The video game "NCAA Football 14" makes an absolute travesty of college athletics. Ed O'Bannon's growing typhoon of a lawsuit is so potentially devastating because it's undeniably correct: There isn't a single second where it isn't obvious that you're controlling actual college football players, real live breathing people, and you just paid 50 bucks for the privilege, not a nickel of which they will ever see. The players are just listed as numbers in the game, but getting the names on the back of every jersey in FBS takes about 45 seconds. It is a perversion, one that the NCAA and its member schools have been profiting off for years. It is unquestionably wrong.
It is also really fun.
The game itself is terrific, a near-perfect simulacrum of the college football experience. The cathedrals that are the stadiums are gorgeously rendered, down to the finest detail; at one point I could almost make out the faces of fans watching games from Gillis Bridge at Sanford Stadium in Athens. The mascots are always showing up, doing backflips when their teams win and looking sad when their teams lose. (It is no small feat making a mascot -- which has no moveable facial features -- look sad, but they pull it off.) The whole structure to the game is recreated, from the BCS standings to the bowl games to the Heisman Watch to recruiting to angry alumni to all of it. It is what college football is. The gameplay is smooth and intuitive as well; as the NFL "Madden" franchise has become more and more complicated in recent years, "NCAA Football" can still be played by the video game amateur. You pick it up like it's nothing.
This push-pull between what is right and what is fun is basically a microcosm of every discussion about college athletics right now. Of course the NCAA and college presidents and conference commissioners have created an unsustainable business model fueled by their own greed and built on the backs of unpaid teenagers. Of course the game is dangerous and evolving at a speed that might be too fast for the protection of its players. Of course the sport is based on a fundamental hypocrisy that it might never be able to fully resolve, whether it begins to pay its players a stipend or not. Every time I think about college sports on anything other than a surface level, it seems so corrupt that I'm embarrassed to have ever watched it, to be a part of it.
But that surface level counts. It counts a lot. College football is extremely fun. I've bought all the preview magazines, I've cleared out Aug. 31 to sit on my couch and scream at the television for roughly 12 hours, I've got tickets for more college football games this season than at any other time in my life. College football is a passion for millions of Americans; they are the reason the game is producing so much money, after all. I love college sports -- watching them, writing about them, playing video games that simulate them. Perhaps you are a person who is so full of moral rectitude, so emotionally and intellectually consistent in every aspect of your life, that your disgust with the structure of the competition outweighs your enjoyment of the games themselves, and you've stopped watching all together. Good for you. I'm proud of you. Congratulations. But I am absolutely not this person. I bet most of you reading aren't either.
It's easy to use the video game as a particular boogeyman in this situation, especially because O'Bannon's lawsuit sort of kicked off this whole mess. Well, if you think all the issues in the world of college athletics will be resolved by getting rid of that video game, you're probably about to get your wish. Kotaku has documented how even though there will be a game next year -- even with the NCAA and several conferences (and one as-yet-unnamed team) having dropped out -- the game is almost certainly doomed the year afterward. There are just too many issues, too many headaches, too many potential holes in the games because of teams backing out. This is similar to the issues that doomed the old 2K Sports college basketball game, a game I enjoyed even more than "NCAA Football," a game that didn't sell enough to justify the headache. (I loved it because you could conceivably simulate Duke vs. Northwestern State at Cameron Indoor Stadiun. That game had more than 300 teams!) The world of college sports video games is about to end, as least until we figure out the next model for college athletics. That world probably should end. But that doesn't make them any less fun. The video game is an easy target. College sports on a whole is less so. But it's the same hypocrisy at their core.
It's a lot easier to eliminate a video game than to eliminate college athletics, as a concept. You see the dumb, flailing PR babble from the NCAA, shutting down their jersey selling, reacting to bad press like incompetent politicians, desperately trying to close the barn doors long after the horses have gone. It's obvious that's not sustainable. Something has to give. But the one thing that doesn't look like it's going to give is the huge public hunger for the games themselves, the willingness -- perhaps even unconscious -- to look past all the problems and just want to enjoy the games, the spectacle, all of it.
People keep telling the NCAA and the commissioners and the university presidents to stop using their athletes, to change the way their game works, to be less driven by greed and an artificial sense of amateurism that looks more like indentured servitude every year. But on the whole, the sporting public, the fans, don't really believe this, or at least they don't believe it enough to give up their own habits. We enjoy the games too much to want them to really change it. For this to really change, we have to vote with our feet. But I don't think we're going to. I don't think I want to.
Until college football kicks off a week from Thursday, I will be having this internal dialogue, this fight with myself about whether or not it is morally wrong to support college athletics, particularly college football. When the game kicks off, though? I'm going to completely forget about it. And so will you.