I once stayed up late to watch the Superbowl. Not because I have any great love for American football: I just wanted to see Beyoncé perform. My general interest in sport is spotty but I’ve never understood the appeal (or basic rules) of America’s most popular game. It’s something I have in common with Ilya Marritz, the host of WNYC’s latest podcast, The Season. While neither of us have much fondness for the sport itself, we both love a good story, and college football, with its high stakes community spirit, myth-like rises and falls of power and plethora of controversies, is chock full of them.
Columbia University is one of the greatest educational institutions in the country, with one of the worst football teams. In the 80s, the Lions went 44 games without a win, and, as the podcast starts, are currently suffering under a loss of 23 games in a row. Desperate to break the dry-streak, the university brings in Al Bagnoli, a legend in the college coach scene with over 200 wins to his name. Already, an ideal underdog story is forming, and host Marritz knows it.
The podcast focuses on the infrastructure of the game at Columbia, from the authority figures pouring money into the football program despite its failings, to the players who succeed academically while dedicating themselves to their struggling team for the love of the game. Marritz’s producer also offers a more fan-based perspective, explaining the appeal of college football to the occasionally bemused host. The bewilderment of the school’s loyalty to the Lions and the obscene amounts of money pumped into it are hinted at – particularly in an amusing moment featuring a college commissioned video of the match in the 80s they thought ended their losing streak – but further introspection would be appreciated. The chances are an entirely new podcast could be made from exploring Columbia, and indeed American colleges in general, and their deification of the sport even as it bleeds money, starves surrounding resources and exploits their student players.
What makes The Season so intriguing, to football fanatics and novices alike, is its first-hand view of the narrative in process. Marritz is open about his general ambivalence to the game as well as his undeniable attraction to the potential story unfolding before him. One of the faults of this kind of investigative/journalistic podcasting is that the story cannot be written ahead of time. It must unfold at its natural pace – in this case, the week to week schedule of the football season – and as such it cannot be easily moulded into a listenable pace or creatively satisfying tone. This is one of the complaints many listeners had about Serial: How can there be much craved resolution for the audience when life seldom offers such a thing?
The Season knows it has a Hollywood style dream story at its fingertips, but it also knows that there’s no guarantee it’ll actually happen. The Lions could one day bring home a win after a rousing locker room speech from their passionate coach, whose words seem almost polished to Coach Taylor levels of motivational perfection. They could stumble at the penultimate hurdle, only to rise from the ashes in the final game of the season, much to the joy of their beleaguered but forever loyal fan-base. The gruff but fiercely dedicated and intelligent players could lose hope as the season progresses, only to be brought back to life by their team and move onto a successful post-college professional career. All of these things are possibilities, and their appeal is undeniable, both to Marritz and the listener. However, they’re not guaranteed, and most of the time they’re realistically speaking not probable. But that’s not the point of The Season.
While many of the traditional sports story elements populate The Season, and they each hold their own appeal, the more unique slant on dissecting the game’s favoured narratives and the audience’s eagerness for them is what will keep non-sports fans such as myself returning for new episodes. The Columbia Lions may win their next game, and that would make for a great story, but regardless of the future outcome, The Season offers an intriguing answer to the question of what we talk about when we talk about football.