America Ruined College Football. Now College Football Is Ruining America.

Coaches shouldn’t be senators.

Football on fire
Erik Carter / The Atlantic

Updated 12:48 p.m. ET on November 5, 2022

Every sports fan, whether they acknowledge it or not, has a line they won’t cross—where the intrusion of the ugly real world onto the playing field becomes too much to ignore and they have to look away. Maybe you’re a Miami Dolphins fan, so you’ll root for Tyreek Hill, the Dolphins’ $120 million wide receiver whose girlfriend accused him of threatening her life and breaking their 3-year-old son’s arm, but you refuse to draft him in your fantasy league. Maybe you stuck with the Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving when he wouldn’t get vaccinated, but dropped him when he finally got suspended this week for refusing to apologize for tweeting out the link to an anti-Semitic, Islamophobic documentary.

What are Cleveland Browns fans supposed to do about DeShaun Watson, their new franchise quarterback, whom team ownership signed to a five-year, $230 million megadeal this spring knowing full well that the NFL was about to suspend him for being a sexual predator? Boycott the team? Root for everyone on the field but him? His 11-game suspension ends in early December. What if he turns their season around and they make a playoff run? Some Browns fans won’t skip a beat—they’ll mutter something about second chances and note that the criminal charges were dropped—and some Browns fans are going to feel lousy about it until the day he leaves Cleveland.

I was so obsessed with college football growing up that I would spend all of December watching every single televised bowl game, until it got preposterous, until I was wasting a Saturday afternoon watching the Poulan Weed-Eater Independence Bowl. I still love so much about the game—the unhinged unpredictability, the ludicrous offensive schemes, the mad carnival that is ESPN’s College GameDay, Lee Corso going to his grave in a Wisconsin Badgers mascot head. I wasn’t looking for reasons to break up with college football. The reasons came and found me.

I drifted from the game for all kinds of reasons, but at first it was just life stuff. I had two kids, and once you have kids you can watch football on Saturday or Sunday, but not both, and my fantasy team plays on Sunday. I went to a college in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but it was a basketball school—let’s leave it at that.

My queasiness began with the revelations about undiagnosed concussions, the science of traumatic brain injuries (known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE), and the obvious reality that no one in a position of authority at any level of football—high school, college, or pro—could be trusted to worry about what used to be called “getting your bell rung.” Maybe it seems hypocritical to swear off college football but still watch the NFL. It is hypocritical. Stipulated. I was watching when the Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s fingers twisted up during what looked like a seizure after his head slammed on the turf. But at least Tua had $30 million in the bank. He wasn’t a teenager, too young to understand the risks, counting on the adults to protect him. The NFL has also, at a minimum, acknowledged the link between the sport and CTE; the NCAA, which is fighting a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the family of a former University of Southern California linebacker, has not.

Over the same period, head coaches at elite college programs were accumulating so much power that I began to see them as dictators of their own sovereign kingdoms. They had grown rich off of free labor, and they could get away with anything, it seemed, except losing.

College-ball coaches have always been larger than life, but that’s all they wanted to be—ball coaches. Politics was for bullshitters and pantywaists. True, Nebraska sent the Cornhusker legend Tom Osborne to the U.S. House of Representatives during George W. Bush’s presidency, but he was an exception—and a rock-ribbed conservative, not a far-right ideologue. Now there’s a wave of college-football candidates, and this generation has higher aspirations and scarier politics.

In North Carolina’s most competitive congressional district, the Republican nominee is a 27-year-old Trump disciple named Bo Hines, who has built his political brand around his college-football career. Hines chose a scholarship to North Carolina State University (Go Pack!) over several other offers because he already knew, at 18, that he wanted to run for office. Now he speaks largely in football jargon, except when he’s arguing that rape or incest victims should be allowed to get an abortion only “on a case-by-case basis through a community-level review process outside the jurisdiction of the federal government” according to a local news site. Hines spent one year at NC State, transferred to Yale, blew through his first marriage in 10 months, and lives off of a trust fund. He’s probably going to win.

The trite old phrase about sports holding up a mirror to our society no longer applies to college football. The image is no longer just imagery. The sport’s tribalism is being repackaged as an electoral strategy. It’s an offshoot of Trumpism—cults of personality disguising a multibillion-dollar engine of capitalism fueled by nostalgia and grievances about how great America used to be. For people who live in SEC or Big 10 country—and the way those two conferences keep gobbling up schools, soon all of America will be one or the other—the degrees of separation between college football and the gears of politics, the daily operation of our nation, are being erased.

