Athletic Agnosticism.

Originally posted to Substack on January 5, 2022.

What happens when a sport no longer gives you joy?

It was perhaps the most completely and totally unhinged season of Washington State football I’d ever seen.

A lukewarm but promising start to the season seemed to come completely undone when head coach Nick Rolovich failed to meet the mandatory vaccination required of all Washington public employees and was booted out of Pullman.

This sparked a maelstrom that nearly rent the fanbase apart, but recoalesced just in time for the team to barely lose to a ranked Brigham Young, kick the pants out of Herm Edwards’s then-PAC-12 South-leading Arizona State Sun Devils in Tempe, and then completely exploded after the Cougars put down those damned Huskies in Seattle for Washington State’s first Apple Cup victory in years.

Suddenly, a lost season was now, thanks to some of the most ridiculous tiebreaking I’ve ever heard of, an Oregon State win in their rivalry game against Oregon away from a trip to play Utah in the PAC-12 Championship, which would’ve been WSU’s first ever, and a win in that game away from our first Rose Bowl berth since the Iraq War.

But nope. The Beavers mounted a valiant 4th quarter comeback but fell 9 points short to the hated Ducks, who went on to get reamed by Utah in the championship. The 2021 PAC-12 North champion would then play Oklahoma in the PAC-12 Championship consolation prize, the Alamo Bowl, and get completely handled.

Cougar fans began dreading our bowl placement, with the sinking suspicions confirmed when Washington State was sent to FBS Sheol, also known as the Sun Bowl. A promising matchup against Miami of Florida was scuttled when Miami became one of the many teams who pulled out due to COVID outbreaks, and Central Michigan took their spot. The Cougars’ season ended in El Paso with a 24-21 loss.

Now, what was the point of all that? This certainly isn’t a retrospective on the 2021 Washington State season. I could talk about that, mind you. I could talk about how winning the Apple Cup for the first time in what felt like literally eons made me feel. I could talk about how Cougar fans need to stop whining about losing to a MAC school, that conferences aren’t grades of how good a program is, that conference (and, indeed, NCAA division) alignment is more about a byzantine set of rules and standards, mostly surrounding academic programs and athletic endowments, than quality of play, because how else would Vanderbilt still be in the SEC or Indiana in the Big 10. No, this is about the underpinning feelings I’ve had across sports this autumn. Well, one in particular.

You see, following Washington State was kinda already my backup option. My primary autumnal love, alongside the warm color palette and cinnamon, is the New York Jets, a team I picked when I was 7 or 8 because I liked planes and the color green and I’m in way, way, way too deep to change that anymore. Well, we stunk this year. We were bad at best. I was more engrossed in the Homerian epic that was the Mariners in September than I ever was in the Jets. And after that Greek tragedy, I went to the Cougars.

It wasn’t just the 10th losing season out of the last 11 that sunk it for me with New York, but the NFL in general. Which sounds strange, given that this is the most madcap season I’ve ever watched, but I’ve become too aware of how this league functions behind the scenes to be as enamored with it as I once was, with two major head injuries not 48 hours after Vincent Jackson’s brain was revealed to be completely riddled with CTE lesions being the nail in the coffin for me. The franchise model of sports ownership started showing its age in a very ugly way, with the answer to the question of “Why are bad teams bad?”, a question so old there’s a non-zero chance it’s in the Talmud, being answered in large part with “Because of bad owners”, which there’s no (feasible) solution under this model.

And as time goes on, college football feels more and more like an exercise in “how much collusion and mockery of labor rights can we blatantly get away with without getting called out on it”. Yet another pair of College Football “Playoff” semifinal blowouts leading to yet another SEC-SEC championship game. Yet another year of wondering if the old system of deciding the national champion via poll of newspaper writers was actually all that bad, and whether sports should still be tied to universities at all (they shouldn’t). And despite this semi-feudal cottage industry for alumni failsons to shell out absurd amounts of money to their alma maters only getting worse about hiding that it’s really all about profit over honest player development, any discussion of forming a serious minor league for American football is virtually non-existent.

So I started looking elsewhere. Living in Canada for a good portion of 2020 exposed me both to the XFL and the CFL, both of which I fell in love with. The 2020 XFL season was better in terms of quality of play than a good chunk of the 2020 NFL season, and my Edmonton Elks were so bad in 2021 that the Jets could’ve beaten them, so it balances out. I got into rugby union a few years ago but the pandemic ended most major international tournaments, and domestic rugby union in the United States is…not quite there yet.

But all of these new flings, save the XFL, had a problem: they weren’t what I grew up with. They didn’t have the comforting familiarity. I felt like an outsider. And to not feel like an insider, I felt pulled back to the old love, my Green and White, currently getting fiftyburgered by the Patriots and possessing a defense that made Taysom Hill look like Drew Brees, and my Crimson and Grey, mounting a second-half resuscitation that ended not in Los Angeles but, thanks to the miracle of PAC-12 tiebreaking procedures, in El Paso.

And I just feel…lost.

The Jets have a game left. They’ll probably lose. (Narrator voice: they did.)

Cougars have an interesting schedule. We’ll probably win at least 8 games and still struggle to be ranked higher than 15th.

Elks look…well, I hope we can win more than 3 games next year. (Narrator voice: not looking likely.)

XFL isn’t back until 2023.

Is this really all football has for me anymore? Corrupt management getting corrupter, frustratingly predictable results, and leagues with fresh rules and exciting play struggling to exist?

This sport has been in my life since I was 7. I can’t really imagine life without it. But watching it doesn’t make me happy. If I ever had a kid, I’d tell them to play rugby instead. I love the history of football, but history is history. I can write about that whenever I want. I’m talking about the sport that’s currently being played.

What happens when a sport no longer gives you joy? I guess I’m about to find out.