One of the central reasons college football is in such danger is that it has sacrificed so much of everything its fans love about it — tradition, rivalry, history, a fundamental understanding of basic American geography — to the altar of television ratings. TV executives at Fox and ESPN (and to a lesser extent CBS and NBC) are now, for all intents and purposes, the commissioners of the entire sport. And it has gone the other way too: Many institutions, administrators, and journalists who were once worthy stewards of college football are acting like ratings-hungry network executives. Suddenly, drawing eyeballs is all that matters to them. These are people who deep down know that college football has taken a disastrous turn but want to hang on as long as they can; there’s a kind of “I for one welcome our new insect overlords” fatalism at work among this crowd. They might not like what’s happening, but maybe if they can talk themselves into it, they can survive it.
Which leads me to Deion Sanders.
Sanders, one of the most electrifying athletes I’ve ever seen, is a member of both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame who played nine seasons of major league baseball on the side. He is also the new head coach of the Colorado Buffaloes, historically one of the sorriest major college football programs in the country. (He was known as “Primetime” during his playing career; these days it’s “Coach Prime.”) Now, Sanders — and to a much lesser extent, his 3-0 undefeated team — is the talk of the sports world.
Last weekend, Sanders was inescapable. Both ESPN’s and Fox’s pregame shows decamped to Boulder for their live broadcasts, even though the Colorado game didn’t start until 10:30 p.m. and featured Sanders’s team against Colorado State, one of college football’s worst. The Rock flew out to hang with Sanders, and Tom Brady spent the whole game tweeting about him. On Sunday night, 60 Minutes aired an interview with Sanders, in which he declared himself “the best coach in college football.” It is to the network’s credit that this segment didn’t bump Volodymyr Zelenskyy off the top of the telecast, though judging by the number of people who watched each interview, you can see why they might have gone that route:
With Georgia, Alabama, Clemson, and other traditional college football powerhouses off to uninspiring starts, Sanders has become a signature draw for the reason that anyone becomes a signature draw for television networks: He’s charismatic, he’s funny, he’s quotable, he’s loud, he’s ubiquitous, and perhaps most of all, he’s completely shameless. (If you watch a Colorado game, you’re just as likely to see him more in every commercial than you will on the field.) Sanders ranks his kids. He insists you address him as Coach Prime and will, in fact, not respond to you if you do otherwise; two years ago, when he was coaching at Jackson State, Sanders actually bolted from a press conference because a reporter called him Deion. Sanders makes sure you are looking at him — all of the time. And the desperate college football world has been all too happy to stare. The Athletic college football writer Stewart Mandel, a burgeoning dean of the national college football press corps, wrote this weekend: “The only certainty at this point is that everyone will be watching.” In college football right now, there’s no greater compliment.
What’s strange about this is that, uh, Colorado is … probably not that great a football team. They might be a good one, though; we don’t really know yet: They’ve played three lackluster teams and could have easily lost to two of them, needing double overtime to beat Colorado State on Saturday despite the fact that the Rams are, according to The Athletic, ranked 106th out of 133 teams in college football. (This did not stop Colorado fans, understanding their role as extras in this production, from providing a TV-ready storming-the-field moment.) Colorado plays two top-ten teams over the next two weeks — No. 10 Oregon and No. 6 Southern California — and is almost certainly going to be shellacked by both of them; they are 21 ½-point underdogs to Oregon and will surely be even bigger ones against USC. According to ESPN stat-guru Bill Connelly, “There’s also a chance that, with four currently unbeaten opponents over the next six games, a 3-0 start becomes about a 5-4 record in a month and a half.” This particular party is going to end very soon.
The desperate college football boosters know this, of course. They see how Sanders, impressively if a bit coldly, completely turned over his roster in one offseason, how the program is explicitly constructed to emphasize flash over substance, how the team was essentially built to make an early splash and then fade as inevitable injuries and depth issues set in. (The team’s best player, two-way star Travis Hunter, is out for several weeks with a lacerated liver after a violent hit last weekend.) They know not just that this is a team without much staying power, but also that Sanders is unlikely to stay with a program as moribund as Colorado for long; he has already been mentioned as the potential next head coach of Florida, Oklahoma, and the Dallas Cowboys. The Colorado Buffaloes are the focus of every college football story because Sanders gets eyeballs, not because his team is particularly relevant. He’s a train they’ll ride as long as they can.
This is not to diminish Sanders’s achievement at Colorado or Jackson State, two schools that were lousy at football before he arrived. Colorado may be lucky, but they are, in fact, undefeated so far. And while Sanders may be shameless, he’s still a good bit more thoughtful than your average college football coach and has raised legitimate, intelligent issues about the NFL draft and HBCUs, among other topics no other coach would touch. (Though I’ve spent six years trying to figure out what he was attempting to say about Colin Kaepernick here.)
But what he is, more than anything else, is a magnet for attention. The Deion circus is fun to watch, as long as you don’t think too hard about it — as long as you’re only casually sort of paying attention. And a person “only casually sort of paying attention,” as it turns out, is precisely the only sort of college football fan television networks care about right now. Sanders’s story is an irresistible one, but his commitment to the sport itself seems fleeting at best. Deion Sanders is going to do whatever it takes to get himself, and also occasionally his team, talked about. Right now, he’s doing that in the world of college football. Soon, it’ll be somewhere else. College football is trying to soak up every bit of oxygen he can provide, but his story is not one of salvation for college football. It’s a symptom of a bigger problem — a problem that someday is going to kill it.
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