Apparently, my favorite football team plays dirty. Would you allow me a brief moment to wring my hands in distress? Here's what New York Magazine political writer and Michigan fanboy wrote from his fainting couch the other day:
Thuggery is a foundational element of the program culture of Michigan State football. I'm not sure whether it derives from the team's being named after an ancient culture associated with primitive militarism, the school's almost pathological inferiority complex, or the legacy of its iconic 1987 Rose Bowl squad that was built upon systematic steroid use.
You see, despite the reasonably close attention I pay to the Michigan State football program, I was unaware that "thuggery" was its "foundational element." (Leave aside the question of how a foundational element could be the "legacy" of something that happened in 1987.) I always assumed that element was inadequate quarterback play, but then again, I did go to an agricultural school. Still, it's good to know the foundational element of Michigan's program remains an entitled, wholly unearned arrogance.
I should confess my bias here: I'm a Michigan State grad, a huge Spartan fan, and I think Jonathan Chait is kind of a dick. When I last encountered his Wolverines-based sports musings, he was defending a coach who was in the process of getting his beloved team sent to the principal's office, the same coach whom Michigan fans would later run out town for being a loser.
Now Chait's lamenting the death of fair play, while simultaneously trying to defend his own dirty football tactics (in a game between journalism students!) as the honorable refuge of an undersized and overmatched weakling. What are you? Some kind of Spartans fan?
In any event, this singular devotion to cracking skulls was hardly invented by the Butchers of East Lansing. As pioneers of the sport that requires both helmets and the facemasks by which to yank them, surely Michigan fans are aware of the exceedingly violent history of the game that was once in danger of being banned (this was back when Michigan used to win national championships). Take just as one random example, this trival item from John Sayle Watterson's history of college football:
The most notorious act of football violence, Hinkey's violent late hit against Wrightington in the Harvard-Yale game in 1894, did not result in a fatality, but it might as well have. ... A similar incident occurred the same year when a Michigan player wantonly jumped on and seriously injured a Kansas player after he had crossed the goal and scored a touchdown, an act that the officials failed to see or ignored.
That was a game in 1894. What was that about "foundations," again?
Stomping on heads, punching, and piling on are such cherished aspects of football that these various threats to life and limb have their own individual rules and signifiers—roughing the passer, late hit out of bounds, hands to the head—instead of just a catch-all "being an asshole." Hitting people, hard, is kinda the whole point, yet our elaborate system of checks and balances and handkerchiefs reminds the world that brutality has its limits (about 15 yards' worth). Dirty play is an acknowledged part of the game, however unfortunate, which is why a number of disincentives have been implemented, in the form of penalties. Chait writes about government for a living. He should know how these things work.
I can't defend State's behavior on Saturday, nor do I care to. In addition to lacking the elusive element of class, it's simply bad football; the hallmarks of a sloppy team that will always be held back by the inability to avoid tripping on its own feet. But let's not delude ourselves into thinking that they—or Chait's beloved Wolverines, for that matter—are playing a different game than everyone else. Don't forget that the worst label that can be hung on any football team continues to be "soft." Toughness, grit, and courage under broken bones are the virtues of tackle football, but the moment a team finds itself on the losing end of all that (see: opponents of the Miami Hurricanes, c. 1985) is the moment a moralist somewhere decides that a line has been irrevocably crossed.
My team won the game, so perhaps I should help Chait win his argument by mentioning evidence that he failed to—incidents of real thuggery that have taken place under Mark Dantonio's regime. I'm talking about actual crimes perpetrated off the field by MSU players and largely forgiven by their overly compassionate coach. Fights, robberies, drunkenness. No one's making a Rudy-like inspirational movie about this scrappy band of malcontents. One could even throw in that on-ice assault and battery committed against a Michigan hockey player just to round the argument into an indictment of the whole of Spartan culture. (I refer to the assault and battery committed by the Spartans, not the one involving another Michigan athlete in a street brawl.)
I suppose I should be embarrassed or ashamed by these facts, but I'm really not. Bad things like this happen everywhere, for reasons having nothing to do with "program culture." The mistake is in relying on 19-year-old kids to confirm and uphold your sense of honor. That's what Chait is doing. And while we're at it, that's what Michigan State fans are doing, too, whenever they toss another laurel on Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins. At the beginning of this season, the senior delivered a polite, non-inflammatory speech at Big Ten media day, bravely and eloquently stating that he's just happy to be here, playing football with no complaints. Now he's Exhibit A for "what's right" with college football, inasmuch as he continues to validate what its power brokers already believe to be true.
Cousins is now officially a "good kid" with a "bright future" and a "shining example" to all those who don't cause trouble. Amid all the fetid awfulness in college football, there is Cousins, the last, lone exception. Michigan State fans talking about Cousins sound like Michigan fans talking about Michigan.
Look, I've lost the thread a little bit, but the only point I'm trying to make is that Michigan State has now bested Michigan at football in four consecutive seasons. I don't really understand or care how that happened, but until such time as both teams are again called upon to square off in their yearly gridiron ritual, I invite Jonathan Chait and all Wolverines fans everywhere to put that knowledge in their collective straw and suck it.
Dashiell Bennett is a former Deadspin editor. Follow him on Twitter, @dashb0t.