they will hire more people, which puts more money in their pockets, which creates more demand.  If they believe that demand is stagnant or declining, they will make hiring decisions accordingly with similar results.  If workers believe they are going to lose their jobs, they will save their money, which, because it isn't transferred to businesses by purchases, causes workers to lose their jobs.

It's not always economic either.  If people in a neighborhood believe that it is safe to walk at night, then they will walk at night, see each other, and keep each other safe.  Otherwise they will stay inside with the shades down, and those few who do walk will be exposed to danger.  If people believe that they will be attacked imminently by terrorists, then they are terrorized.  It even happens in churches.  If people believe that a church is on the rise, it will grow.  If they believe that a church is in decline, it will.

When FDR proclaimed that the only thing to fear is fear itself, he was on to something.

What fascinates me about the seismic shifts in college athletics is that the insecurity there exemplifies the insecurity that is reaching its way into almost every area of our lives.  It has been quite some time since individuals and institutions had so little confidence in and among each other.  Just as colleges feel insecure and lack trust that their conferences will be able to meet their needs, so also is businesses' lack of trust that the market will sustain increased hiring.  So also is people's lack of trust that governments can govern, that banks won't trigger another catastrophe, that employers will retain one's job, that one will have the money to pay for college (for self or children) or retire or care for an aging loved one, that a severe illness can be treated and won't thrust one into poverty, that society won't devolve into moral disaster, that churches won't collapse amid an emerging generation with scant relationship to religious institutions.  Pessimism has become the assumption—and the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Syracuse and Pittsburgh's move stimulated a small but significant burst of (ironic) commentaries denouncing the immorality of the colleges' decision and college sports in general in very strong terms.  It got me thinking about what the biblical, Christian evaluation of conference realignment ought to be.  There is definitely immorality about it, but I'm not sure that blunt accusations of greed, hypocrisy, and so forth form the place to start.  I mean, without a doubt, sheer ego in certain colleges and their leaders has a lot to do with why this school does this and that school does that.  And ego breeds hypocrisy real quick.  But I'm not sure that greed is quite the thing to accuse college presidents of.  These are, after all, nonprofit institutions.  The money they get from sports isn't lining owners' pockets but funding all manner of things that the universities are trying not to gouge students for any more than they already have to.  If there is greed in this it belongs with the for-profit enterprises that cover, distribute, and promote the games on the field.  But I also hesitate before railing too hard against the avaracious ways of Big Media.  The executives of ESPN/ABC, Fox, CBS, and the like have to satisfy shareholders or else they (and a whole lot of people working for them) lose their jobs.  And the shareholders just happen to include anyone who owns a slice of a mutual fund directly or through a pension board.  In other words, anyone who wants to retire someday.  You know, like us.

Where I see the immorality the most is not so much in individual institutions' individual decisions—in most cases the complexity of those decisions puts them beyond my capacity (and responsibility!) to judge.  But I see immorality in the overall environment in college sports (and, again, our society as a whole) in which the relational qualities that God displays and requires are fast disappearing.

"The conference" as a concept is a web of mutual relationships.  (Consider other meanings of its synonym "league.")  At root, at any level of competition, it is a shared agreement that greatly reduces the headache for teams of figuring out and scheduling who we're going play this year.  Obviously, as it so often does, money complicates, distorts, and even perverts that web of relationships.  Painfully often, the result is a breach of what Israel called hesed—faithful kindness in covenant, which God never fails to show to us, even to his own hurt.  The more hesed fails to appear, the less there is to go around and the less it's even expected.  A world without hesed is a world without justice, and a world without justice is a world without shalom.  And shalom—peace, wholeness, perfection—is what God created the world and humanity especially to exhibit as a reflection of its Creator.  In sum, whether any of us can accurately fix blame to individual actors in the world of college sports (we can't, God can), the shredding and shedding of relationships amid this tectonic shift tells us that something is profoundly wrong.

And that, ironically, is where I see moral good in college sports realignment.  Because despite my assertion that perception is reality, that's not entirely true.  There is always reality that persists underneath whether it is perceived or not.  Despite the perception a few years ago that investment in real estate was a sure thing and that home prices would never stop going up, there was the uncomfortable reality that not everyone pays back their loans all the time.  No web of relationships in this world—private or public, personal or business, between individuals or between institutions or between each—is as stable as it seems.  "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."  When one web unravels suddenly and shockingly, when there is the ever-present fear that all the others will unspin themselves, it is a disturbing reminder of the impermanence of this sin-infected age, a slap across our face.  Meanwhile, the only reality that does persist, constantly chafing against the Babels erected against it, is that God's kingdom is forever.  We only achieve the security and the stability we long for if we give up our hopes to find it in any "conference" but his.

"The God of heaven will raise up an everlasting kingdom that will not be destroyed and a kingdom that will not be left to another people.  It will break in pieces and bring about the demise of all the other kingdoms.  But it will stand forever" (Dan. 2:44).  Hallelujah.

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