JIM WAUN

Neverland is a fictional creation. Peter Pan, Tinker Bell and fairies live there, beyond the grasp of troublesome Captain Hook. It lies somewhere between now, what used to be and dreams of the future. Its pure air invigorates and promises eternal youth.

I wandered aimlessly around Michigan State University’s Neverland three hours prior to the Indiana football game last Saturday. On football days parking within a half-mile of the stadium is by premium-priced season pass only, so I drove to the commuter lot and rode a bus to Neverland.

The commuter lot has hundreds of free parking spots for tailgating and grassy places for parties. The university provides a dozen buses to continuously take fans to and from the stadium for $5.

It was a perfect day: neither too warm or cool. Fall colors were gorgeous. I walked across the Red Cedar River and found a bench with a panoramic view of the stadium to take in the scene. Parents strolled with babies. Small children threw bread crumbs to ducks. The river lazily carried leaves over gentle rapids.  

In due time I crossed back over the river, heard distant band music and headed toward it. Along the way scalpers were buying and selling game tickets. A few people pushed shopping carts, picking up recyclable cans and bottles. All around the stadium parking lots were full of tailgaters with people having good times.

By the time I found the music, the Indiana University band had finished its pre-game drills and warm up. I remembered that the same kind of thing happened to me wandering around Disney World.

Taking a different route back toward the stadium  I encountered the MSU marching band’s spectacular 50-member drum line marching through the crowd to warm up. away from the rest of the band.

A few yards further I found a couple hundred football prospects and their families waiting for the “football recruits” gate to open. MSU recently completed a new stadium facility for wooing prospective athletes and their families.

The next gate over is the north entrance to the stadium and the field. Nearly 20 uniformed police, security and event staff were standing by with ropes. I was told they were getting ready for the teams and bands to pass through.

Nothing much happened for a while so I struck up a conversation with a slightly younger man wearing an Indiana warmup jacket. He was there to greet his grandson, the team’s place kicker, as he entered the stadium.

He told me the boy made the team as a walk-on. Through talent and hard work he’d earned a football scholarship. In return for year-round, full-time athletic training he’ll have all school expenses paid.

Our conversation was interrupted when a caravan of three police cars with flashing lights, three buses and a huge grey motor home with Indiana plates drove up.

Wearing red warmup suits, the Indiana players filed off the buses and into the stadium. Nobody got off the motor home. Later, I saw five ordinary people dressed in jeans step off and receive instructions from an Indiana official.

I asked one how they got to ride the bus and be in the parade with the players’ buses. It’s a courtesy bus, she said. I wonder what prompted the courtesy but didn’t ask.

A little later the stern-faced MSU team arrived, walking in formation but not in step.  By now, about an hour before game time, the atmosphere around the stadium was buzzing with activity.

I returned home to watch the game on TV, with good views and color commentary. It was a close game until the end when MSU pulled away and won 52-26.

Games take longer these days. This one lasted more than four hours. Referees manage play on the field. A man wearing a red cap and head set controls when play starts and stops by walking out on the field. And a TV producer cloistered in a truck behind the stadium controls it all.

The Indiana grandfather and I agreed we don’t know what to make of major college athletics. His grandson’s scholarship will facilitate getting him into dental school. And it’s good for young adults to have avenues for developing their athletic abilities and directing their energies.

Some players will become wealthy professional athletes. Unfortunately some will be unprepared for the fame or fortune and die early, stiff and sore, broke and broken. And many more will have serious long-term effects from injuries. I wonder how people in academia feel about their traditional competition for excellence, usually taking place in the laboratories, classrooms and theaters being upstaged by surreal athletic extravaganzas.

Do they know how or when they lost control of the situation? Is their bottom line Disneyesque profits? Are television revenues and tailgaters’ parties wagging the dog?

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