Saturday 17 March 2018

Off the Ball: Why does college sport matter so much in USA?

Mighty dollar everywhere – but 'tailgate' parties prove that it's not all about money

David Brady
David Brady
Floyd Mayweather had far too much class for Canelo Alvarez in last weekend's flight
Anthony Daly celebrates on the steps of the Hogan Stand alongside Seanie McMahon after victory in the 1997 All-Ireland hurling final

Ger Gilroy

I attended my first college football game in the United States last weekend and it left me with the conclusion that American capitalism, when it comes to sport, is just plain weird. It's impossible to believe that America is totally committed to the greed-is-good mullarkey when you discover that all the best college players are offered first to the worst NFL teams.

The kids on show as Penn State crumbled at home to University of Central Florida are all trying to make it to the big league, but they aren't free to negotiate where and how they'll end up there. American sport and business cohabitate in an odd socialist paradigm where profit must be shared, the weakest need help and collective bargaining works for everyone.

Reading the 'Sports Illustrated' splash on the plane home only served to highlight the tension.

This week's tale was about the decade-long degradation of the football programme at Oklahoma State University from 2001 to 2011. It spoke of the money flushing through the college being used to induce and reward the 'amateur' players who represented the college as they went from being a mediocre team to one of the best nationally.

Players who collectively generate revenues of between $25-50m a year for their college were sometimes given as much as $500 in cash – in brown envelopes or stuffed in socks – after games, depending on how well they'd performed.

They were also using academic chicanery, turning a blind eye to drug testing issues and generally sacrificing everything that an academic institution should hold pure in the aim of a winning season. The story is so big because it exposes the odd schizophrenia at the heart of college sports' popularity in the US – that unpaid athletes generate billions in revenue for the biggest universities.

Next August, the Penn State-UCF fixture comes to Croker. There's a glorious madness about stadiums of 100,000 people all around America, watching kids play a sport that's wall-to-wall on television every Sunday with bigger, faster NFL athletes.

But why does college sport matter so much in America? It was the one question that no one had the same answer for as we checked out the pre-game 'tailgate,' but maybe the 'tailgate' experience itself was the real answer.

A 'tailgate' sounds awful on paper, with people standing around their cars for hours before the game in the shadow of the stadium.

In fact, it's families with their friends and kids. Or you can get a more raucous version, if that's your thing.

As we drank craft beers, ate homemade guacamole and pulled pork sandwiches, it struck me that the pre-game experience of hanging out with your mates for a few hours is a pretty good ritual. This isn't horsing two quick pints into you and bursting into the stadium. It's like-minded individuals electing to come together, break bread, talk football and life and then get behind their team. It's a self-selected community.

The game itself is a wild experience, with almost no away fans in a stadium that holds 100,000. The kids on both teams do it for the price of their education or for a shot at the big time. The money doesn't matter, they say, but, of course, it does. It's just that no one quite understands how or why.


Many painful treks home from Croker but '96 still the one that really hurts

This time last year we stood in the Hogan Stand. Me and dad. He's from Charlestown. 'Jimmy's Winning Matches' boomed across Croke Park. It was a green and gold party. Flags in the crowd, bunting on the pitch. The Donegal players paraded Sam. We exchanged wry looks. The exits beckoned and we headed on.

It is 1996 which remains as the one that really hurts. It was a beautiful summer. Mayo was drenched in colour, optimism and good vibes. My mother, from Ballina, insisted no car journey was complete without a blast of 'Sam Maguire's Coming Home to Mayo'.

To this day the lyrics lurk in my consciousness: "In this year of '96, John Maughan arrived and he showed his tricks..."

Meath didn't really care about our tricks, though. They just kept on coming back. Refused to die. Colm Coyle's equaliser bounced over the bar. There was McHale's sending off. Crazy – '96 retains an ability to haunt.

The following year it was Kerry. There was heavy rain that day and an utterly sensational Maurice Fitzgerald. He'd been sent from another planet to destroy Pat Holmes. Game over.

It was Kerry again in 2004. An eight-point defeat. People began talking about a curse.

The 2006 decider marked the finale of our very grim Kerry trilogy. It was done after 10 minutes. A total non-event. Kieran Donaghy was on fire. They ripped Mayo apart. An hour was spent waiting for the final whistle. The only highlight was David Brady coming on at full-back and winning the first ball in over Donaghy's head.

I was separated from my parents that day, but we found each other on the pitch at full-time. What can you say? Once again, the exits beckoned. I remember a perverse sense of achievement emerging that evening. Just how many finals could we watch Mayo lose? And so here we go again. Tickets still haven't been secured for Sunday, but they usually turn up. On the field, there has been an air of purpose about James Horan's group.

