Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Artificial Constructs

This is the piece that I should have put together in the wake of the UTL game.  I regret mildly that I thought throwing something together quickly, in the afterglow, was a better idea than taking time to  actually assemble the larger theme that struck me.  I suppose the great thing about blogging is, you get second chances if you want them.

Last Friday, John U. Bacon posted on his blog a piece about the nature of college football and its connections to the universities of the United States.  One of the key points Bacs made was:
We need to be together.  We need to share something with strangers.  And to fill that need, you could do worse than Michigan football.  I’ve spent the past three years following the players at close range, and I can tell you that, with few exceptions, they are hard-working, honest guys who care deeply for their school and their teammates.  For many fans, when a Wolverine running back breaks through the line into the endzone, then simply hands the ball to the ref, Michigan-style, and celebrates with his teammates, he represents our cherished Midwestern values at their very best.    
Maybe it was this in notion sitting in the back of my mind as I prepared myself for the Under the Lights game that made me feel better about the fact that I knew that I was being sold and I was being sold willingly.

In March 2010, just shortly after David Brandon was installed as the new Athletic Director, the Athletic Department announced that Michigan would be playing Notre Dame in 2011 in the first night game in Michigan Stadium history.  This was also announced less than a month after Michigan announced that the NCAA had sent it a notice of allegations.  It was also a year after Michigan announced it would be hosting a hockey game at the Big House.

Why does this matter?  In my mind, it matters because all of these things are about construction.  It's an open question among Michigan fans, do you like David Brandon because he seems to be so good at what he does, or are you not a fan because it feels like he's too slick and doesn't get the big ones right or he's selling out Michigan's traditions.  I see how both sides can see this and I reserve judgment.  But I also look at all of the little things that get done and I realize that so much of what Michigan is and what we see it to be is already sold to us, in small pieces, in tiny packages, because we want it to be.  This goes all the way back to Fielding Yost and Don Canham.  David Brandon is not the first Michigan athletic director to try and make money off our love of what Michigan is; given his company, he's not even a great innovator in that regard, but he is willing to try stuff and do stuff.  What does this mean?

Well, it means that we get logos for games, making them "events". We get special "heritage" jerseys for these games, all of which are available for purchase at M-Den.  We get special programs with audio insert chips.  We get relatively low altitude flyovers.  We get Michigan Football Legends being honored.  We get night jumps in to the stadium.  We get Twitter hashtags for the event.  We get Facebook posts.  We get Pop Evil.  We get Special K.

But more than anything else, we get discussions, debates, blog posts, articles, commentaries, message board interplay, and that's what David Brandon wants.  He wants you talking about the Michigan football team and focused on anything that isn't on the field, because the product on the field isn't where he (or any of us) wants it to be.  So the ephemera of Michigan football, everything that isn't that which is one the field, moves the needle.  Word of mouth becomes the marketing machine.  Oh, and if the machine has slowed down a little, just muse idly, picking from the raw meat that the traditionalists will go crazy over "Hey, maybe we need a mascot?"

I mention all of this because it brings me to Saturday night's game.  As the ESPN hype machine ramped things up at College GameDay, SI's Andy Staples tweeted "They're playing a night game -- not landing on Mars."  (LSU got a nice dig in too, pointing out that if Michigan had been doing this as long as they have, they're be no fuss.) 

Dave Brandon got an event.  He got everything that goes with an event.  He sold extra shirts, extra jerseys, extra programs, the whole nine yards.  He made people talk about Michigan playing a night game like it had never been done by anyone, even if Michigan was one of the last schools in the country to play a night game.  In the end, everything that led up to 8 PM, all of the hype, all of the pregame videos, all of the talk, there was still a football game to be played.  Therein lies the issue.

College football games in the modern era are no longer content to be a college football game.  They now must be a multivector marketing and branding machine.  Michigan is somewhat unique rare* in not having advertising in the stadium, but that's a tricky notion of what constitutes advertising, but if nothing else, Michigan spends three and a half hours every Saturday selling you Michigan football.  Despite the fact that you're already in the stadium and they already have your money.  But they're selling you an all-encompassing experience, one they can control, unlike the outcome of the game.

(Ed note--Agggh, you can't be "somewhat unique".  You know better than that.)

Of all of the things Dave Brandon had under his control under the lights, the ultimate memory of the game would come down to the result of the game.  A loss and a lot of the last year and a half of hype wouldn't matter, the bubble would be burst, new questions would arise.  A win would put a little bow on everything, send everyone home happy, and call it a day.  But an insane, epic, 28 points in the final quarter, 14 points in the last 72 seconds comeback win puts it in the pantheon.  The footage now gets shipped over to oldhatcreative to become a part of the next hype video and David Brandon gets 48 more hours of afterglow and free marketing.

