I've been a Michigan fan since I was six years old. The year was 1976 and my dad was watching the Michigan-OSU game. I instantly became interested in the team with the cool helmets. When Michigan stopped OSU right before halftime with an end zone interception and proceeded to score 22 unanswered in the second half, I turned to my dad and asked who those Cool Helmet Guys were. He said: "The University of Michigan." I responded: "That's where I'm going to school."
That prediction turned out to be accurate. I did attend Michigan in 1986, having become a rabid fan of both football and basketball teams in the decade prior, and graduated four years later, living and dying with every moment that either team played (and adding the hockey team to that cycle of death and rebirth (mostly death in those early years...)) But I come to you now with a confession that requires no great effort to utter, despite it having been laughable for the majority of my life:
I am no longer really a Michigan fan.
I think many things fade as you get older and your outlook and priorities change with both age and, hopefully, wisdom. But to use the easiest comparison, I am no less the diehard Liverpool fan that I became only a couple years after that football game. In fact, given that LFC is in probably better shape, with better leadership on the field and off, than it has been in 30+ years, I may even be more of a fan now than I was then. No, the change in my Michigan loyalty is based on a series of factors that have grown more prominent in my mind and more inimical to the basic enjoyment of the teams as the years have gone by. To wit:
This aspect is largely centered around football as, in a few ways, I feel like the game is broken. Like most other sports, if you have endless talent, you have options. If you don't, there's a way to take advantage of the modern development of the game and then there's a way to cling to tradition in an exercise of futility. Too often in the last decade, it seems like Michigan has gone the latter route. When Jim Harbaugh was hired, I was the least excited among the fans that I know. I was attending Michigan when Harbaugh played quarterback there and I had kept an eye on his pro career and his subsequent coaching career. Despite considerable success at the latter, he didn't exactly strike me as a forward thinker of the game, so I was hesitant upon his arrival because Michigan had gone through a series of upheavals transitioning away from the hidebound Carr era, to the more modern but disastrous Rodriguez regime, and then a return to what the English would call a Proper Football Man in Brady Hoke. That label is always applied cynically to someone whose thinking is largely outdated but who embodies some unknowable spirit of the game the way it used to be when men were men and daffodils sang on the sidelines. The Ann Arbor-centric parallel is the "Michigan Man"; a term I have grown to loathe for the blind loyalty it's meant to instill, despite the lack of success which often follows in its wake (see: Hoke, Brady and Carr, Lloyd.)
Jim Harbaugh, in many ways, is a Proper Football Man. By that, I mean that he clings to a notion of the game that was outdated when he was playing for Bo Schembechler. What that has produced in the last four years is the inability of the football team to defeat its greatest rival (heretofore led by one of the preeminent modern football minds of the game), which means not only a lack of what most Michigan fans would identify as "success" (conference titles, Rose Bowls, playoffs), but also performances that are often somewhere between grueling and soporific. I spent the first game day last year accompanying my girlfriend's son to the tailgate that he was being paid to watch while its owners were inside Michigan Stadium. Despite Michigan playing on the widescreen in front of us, I spent most of that time watching Georgia Tech on another TV to my right. Why? Because Tech's offense was actually entertaining, even if also outdated. Better the fossil you don't know than the one you do when it comes to interesting football, I guess (although, admittedly, I know the triple option very well because Michigan ran it when I was a kid...)
On top of that, the continuing prostration to the gods of commerce has made the game largely unwatchable in the first place. Three minutes of action followed by three minutes of commercials is awful for fans in the stands, as well as those trying to watch at home. American football is already a slow-paced game, given that the ball is actually in play for only a fraction of the time that the game clock is running. When you combine that with the constant interruptions (touchdown, commercial, kickoff, commercial, end of quarter, commercial; one minute of game time just took 15 minutes of actual time), it simply saps the life from the proceedings. I've gotten to the point where even the four commercial breaks in every half of basketball is more annoyance than I'm willing to tolerate, so I frequently watch those on "DVR delay", so that I can speed through the ads.
But the most disturbing aspect to football, of course, is the health risk. Unlike basketball, I think football is on a clock. As the evidence of the dangers of the game, CTE-connected and otherwise, continue to mount, I find myself no longer interested in watching people kill themselves for my supposed amusement. It's even worse when watching them kill themselves in an often brutally boring display of offense. I can't look at hits on the football field in the same way anymore and I'm usually just thinking about how much damage these kids are doing to themselves for our entertainment... and for someone else's money.
As usual, it's always about the money, and this incorporates basketball and hockey, as well. The NCAA is one of the more corrupt institutions in the sporting world and when you consider that said world includes organizations like the NFL, FIFA, and the IOC, that's saying quite a bit. Unlike those other organizations, which exist to profit off of the games they oversee and only occasionally via the abuse of the athletes which play those games, the NCAA goes all-in on the abuse. There are many, many other locations where you can read about the ongoing circus that is the NCAA's attempt to preserve the notion of "amateurism" (including their admission that the term "student-athlete" was created so that they wouldn't have to pay workmans' comp to what were obviously employees.) I find that I simply can't continue to be a paying spectator to that circus. The only other institution in this country where your labor produces profits for others but only in-kind "payment" for you is prison. There is no other institution where you are expressly forbidden from using your talents for payment. There is no other institution where people the same age as you and attending the same school as you can make money from an outside job but where you are forbidden to do so because of your talents and consequent special status ("student-athlete".) There is no other institution or status where you are forbidden from even taking a job that has nothing to do with those talents. While you are a "student-athlete", you're essentially indentured to your university, while no other student, including those on "full ride" scholarships as these athletes often are, is so burdened. The fact that the image in front of us is largely a bunch of young, Black men making billions for old, White men while not able to take a dime of that money can't be more disturbing, because that scenario has never happened in this country before...