Looking back, my breaking point with college football occurred in August 2020, during that awful first summer of COVID-19. A plague was sweeping through Mississippi. ICUs were full. Bodies were piling up. And so Governor Tate Reeves invoked the only thing he could think of that might get his citizens’ attention, something even more dear to them than their own survival.

“I want to see college football,” Reeves said in a press conference. “The best way for that to occur is for us all to realize that wearing a mask—as irritating as that can be, and I promise I hate it more than anyone watching—is critical.” If you won’t wear a mask for your loved ones, do it for the Ole Miss Rebels.

That was it. That was when I completed my transition from a kid who grew up cheering for Bobby Bowden and the Florida State Seminoles—no matter how often they lost to Miami, because my stepfather went there—to the guy I am now: a grown man and father of two who still watches sports way too much, but who can’t watch college football at all anymore.

For two years now, Alabama has been represented in the U.S. Senate by Tommy Tuberville, the former head football coach at Auburn University, who won in a landslide even though his most recent qualification for the job was winning the Chick-fil-A Bowl in 2007. (A year later they paid him $5 million to leave. Two years after that, his successor led Auburn to a national title.) As The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill pointed out recently on Twitter, Tuberville’s coaching career depended on being invited into the homes of young Black men, looking into their parents’ eyes, and asking them to put their sons’ futures in his hands. “He made millions off their abilities, but here’s what he really thinks about Black folks,” she wrote, sharing a clip of Tuberville at a Donald Trump rally on October 8, ranting about a nonspecific “they” who “want reparation because they think the people that do the crime are owed that! Bullshit!”

No prominent Republican called for Tuberville to resign, or even to apologize. That includes Herschel Walker, the former University of Georgia running back, another ghost of Southeastern Conferences past, whom Georgia Republicans are trying to put in the Senate alongside Tuberville. A couple more and they can caucus together.

Walker’s ex-wife says he once put a gun to her head and told her he was “going to blow [her] brains out.” According to his estranged son, Christian, now 23, Walker was such a threat that he and his mother moved “over 6 times in 6 months running from [his] violence.” When Donald Trump released a statement urging Walker to run, he didn’t mention any of this. Nor did he mention Walker wasting his prime on the former president’s New Jersey Generals of the USFL, the historic bust that brought the two of them together in the mid-1980s. But Trump did mention the Georgia Bulldogs, Walker’s team when he won the Heisman Trophy 40 years ago. That trophy is Walker’s one and only qualification for the U.S. Senate, and the only one he needs.

“Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the legendary Herschel Walker ran for the United States Senate in Georgia?” Trump said. “He would be unstoppable, just like he was when he played for the Georgia Bulldogs, and in the NFL. He is also a GREAT person. Run Herschel, run!”

Regardless of whether Walker wins or loses next week, Republican kingmakers surely realize by now that they’ve discovered a gold mine of future candidates. What’s most perplexing about Tuberville’s ascendance is that he’s way down on the list of popular ex-football coaches from Alabama. He’s not even the most popular ex-football coach from Auburn. (That would be Gus Malzahn, who led Auburn to a national title in 2013.) Walker is a serial abuser who played football at Georgia so long ago that no voter under the age of 40 was alive yet to witness it. These aren’t even the good candidates yet.

If Nick Saban decided to run for president tomorrow, he could remain on the sidelines in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for the next two years and he’d still roll tide into the White House in 2024. Except Saban would never do it, because his current job pays far too well, and he’s very good at it. Tommy Tuberville wasn’t, and that’s why he was available to run for Senate. Now whenever I see a clip of the Clemson head football coach, Dabo Swinney, patrolling the sidelines embodying every tweet by the blowhard-coach parody account @3YearLetterman, all I see is a future senator from the great state of South Carolina.

Sometimes I’m not quite sure what unnerves me more: when good coaches aren’t held to account for being bad people, or when bad people aren’t even held to account for being bad coaches.

Consider Urban Meyer, who built a pair of elite college programs and got paid roughly $9 million to bring his culture of winning to the NFL’s hapless Jacksonville Jaguars. He was fired after just 13 games, having revealed himself to be a toxic and abusive leader, a goofus too stupid not to get filmed in a bar after a loss with a woman who was not his wife grinding on his thigh. He seemed particularly baffled that grown men making actual salaries weren’t okay with being bullied by some Big 10 loudmouth with zero NFL wins.

