I miss late 90's ESPN.
Not because it was "good," per se, but it had a certain janky charm that went along with the idea of cable still being some kind of exclusive club where you could say bad words and show the occasional boob. ESPN had foolheartedly devoted gigantic blocks of autumn airtime to college football (of all things), and it was kind of incredible to me that I could sit my teenaged ass in front of the TV for an entire Saturday morning of flipping between robots making fun of I Accuse My Parents and Lee Corso yelling about Torry Holt or whoever.
But then, sadly, everything started to be taken way way too seriously. As the implications of the BCS became clear, every negative statement made on the Worldwide Leader about the Buckeyes felt like an excuse for a malevolent iMac to beep and boop Ohio State right out of the championship game. Residual fan rage toward Trev Alberts and Mark May have mined a trillion clicks in the Ohio State blogging universe, but the paranoia that a sports entertainment company would actively try and hurt one of their biggest drivers of viewers was and is very real.
Anyway, the end result is that ESPN turned from your friendly neighbor willing to pay for Pay Per View to your coworker who constantly bugs you to talk about sports but only so he can take a giant dump on your favorite team.
So, okay, if someone my age or older has a reflexive dislike of ESPN's college football coverage specifically where it relates to the Buckeyes, I can't say that I don't get it. I definitely disagree, especially as of the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty One, but there's a certain lived experience there that I can't argue against.
The person who feels this way is in Purgatory, forever buffeted by the winds of ESPN blowhards, but I'm also not at all interested in that milquetoast state of mind. We need to go deeper.
The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse.
Hell yeah, brother!
The above quote is from Hulk Hogan, but the quote above that is from Richard Hofstadter's seminal work, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Hofstadter was writing about the persistence of conspiratorial thinking in the American electorate and how it drives our systems to dysfunction, but I'm going to appropriate his words to make a point about college sports.
It's my belief that outside commentators about Ohio State fans have a pretty poor understanding of the fanbase and what drives it. Usually this involves a lot of lazy frat bro jokes and tired observations about Greek life or whatever, but the key aspect of the Buckeyetariat that everyone misses is the acute anxiety based on a perceived lack of respect (and the rage that comes immediately afterward).
This jittery anger is honestly kind of endearing because the real picture of the fanbase isn't a pledge in a polo shirt and boat shoes doing kegstands with his dad's clients, it's actually a half-shaved dude in flip flops with a torn 1997 Rose Bowl t-shirt angrily keying a car with a Michigan license plate in a Kroger parking lot. You don't win a national championship with your freaking third string quarterback without a healthy amount of apocalyptic thinking, dammit! In a certain context, it kicks ass.
That's the kind of energy that forces Ryan Day and company to man the barricades of Ohio State hegemony until the literal end of time, but pointed in the wrong direction it can be really, really dumb.
This is also precisely the kind of paranoia that the Big 12 has now fully bought into, now that they've decided the reason why their conference is disintegrating like Peter Parker in Tony Stark's arms is "tortious interference" from ESPN (a phrase I was already familiar with almost entirely because The Insider is one of my favorite movies).
Which I don't think is actually why Texas and Oklahoma are ethering America's most bovine-centric football conference, but it's funny as hell that the Big 12 apparently thinks so! Much of the commentary around Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby's letter to ESPN has centered around his psychotic signature, but that really misses the true comedy of the letter:
The Big 12 Conference demands that ESPN immediately cease and desist all actions that may harm that Conference and its members and that it not communicate with the Big 12 Conference's existing Members or any other NCAA Conference regarding the Big 12 Conference's Members, possible conference realignment, or potential financial incentives or outcomes related to conference realignment.
There is some big time "don't talk to me or my son ever again" energy here, along with a little Footloose for spice. The Big 12, essentially, is burying their heads in the sand and hoping that by threatening the hell out of ESPN they can somehow hold their conference together and keep all of their members (sorry, "Conference" and "Members") in the dark about the 8912389879 reasons to start to look elsewhere for revenue.
This is a fight that the Big 12 will ultimately lose. It's probable that in a few short years the conference will cease to exist, and while I'm sure that it's frustrating to Bowlsby and company that they're going from a respected P5 conference to being a footnote on the SEC's fiscal year ledger, there's really nothing that they can do about it. ESPN denies everything they've been accused of, and it's pretty unlikely the Big 12 would be able to show otherwise in court.
So it goes. This has been a supremely weird week in college football. It's been a supremely weird decade in college football, but a lot of the things that were set in motion years ago, like NIL and conference realignment, are just now coming to a head all at once. We can react to the idea of superconferences or student-athletes making millions of dollars (or high schoolers graduating early to make that sweet kombucha money) with anger and skepticism and lashing out at ESPN, or we can take this all in stride.
Because truthfully? Ohio State can ride this wave, basically forever. Enjoy being a fan of one of the few programs in America that will be able to weather all of these changes and come out even better than before. And grab some popcorn.