John Beilein, a career college basketball coach, recently resigned that post at Michigan, at least in part because of the farcical system that the NCAA has in place. All the man wanted to do was teach and coach basketball, but the NCAA has set up a host of policies that prevented him from doing just that, supposedly to protect the athletes from being exploited by their coaches, but mostly to ensure that they're not classified as employees so they can continue to be exploited by their universities. These policies are given the guise of preserving some kind of "life balance" between sport and school, but given that the NCAA has been unwilling to enforce its rules against some of its biggest offenders (and biggest moneymakers), it becomes apparent what (account) balance they're really trying to preserve. All indications are that he was also frustrated by seeing his players regularly leave school early for a chance at the money that they should be making now.
I find myself unable to support that system- directly by buying tickets or tacitly by watching TV -any longer. I don't want to contribute to the wallets of those old, White men while we hear example after example of athletes being unable to go to the movies or even have enough to eat, while their in-kind "payment"- an education -is often a scam only perpetrated until their usefulness to their non-employer is served. I'm not interested in supporting the profoundly elitist and often racist perspective that athletes can't be trusted with the millions that they've earned, while programmers who develop a new app in school (Mark Zuckerberg, anyone?) aren't given a second thought about how they might spend their windfall. I'm not interested in helping to perpetuate the idea that athletic departments are strapped for cash and therefore can't pay their laborers, when any tour around a major university will show you exactly how and where that money is spent. You might even see the host of middle managers and special assistants walking out of their well-salaried jobs and well-appointed offices on your tour. Major athletic departments exist to make money and spend money so that they can claim that those that earn the money can't have a slice. I live with enough lies already, thanks. And the key thing here, of course, is that...
is the NCAA. The NCAA is a membership organization. The schools that follow its rules are the ones who write the rules. Michigan is one of those members. But, even beyond that, there's no way to escape the truth that Michigan is also a giant, profit-seeking corporation. The facade of an educational institution for most major American universities disappeared long ago and Michigan is no exception. Athletic departments are just a manifestation of the same phenomenon that is rampant across academia. From the never-ending building sprees to the vast gulf in salaries between department heads and those who actually do the bulk of the teaching, Michigan and universities like it are far more concerned about their bottom lines than they are about the welfare of most of their employees or the education of their students. How else does one explain the university refusing to extend a decent contract to its lecturers without a walkout? How else does one explain the confrontational nature of the relationship between the university and the city in which it resides? (Mostly about tax issues. It's always money...) How else does one explain the ridiculous increase in university cost of attendance, far outpacing inflation over the past 40 years? That explanation is simple: the University of Michigan is a profit-seeking, multi-billion dollar corporation and is following in the same behavior pattern of most of its brethren (Wal-Mart, et al.) The university is sitting on an endowment of over a billion dollars and yet it can't find a way to give its staff a decent cost-of-living increase or maintain their health insurance? What does it say when the university with one of the most famed medical schools in the world regularly threatens to cut back on the health care access of its employees?
It's not just that I don't really want to be associated any longer with teams that bore me or a system that exploits athletes in the name of a mythical status while gathering increasing profits. It's that I'm questioning the nature of the institution from which I hold a degree. That institution owns its identity and it's one that I'm not really comfortable with anymore. To draw a comparison with Liverpool again, I'm happy to say that LFC is a club that is extremely conscious of the livelihoods of its employees and the community that surrounds it. The club goes to great lengths to assist local charities and has instituted a ticket price freeze for the past few years after fans objected to an increase in the already expensive seats at Anfield. The only time Michigan ever instituted a ticket price freeze was when students stopped coming to the games because the team was so awful (see: Hoke, Brady.) Ownership matters. The actions of owners matter. Michigan's teams are "owned" (there's that disturbing scenario again!) by the university. They represent the university and their respective actions are impacted by each other. I look at recent activity by my alma mater and confess that I'm not particularly proud of it or proud to say that I was once part of it.
So, yeah. I have no problem walking away from the football program. I'm mostly there already and my interest in hockey was slowly hammered by Red's almost decade-overdue departure. But I did (and do) really enjoy watching Beilein's teams and I'm intrigued by what Howard might do. I'm also intrigued by a member of the Fab Five, one of the more prominent collective voices talking about the injustice of the NCAA system 30 years ago, being the guy who basically has to live by and enforce that system with his players. I'd like to think he's no happier about it than I am, but he doesn't have the choice I do to simply not play ball anymore. And, despite my interest in his team, that's what I'm going to do.