But within months, he had passed back through the college-football reality-distortion field and was restored to his seat on Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff pregame-show panel, where he wasn’t the worst coach in NFL history—he was the two-time national champion Urban Meyer, former head coach at the Ohio State University, where they extend your contract for kicking the kicker when he misses a goddamn kick, as well as the former head coach at the University of Florida, where he remains a Gator for life. Meyer is a future senator, too, if he ever wants to switch careers. The only question is whether he runs in Florida or the Ohio state.

In this alternate universe, Brett Favre, the NFL Hall of Fame quarterback and University of Southern Mississippi football star who pushed the state’s previous governor to siphon off welfare funds in order to build a volleyball stadium, isn’t a shameless embezzler. He’s a family man and a gridiron legend who was just trying to give back to his community. Tuberville isn’t an ignorant racist who viewed every Black kid he recruited as someone he was rescuing from jail or slavery—he’s a proven winner. If Georgia voters send Walker to Washington, they won’t be electing a failed ex-athlete who fumbled his pro career, beat his wife, and terrorized his children—they’ll be electing grainy YouTube footage of a Heisman Trophy winner. They’ll be electing someone who makes them feel about America the way they feel about college football.

My earliest college-football memory might explain why I fell so hard for the sport: Doug Flutie, Boston College’s pint-size quarterback, with the bashed golden helmet and smeared white jersey, flinging the ball 60 yards into the end zone as time expired in the Orange Bowl in 1984 against the University of Miami Hurricanes. Unlike the ball used in the NFL, the college ball has white stripes on either end, so even without the video, I can still picture Flutie’s perfect spiral, the ball sneaking through a crack in the wall of bodies and flailing arms at the goal line and into the end zone, where the wide receiver Gerard Phelan caught it while falling backwards. BC wins, 47–45. “I don’t believe it!” Brent Musburger, the voice of college football, yelped on CBS. Here in New England, they still call it the “Hail Flutie,” or just “Flutie to Phelan.”

In retrospect the game was meaningless. Miami had already lost the previous week and was out of the running for the national title. BC finished the 1984 season 10–2, ranked fifth overall in the final AP poll, beat the Houston Cougars in the Cotton Bowl, and hasn’t been heard from since. The Hail Flutie was thrilling, but there are thrilling Hail Fluties every other weekend in college football. The play lingers in sports history primarily because of the story around it—the collision of two very different cultures, a tidy allegory for the War on Drugs era—all of which went over my head at the time, because I was 8.

I didn’t know that this game was viewed by many people through a prism of good versus evil, with a none-too-subtle racial coding. I didn’t know anything about “the U,” Luther Campbell and 2 Live Crew, the Mariel Boatlift, race riots, or police brutality, and I only knew about cocaine because of Nancy Reagan. I didn’t understand that the story here—at least the story my team was telling—was about a bunch of scrappy white Catholic boys from Massachusetts storming into a drug den from Miami Vice and pulling off the college-football miracle of the century. The day after Thanksgiving no less, as though inspired by the Pilgrims themselves.

What I remember is the spiral. Most pro coaches back then believed in patient ball control, three yards and a cloud of dust, and no one threw the ball over the middle because decapitation was still legal. The NFL was dour and militaristic. Your jersey number corresponded strictly to your position. Quarterbacks stayed below 20, and even 19 was a little weird. Wide receivers were expected to wear numbers in the 80s, and only the 80s. Maybe one wideout in the league wore a 12, and if you pulled that kind of shit, you better be good. But no one gave a flip in college football. Gerard Phelan wore 20! Doug Flutie—a quarterback—wore 22! You make simple decisions when you’re a kid.

College football was sloppy fun, and best of all, they chucked the ball over the field. Some schools did, anyway. Some didn’t throw the ball at all, ever—they were so earthbound and conservative that they ran an offense called the “wishbone” that featured three running backs. Power football. System football. Final score 13–9 football. I hated the wishbone. If this whole sport was just one big war metaphor, then I wanted to see an all-out aerial attack. I wanted quarterbacks who threw the football like they’d just pulled all the pins out of a box of grenades. For me, college football peaked on Friday nights, when I would stay up past midnight watching Western Athletic Conference football—the Wacky WAC of the Rocky Mountains—where all the coaches were light-headed from the altitude and breathing all of that Bill Walsh West Coast Offense air. I’d fall asleep watching Robbie Bosco shatter passing records at Brigham Young University and win games by scores like 59–48.

