Websites currently chart the top prospects in a variety of sports for the college freshman class of 2028 — in other words, an exercise in the inflation of 10-year-old egos, inspiring too many wishful parents eager to spend huge sums on a statistically improbable outcome of college or professional stardom.
Remember the ad campaign by Nike — You don’t win silver, you lose gold — for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta? Reasonable people denounced it as competitive heresy, but the superpower compulsion that America is or must be No. 1 in everything — even when cold, hard facts would indicate otherwise — took root in its sporting culture.
Winning a town league or even a state title these days is almost considered quaint, just not proportionally conclusive enough.
On the final weekend of the 2019 regular season, Saban’s gamble loomed large as Alabama lost a second game, this one to Auburn, and failed to make the playoff for the first time since its inception. Meanwhile, the selection committee prattled on about choosing the best teams for its premier events while sending Virginia, ranked 24th, to the Orange Bowl — thanks to contradictory deals the major conferences cling to in order to ensure their piece of the postseason pie.
As for my Nittany Lions, they finished a laudable 10-2, with an invitation to the Cotton Bowl to play Memphis, champion of the unsung American Conference — a game in which the best they can do in the eyes of the critics, I suppose, is not embarrass themselves.
I’ll watch, of course. I’m an addict now — even my son looks at me suspiciously when I inform him of the latest five-star recruit landed or lost. But our season really climaxed in late November with a third excruciating loss in three years to Ohio State.
It wasn’t falling off the playoff committee’s radar that hurt most — it was the loss, once again, of good, old-fashioned neighborhood bragging rights, the Big Ten East Division title. That mountaintop, thankfully, merely requires winning the game — not styling for the sake of a television spectacle.
Harvey Araton has reported on sports in New York City for 40 years, the last 25 of them at The New York Times. He wrote the Sports of the Times column for 15 years and reported on 10 Olympics, and is best known for his work on basketball and tennis.