But all of that said, when I think back on Saturday night, I'm not immediately going to think of the Roundtree grab, or Denard's heroics.  I'm going to think about standing in Section 11 and not wanting to leave.  I'm going to think about taking it all in for almost an hour after the game was over.  I'm going to think of the stadium singing along to "Oh, What a Night" and "Dynamite" and "Sweet Caroline" and "Don't Stop Believin'".  I'm going to think about the roar of the crowd when Denard came back out to do his sit down with Chris Fowler.  I'm going to think about Carl coming back on the PA to introduce postgame and saying "Good Morning".  I know I will remember it because it was about a feeling rather than something.
But I also know it's something of an artificial construct.  I was waiting in the stadium in part because I was in Row 6 and it's virtually impossible to leave the stadium immediately after the game when you're down that low.  I was singing along to the music because the stadium DJ was playing songs, a practice I have railed against.  I was cheering the return of Denard because the set for a television show was on the field.  They're all artificial constructs, in many ways no different than the marketing machine that David Brandon is selling us.  Our traditions began as artificial constructs at some point, done with enough frequency to move in to the realm of the sacred and revered, secular festivals of the spirit, done because people crave familiarity, normalcy, and regularity.  I was a part of the larger community of like minded people celebrating the same moment.

People like to ask me if I think the Michigan Stadium crowds are louder with the new suites and I dutifully explain to them that I feel that the crowd sounds louder, even if the fans are not doing anything more than they once were.  The angles changed, the results changed.  But I also believe that something more fundamental has changed.  I believe that Michigan fans have changed.  In the past four years, Michigan fans have seen some of the lowest lows in the program history.  They have stood by, silent, anguished, distraught, horrified, and angry over things we had been told only happened to other programs.  But having come out the other side, a new era as defined by coaching personnel, one defined by its familiarity rather than its pushing of the envelope, I believe that Michigan fans have been transformed.  I believe that we are freer in our cheering for the amazing, for the impossible, for the implausible, simply because those moments were too few and far between for too long.  In their scarcity, we now cherish what even resembles a moment of joy, because happiness is defined as the absence of fear.  We, as fans, lived too long waiting for the inevitable, waiting for the other cleat to drop and crush our dreams.  We were spoiled by four decades of unparalleled and incomprehensible success and we didn't even realize it.  So when you tell yourself you've hit rock bottom, you loosen up, because you are certain there is nothing left to lose.  You've been down in the hole, and it's not as scary once you know how deep it really is and you have friends to help you get out of it.

The ancient Greeks struggled with the idea of what is real, and how can we know reality when we encounter it.  If you overthink it, you end up becoming obsessed with definitions and frameworks.  If you accept that there's a certain level of artificiality to everything, that it's all just what we say it is to a degree, you grant yourself the freedom to appreciate the moments for what they are, no matter how hard they may be to describe.

Even if it means saying the words "'Cause we gon' rock this club / We gon' go all night / We gon' light it up /Like it's dynamite!" over and over.


NDEddieMac said...

Hell of a read good sir, between this and our back and forth the last two days, it's given an interesting look into the mind of a Michigan Man. I just wish your boy Brandon didn't get his afterglow at my team's expense. Carry on

Mike B. said...

Get ready for exciting four quarter-action at Michigan Stadium. It'll be athletic mayhem mayhem mayhem. Do we need all those "mayhems"? We do. All right, fair enough. I suppose you know your business. Get ready for fun, fun, fun! The people are already here, we don't need to keep hustling them like this, do we? Let go of me... Where are you throwing me?

Craig Barker said...

Eddie, thank you good sir.

Mike, don't think that this exact sequence was not in the back of my mind as well.

Ed Cormany said...

why can't you be "somewhat unique"? surely you can be "almost unique", so…

really though, fantastic piece. now i'm kinda bummed i wasn't there.

Reed said...

Sweet Caroline?!? Holy shit. Almost makes me not upset I wasn't able to be there.

I've been living in Argentina for the last three years and have only made it back to a Michigan game once over that period. It's been perhaps the biggest sacrifice I've had to make. But I hear stuff like this and I wonder if maybe I'm better off. OK, I know it's been a frustrating time what with all the losing and sadness, but it seems meaningful American culture is eroding left and right - exemplified by the horrendous pop music we are stuck with from shopping malls to restaurants to airports. If Michigan Stadium can't maintain any tradition, you'd think that the least we could ask is that their newfangled-shiny-boomin'system is at least somewhat cognizant of what is good and bad. What is worthwhile and what is not. And "Sweet Caroline" and "Oh What a Night" at our fucking football stadium are not.

James said...

Reed, I don't necessarily disagree, but I will note that those songs were only played over the PA after the game ended (and after a few renditions of "The Victors" of course.) The total amount of piped-in music when the game is on is still fairly low for a college stadium nowadays. Also, I'm pleased to report that our new jumobotrons avoid the tackiness (cartoon graphics, "races" of various kinds) that you can find almost everywhere else. We're probably not going to go back to JUST having the band, but at least we haven't completely gone all-out in the other direction.

In any event, it was an amazing atmosphere.