The college game in that era was regional and ragtag, a loose confederacy in the mold of America itself, and the bowl system helped keep it that way by being, in a word, idiotic. Intentional chaos, purposeful haziness. You had to be invited to a bowl, which was shady and favored the big programs that could deliver big TV ratings. Then they’d play all of these huge games with national-title implications on New Year’s Day, one right after another, into the night, and then the season just … stopped. The title was decided by not one but two polls, one for coaches, one for the sports media. Sometimes two teams split the polls, and the college-football season would end with something downright un-American: co-national champs. It was destined to be replaced with a playoff system, and eventually it was, and I think I speak for all sports fans when I say good riddance.

But I also loved it. Each bowl had its own quirks, silly traditions, historic enmities. Each New Year’s Day, a different bowl could luck into deciding the national title. And in the same way that Flutie to Phelan was filling me with a story about America while I was focused on the tight spiral and the cool white stripes, bowl season had the grateful optimism of a colorful bounteous harvest. The Peach Bowl! The Sugar Bowl! The Cotton Bowl! The Orange Bowl! All these … crops. All these games held under the beating sun, on giant fields all across the former Confederacy … played by strong young Black men … monitored by older white men who took all the money.

Right around this time, Herschel Walker was carrying the Georgia Bulldogs to a national title at the Sugar Bowl. After he retired from pro football, Walker was institutionalized for dissociative identity disorder rooted in deep childhood trauma, and he has said that at one point he was managing 12 different “alters.” There’s no cure for dissociative identity disorder. It’s often triggered by stress. He’s a damaged man who’s done terrible things, but to Georgia Republicans, he’s just a promising recruit with a spotty record, and they’re counting on him to carry them to victory. He’s a teenager again, and they’re back in his living room, looking him in the eye. And if he loses on Election Night, they’ll dump him before sunrise.

The optics of college football have always been problematic, but they’ve mostly been just that: optics. Now Tuberville is a U.S. senator who, by the way, adamantly opposes college athletes getting paid for the use of their NIL—their “name, image, and likeness”—in other words, for owning their own body. He fears that last summer’s monopoly-busting Supreme Court ruling in NCAA v. Alston, which ruled that restrictions on “education-related benefits” for college athletes violate antitrust law, “has created an environment where student-athletes can be exploited.” He thinks only coaches should be able to do that.

College-football coaches despise the idea of players getting paid, and they’ve taken to slinging mud at one another’s programs, accusing rivals of buying recruits. That’s how you know it’s working, by the way: The fraternity is turning on itself. They keep doomsaying about how fair compensation for NIL is going to destroy college football, when in reality, that’s the only justification for saving it.

I often think about a photograph, by the artist Hank Willis Thomas, of two young Black men squaring off on a floodlit field at night. You know Thomas’s work if you’ve ever crossed the Brooklyn Bridge—he made the 22-foot bronze sculpture near the bridge’s exit of a Black athlete’s outstretched arm pointing a finger to the heavens, or maybe it’s spinning an invisible basketball, or maybe it’s anointing its owner the greatest. (The arm belongs to the All-NBA center Joel Embiid, who plays in Philadelphia—a little inside joke from a sports-mad artist.) In Thomas’s photograph, the two men crouch in the familiar arrangement of opposing linemen prior to the snap. On the right side is a football player in a classic three-point stance, ready to explode; on the left, another man is in the same pose, only he’s in a cotton field, and instead of a uniform he’s wearing weather-beaten clothes and a wide-brim straw hat. The photograph is called The Cotton Bowl.

Thomas made the photo in 2011, but I didn’t come across it until many years later, right around when all these thoughts started swirling in my head. The idea came to him, Thomas told me recently, when he saw an archival photo of prison laborers at Angola, the infamous Louisiana state penitentiary that was named after the former slave plantation upon which it was built. The pitched angles of the prisoners’ bodies reminded him of that three-point stance. Once I saw The Cotton Bowl, I couldn’t unsee it: two economies of human exploitation, captured in a single photograph.

Thomas isn’t prescribing any behavior; he’s not calling for a boycott of college football. He’s doing what artists do: showing us the truth. He’s challenging us to take in the whole portrait, and not just the parts that are reassuring to see, or that tell us the story about America we want to believe.

Thomas made The Cotton Bowl during President Barack Obama’s first term, and in that moment, it looked reflective, an act of connecting past to present. But when I look at it now, it feels more like a warning about how easily we could slide backwards. Tommy Tuberville coached in the Cotton Bowl in 2007. He’ll be in the U.S. Senate until at least 2026. He is America’s future.

This article originally misidentified the bowl at which Herschel Walker and the Georgia Bulldogs won a national title. It was the Sugar Bowl, not the Orange Bowl.