Saturday, December 20, 2008

In the Middle of It All, a TV Camera

Television changed it all today in Salem

It occurred to me today during the first TV timeout of the Division III national championship football game over in Salem that this was not the pure game I had loved for long. There was encroachment and it was not a good thing.

This is the bottom rung of college football: no scholarships, generally small colleges where the students were required to read before participating in extracurricular activities. The facilities are more high-school like and the crowds are considerably smaller.

But here we were watching that man in the red shirt standing on the field looking at his watch waiting to tell the teams that the TV commercials were finished and they could resume playing football. A little later, there was a break while officials in the press box reviewed video tape of a pass reception on the sideline to see if the receiver was out of bounds. Play stopped. Players milled around. Fans grumbled. This was unfamiliar territory. Video tape review, for heaven's sake. They do that at Ohio State, not here.

This had become something other than amateur football. It was TV entertainment. The game had begun at 11 a.m. to fill ESPN air time on a football bowl Saturday and, since this was the least important game to the network, it got the crap slot. There was no other reason for this game to be played in the morning. TV needed it and that was all the justification necessary. Feed the beast.

I've been watching Division III football with some degree of enthusiasm for a lot of years, but this wasn't what I was accustomed to. The field was artificial and painted. The crowd was large for this level, maybe 6,5oo people in a 10,000-seat stadium. There were six television cameras and the press box seemed to be full.

Here we had perennial title contenders Mt. Union College, a private school near Cleveland ($2,300 students, $30,000 a year tuition) playing the public University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (8,500 students, $11,000 tuition), in a small southern city many, many miles from home.

Some of the athletes took their first plane ride to get here. The woman sitting in front of us--her son a wide receiver for the UW-W Warhawks (we thought "Warthogs" at first, until she spelled it out for us)--had flown from her home in Chicago to Richmond, then she drove a rental car west about 150 miles to Salem for the game. "It was expensive," she said. "We'd better not lose." Many people had come on buses, some by car. A lot of people came from these distant and rural locations, all wearing purple--the primary color for both teams. Whitewater is 50 miles west of Milwaukee, pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

A lot of what went on was what it should have been. The football was competitive (Mt. Union winning by five points to take back the title UW-W had stolen last year; the son of the woman in front of us caught eight passes; she was pleased). We were entertained by the competition and the intensity. If you'd put these tesms in orange on one side and red on the other and called them Tennessee and Alabama, few would have known the difference.

But it was the upscale trappings that belied what Division III represents to me: athletes playing for the joy of it; college students taking a weekend for some recreation; parents screaming for their kids; students painting their naked torsos and donning purple fright wigs. Everybody having a good time. Not much money to be made.

The TV camera staring at us changed that.

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