Last Saturday, the Michigan State Spartans beat the Michigan Wolverines in the most anticipated rivalry game in years. But that was overshadowed just one day later by the Detroit Lions, who pulled off one of the great upsets of the NFL season, when they … beat someone. Anyone. Doesn’t matter. At football!
Hard to believe it was just two years ago the Lions became the first NFL team to lose all 16 games. And now, here they are, standing tall at 1-5.
That’s why their victory was such big news. I hear from my friends who have real jobs that it was bigger talk around the office water cooler than the Michigan-Michigan State game – and that’s saying something.
It just proves my theory that Detroit really isn’t Hockeytown. It’s a football town. Whenever the Lions so much as show a pulse, the locals go loco.
But I’m still not biting. Not just on the Lions, but on pro football itself.
Yes, I watch the games. Yes, I know the teams and follow the players. But the NFL has never captured my imagination the way college football has.
Granted, when I was growing up, the Wolverines were great, every year, and the Lions were – well, the Lions. Every year. But it’s more than just wins.
College teams were created over a century ago by college students, just for fun. NFL teams are created every few years by NFL owners, just for profit.
College teams play on college campuses, where students actually go to school. NFL teams play in big cities, where they don’t have homecoming games, because nobody ever attended Jacksonsville Jaguars University.
College teams never threaten to change their colors or move to Oklahoma City if you don’t build them a new stadium – at taxpayer expense. No, they play in grand old coliseums surrounded by green lawns and radiant trees. They have marching bands and fight songs and crazy customs that go back 100 years. NFL teams play in sanitized, soulless domes, with loud scoreboards that tell you exactly what to yell and exactly when to yell it.
The NFL’s rules are designed to create as much parity as possible – which is why it seems like almost every team finishes nine-and-seven, or seven and nine. (The Lions being a notable exception.) Pro football functions like a giant gumball machine, randomly jumbling the players around the league, and spitting out winning teams seemingly by dumb luck. When you hear the score of an NFL game, you have to stop and think: Was that an upset? I can’t recall. But when Appalachian State beats Michigan, you know it’s big.
Pro teams choose their players, but college players choose their teams – and it shows. They’re more passionate playing for free than pro athletes are playing for millions. And when college players have a good year, they don’t demand to “renegotiate” their contracts. College players don’t play for paydays or playoff spots, but Brown Jugs and Brass Spittoons – and good old-fashioned bragging rights. Who brags about beating the Carolina Panthers?
Yes, the Spartans say A.A. stands not for Ann Arbor but Arrogant Asses, and the Wolverines come back by calling MSU a cow college – but they’ve been doing it for a hundred years, and they’re not likely to stop any time soon.
Well, good for them.
It may be crude, obnoxious and unfair – but it’s tradition, real tradition – and that is something the NFL will never have.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.