The annihilations of Galway and Donegal put to bed any traditional fears about Mayo's forwards. The Tyrone semi-final has tapered the hype nicely. And Dublin of 2013 are not Donegal of 2012. My father's generation has now made the trek in 1989, '96, '97, 2004, '06 and '12.

I don't want to tempt fate, but surely...


I have a dream... of a stirring victory speech

I remember listening to Anthony Daly's speech after Clare won the All-Ireland title in 1995. Daly began by saying "There has been a missing person in Clare for 81 long years ... well today that person has been found alive and well, and that person's name is Liam MacCarthy".

He went on to add the magical line about Clare's love of traditional music and hurling. Daly was back on the mic after the '97 Munster final telling the frenzied crowd that Clare were no longer the "whipping boys of Munster".

Inspirational speeches from winning captains are now a thing of the past in the GAA. When was the last good speech in either code? A line of Irish followed by a long list of thank-yous seems to suffice for today's captains. Back-room teams are now so big it takes 10 minutes to thank everyone and the crowd are either bored out of their minds or sobered up by the time they finish.

Want my advice? Use Dalo's blueprint – a few inspirational lines about where the team has come from or an anecdote from the year. Then thank the manager and the selectors.

The county secretary can always send a group email around to the physios, dieticians, masseuses, maor uisce, kit men, bus drivers, groundskeepers and the lads who inflate the footballs on the Monday morning, thanking them for their hard work.


Ultra-addictive NFL RedZone is Sunday Game and Match of the Day on steroids

I'm pretty sure the American Football NFL RedZone channel was invented by Satan.

For those unfamiliar, RedZone essentially compresses the various NFL games taking place on a Sunday into a constant, almost-live highlights reel.

For those invested in either fantasy NFL or gambling, RedZone is the televisual equivalent of that blue stuff that Walter White once concocted.

I flicked on RedZone around dinner time on Sunday evening. I had no plans, two bets made, three fantasy teams to monitor, and seven hours of pigskin bliss stretching out in front of me. Or so it seemed.

The concept of watching a game because you support a team seems pretty antiquated in this day and age. Watching Redzone is the pinnacle of sports atheism.

There's nothing to cheer for but more points. The action is so frenetic, it's impossible to get a feel for any particular game, but it's also impossible to stop watching as the action is so propulsive.

After two hours, all three of my fantasy teams were being trounced. But I stuck it out until an unlikely 1.0am interception return for a touchdown by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers put a bullet in my slim fantasy hopes and betting ambitions.

I presume I'll be back in the RedZone next Sunday, wondering why.


See who else is interested before giving it to O'Neill

All the evidence in the print media and on the gambling markets suggests that Martin O'Neill is, to quote a former Ireland manager, a "shoo-in" for the Ireland job.

O'Neill may be the best man for the position, but a delay in his appointment would allow a few more left-field candidates to throw their hats in the ring.

It was fascinating to learn of Hector Cuper's "believed" Irish ancestry in this week's Sunday Independent, as well as his interest in the job. What other hard-up, out-of-work football men might declare interest if we wait long enough? (It's worth noting that Diego Maradona is currently unemployed).

Last time around, the FAI's strategy of playing the long game bore considerable fruit. We looked stuck with an El Tel or a Jewell or a Troussier and ended up with one of the best managers in the history of European football.

Maybe there's something to be said for reuniting Don Givens, Don Howe and Ray Houghton.


Mayweather surely on march to 50 not out

Another challenger has come and gone. Every couple of years, we're told there's a prodigy out there ready to slay Floyd Mayweather's unbeaten record. Every time we buy into the hype until the fight gets closer and closer and we realise we've seen this movie before.

Twenty-three year-old 'Canelo' Alvarez fought a good, smart fight on Saturday night. He had a sound gameplan, was brilliantly prepared and fought until the last bell. He probably lost all but one round.

Mayweather is the greatest boxer of his generation, and one of the best of all time. And right now, he's all there is. Manny Pacquiao's star has fallen slightly in the last 18 months. The heavyweight division is a Klitschko-dominated bore. Can boxing survive on one fight every 18 months featuring a superstar in his late 30s?

Maybe the next challenge is for Floyd to pass Rocky Marciano's 49-0 before retiring. Just five more fights to get there. Maybe that's something we can get behind? The march to 50 could be the narrative that keeps a Mayweather-dominated sport relevant for the next couple of years. If Canelo's the best there is out there, then surely it's only a matter of finding the fights.


Tune in to Newstalk

Tune into 'Off The Ball' weeknights from 7-10.0, Newstalk 106-108fm.

Our season of Ulster Bank GAA roadshows concludes in grand style tomorrow evening when 'Off the Ball' takes over Dublin's Vicar Street. We've got some great guests lined up and lots of Gaelic football to discuss ahead of the All-Ireland final. Tickets are scarce, but you can text your name and GAA to 53105 if you'd like to attend.

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