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John Perry, Ph.D.

John Perry Ph.D.

The Rose Bowl and Irrationality

Football emotions don't jibe with rational thoughts about the sport.

As I write, Wisconsin is ahead of Nebraska 63-17 in the championship game of whatever the conference I think of as the "Big 10" is called these days. The winner of this game will play Stanford, the winner of whatever the conference I think of as the "Pac 8" is now called. Woops, it's now 70-24 almost halfway throught the 4th quarter.

I grew up in Nebraska. My father and uncle played for the Cornhuskers. I went to all the games, sitting in the "knothole" section for $.50. Long before I knew where Stanford was, I knew that the Cornhuskers lost the Rose Bowl 70 years ago to Stanford, 21-13. History records the game as the the day the Stanford's T-formation established itself as the dominant offensive scheme in football. That's certainly correct; my five years in football, 1960-65, four at Southeast High School in Lincoln, and one at Doane College in Crete, Nebraska, were all T-formation football. But that wasn't what my father told me about the game. He told me that Nebraska might well have won if their speedy star, Al Zikmund, hadn't broken his leg on a 59 yard kickoff return, that would have been his second touchdown. If you do a Google search on `1941 Rose Bowl', you will find, after a bit of work, that this is basically correct.

But now I have been at Stanford for about 40 years, taking my kids to the games, and living and dying each week in the Fall with Bill Walsh, John Elway, and all the great players and coaches over the years. So I was looking forward to a rematch with mixed emotions. Who would I cheer for? Looks like it won't be a problem.

Why might this be of interest to readers of Psychology Today? Because there is not one element of my rational mind that thinks I should care about football, or that thinks that football success is a good thing for either of the universities involved, Stanford or the University of Nebraska, or for many of the student-players involved.

Nebraka just scored. Now it's 70-30 with .51 second left. Probably not time for a comeback.

It's a bizarre historical accident that football teams, with the tremendous fan bases, media coverage, and alumni money they represent, are strongly associated with academic institutions. I think it constitutes a powerful distraction to those institutions, with little discernible benefit. Some programs, like Stanford and Nebraska, generate enough income to fund a lot of other sports. But I think they are the exception. Football is an expensive sport, especially for small colleges that generate little income from it, compared to the expenses.

We are learning how hard the sport is on the players, with recent news on the long term effects of concussions. But this has been obvious to those who keep track of their football player friends and former students. Fifty-year olds who can no longer enjoy tennis or jogging or much of anything else athletic, due to the long term effects of old football injuries, are commonplace. I spent most of my four years on the bench, with splinters the biggest danger; looking back I count the blessings of my lack of talent and drive.

And yet, deep in my mind, the old emotions tied to Nebraska, the team of my youth, do not disappear. Nor those tied to Stanford, the team my kids and I followed for many years. The rational mind has remarkably little influence on emotional stuctures that get established early on.