Of all the nuisance things that have attended the Pac-12 Conference’s full sellout of its breadwinner football enterprise to the demons of the television schedule, the 7:30 p.m. kickoff is the worst. And not just because it inconveniences me or my media colleagues, who manage to handle 7 p.m. starts for baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer games with only modest whimpering.
No college athlete should be brutalized in a football game, fly across the West to get home at 5 a.m. Sunday, get up early morning Monday for rehab, then attend potentially a full day of classes.
Where in this scenario does the notion of “student-athlete welfare” come into play?
Please don’t write me with lame retorts about “back in my day . . .”, the vigor of youth, the privilege of playing elite-level college ball on scholarship, or the drama of night games in the bleakness of Northwest fall nights (Pac-12 After Dark!). All trite, irrelevant and/or wrong.
Instead, I ask that you join me in sampling something new in the 150-year history of U.S. intercollegiate athletics competition:
Put the athletes first.
Not the coaches. Not the schools. Not future recruits. And especially not the lust of fans and media for a) amusement, and b) profit.
Advocate for morning football kickoffs. As in 9 and 10 a.m.
Credit for this idea belongs to Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury-News, whose Pac-12 Hotline columns have become the conscience of the conference, if not sacred texts written in the original Aramaic.
I’m merely jumping on his bandwagon hard and loud enough to help the hearing-impaired.
In a column this week, Wilner addressed the chronic problem of the Pacific Time Zone, as well as the raggedy-ass Pac-12 Networks, traditional hindrances to national exposure for the conference. The conference presidents’ original solution, goaded along by their Rasputin, commissioner Larry Scott, was to burden athletes and annoy fans by pushing many game times into the ghetto of Saturday night.
The rationale? No other national conference wants these hours, so let’s own them!
Just be happy that the Pac-12 geniuses weren’t around to help the Allies in World War II, or they would have attacked Germany by launching D-Day in Tierra del Fuego.
Wilner suggests that since several schools, including Washington, now practice in the mornings, early games will be increasingly less of a shock. And the opportunity for the road team in the nation’s most sprawling league to be home for dinner and a good night’s sleep more than makes up for a 5 a.m. wake-up call.
Even though telecasts would bump up against live games in other time zones, highlights would get all-day play across the country, instead of being lost overnight as NFL shows and games suck up Sunday morning air time. Besides, recruits have more technology than ever to soak up info on teams regardless of time zone or kickoff.
As far as fans, I think it’s likely the student section would simply stay up all night, put some tomato juice in the 7 a.m. beer and rock the morning away. As for the adults driving long distances, they can arrive Friday night, do Saturday brunch at seven and have the chance to stay for a solid weekend in town or drive home in daylight.
Local parents with little kids in Saturday youth sports are likely going to be inconvenienced no matter the kickoff time, but would still have afternoons after a 9 a.m. start.
Wilner suggests slow-rolling the idea with only four games total per season, eliminating four 7:30 starts, making sure no team has more than one. I get that, but the idea is such an improvement that I would go faster. Schedule as many as the TV contracts with ESPN/Fox would allow, then when the rights fees are up for bid, go nuts.
Dawn-ball by the lake/pasture/pot farm.
Look, I’m not a morning person, and I think early starts for college football are a great idea. But I will concede a bias.
I worked the past Apple Cup and its 5:30 p.m. start in Pullman. You may recall that delightful November evening made for a poster event with much snow. But if you didn’t drive back at 11 p.m. to your Spokane hotel after the game, you missed the real drama.
I shared a ride with Christian Caple of The Athletic, who drove. The snow stopped, leaving slippery slush. A fog settled in so dense that it bounced the headlights back through the windshield. The only way to tell the road edge was by the flashing red lights of State Patrol cars at the scene of spin-outs and ditch-diving cars.
As Caple shook his hands to return circulation to his white knuckles for what seemed a 500-mile drive, he said, “Great recruiting tool for Wazzu.”
We made it to Spokane around 2 a.m. Granted, the Palouse in November is always dark, snowy and perilous no matter when the Apple Cup kicks off, but a 9 a.m. start would have had us back for turkey leftovers and brandy, and absent the full-body tension aches and eye tics.
Admittedly, a single brush with upside-down death in a fallow lentil field is a small sample size. But I’m guessing that most every college football fan who attends games can think of a travel experience or a game day that would be improved by a 9 a.m. start.
I guarantee the players can. What are we waiting for, Larry?