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College Football

The Invisible Championship

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 01: The Ohio State Buckeyes celebrate after defeating the Clemson Tigers 49-28 during the College Football Playoff semifinal game at the Allstate Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 01, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Kristen Saban Setas pretty much closed the book on college football in 2020 when last week she accused her dad’s opponent in tonight’s national championship game of institutional and tactical cowardice. In suggesting that Ohio State’s COVID issues were merely a plot to buy more time for the Buckeyes to get quarterback Justin Fields healthier for the game, she reprised Dabo Swinney’s assertion earlier in the season that Florida State used the virus as an excuse to avoid playing Clemson, and reminded us that people in the sport consider this imaginable in all likelihood because they’d consider doing it themselves. After all, when you want to accuse someone else of something unfathomably underhanded, you’re essentially saying you’ve thought of the scheme yourself.

But Setas will almost surely be watching the game from inside the stadium in Miami, probably with her mom holding her phone even though she deleted her Twitter account after apologizing for speaking her truth. Which, because this is college football, is not necessarily the same as an actual truth. She has paid her public penance, and she can blend into the background again.

Which, oddly, this game seems to have done. The ethereal metric called “buzz,” which is just code for “stuff I as an individual pay attention to,” seems lower than normal seasons because the buildup to Monday’s game was COVID and Trump, two things to which most Americans are adamantly opposed. It also doesn’t help that the end of college football’s funnel always extrudes the same few teams, and that the radical newcomer to the usual suspects party was that bastion of athletic Bolshevism, Notre Dame.

The title game closes a season in which 22 teams turned down likely bowl invitations and a 23rd, LSU, self-punished for getting caught performing their standard level of rules violations. About a third of the regular season games were never played, and slightly more than a third of bowl games were canceled because losing money is one thing but losing more is quite another. It gave us a scientific study that showed that the sport was a terrible idea in a pandemic and was then repudiated by the same spine-deficient suits who commissioned and relied upon it. It gave us Nebraska as a new example of undeserved hubris transformed into a pathetic tantrum; hope those three wins were worth it.

Plus, we were all getting more than our standard measure of cultural bloodshed in the most profane election and aftermath in American history, with the clear loser being the guy who said he saved college football. It makes perfect sense that one of the few politicians defending the soon-to-be-exiled president is a former football coach because, well, because narcotics dealers and hedge-fund swindlers have too much dignity for such things.

And in a totally unrelated development to the above sentence, Jim Harbaugh took a 50 percent pay cut to keep getting punched in the face by Ohio State, reinforcing this season’s general theme: The more things suck, the more they stay the same, and the more they stay the same, the more they suck. And the suck and the sameness are intermeshed until you can’t tell one from the other.

The only real breakout this year was the notion that the people inside the sport genuinely believe their fellow competitors would fake getting sick rather than play a game; COVID as an alibi for a potential ass-kicking. What happened to the sport teaching character and forbearance? I’ll tell you what happened to it: playing games in a pandemic. Given the worldview so many of them hold that the real work uniform is a polo shirt, a headset, a play sheet, and a tinfoil hat, a national health crisis that is killing people at a spectacular rate could only be viewed as a deliberate impediment to game prep. Unless you’re the truest of true believers, this whole season has turned your mouth into an ashtray, and you have no recourse but to lash out at your old made-up enemies for new imaginary reasons.

It was one more clubfooted step in a season that only showed us more of the abattoir-with-an-ATM in which the game is played, and while there might be one or two more indignities awaiting us in tonight’s game, the business and the sport behind which it hides has pretty much done all the damage it could for one year. The 2021 Phil Steele annual will be pre-soaked with tears and spit from the season that ends tonight, and we should take that as a sign that it will take years to forget how many ways the sport damaged itself, accidentally, willfully, and brazenly. Kristen Saban Setas and her conspira-tweet will be but a near-microscopic footnote, but it will have explained so much more, and in so many ways.