A Slate writer tries to make sense of his own obsession with Michigan football–not to mention America, politics, racism, and the burning question of whether head coach Jim Harbaugh will keep his job.
On the field, modern college football is as thrilling and competitive as ever. But almost everywhere else it has come untethered from reality.
While it presents itself as a proud American tradition of amateur scholar-athletes competing at a high level, this premise gives way under the slightest scrutiny. NCAA football makes hundreds of millions of dollars for its coaches, universities, sponsors, and gamblers–and nothing for its players. It bounces from one scandal to another, with a major program — or two or three — seemingly always under investigation, in court, or in the glare of public scrutiny. And this is to say nothing of the bizarre 2020 season, in which the league cut itself nearly in half over the twin questions of covid-19 safety and the players' desire to protest against racism.
At most schools, it's the head coach–like Michigan's Jim Harbaugh–who is the public face of these questions. Which is one reason that head coaches so often get fired.
In The Hot Seat, Slate writer and Michigan devotee Ben Mathis-Lilley chronicles perhaps the wildest and most dramatic two-year stretch in the sport's history. The peculiar American institution of college football was fighting to keep its money and fans while being buffeted by criticism from seemingly all corners. The Supreme Court, player agents, and the federal government all sought to change it, while its wealthiest boosters sought to keep it the same. And all the while, Michigan tried (and mostly failed) to win football games.
As Harbaugh fights for his job, and the NCAA fights for its money, The Hot Seat tells the story of a team and a sport that can't keep going the way it has been, and has no idea how to change.