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The Bigger Big Ten And The Soul Of A Michigan Man, With Ben Mathis-Lilley


The most striking thing about the ongoing consolidation in college sports is how familiar it feels. If you are familiar with the culture, you already know that this is not a compliment. The expansion of the Big Ten from sea to shining sea augurs more institutional cannibalism to come, and there are going to be some big television deals signed, and some pink men will go on television to talk about the Missions they hope to Advance, and none of what ensues will really benefit either the labor involved in creating the product for sale or the people consuming it. What’s dispiriting about it has less to do with what all this notional progress is undoing—which is mostly a matter of branding that has come to seem dated—and more to do with how shamelessly crass it all is. None of which is really the sort of thing that one “likes to see,” all told, but I can at least say this much for it: It does go some way towards helping to fill out a podcast!

This week, Drew and I were joined by Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley, whose book on Michigan’s 2021 season and college football brain illness, The Hot Seat, comes out later this summer. Together, over the course of an unusually focused episode, we tried to figure out not just why this is happening—everyone knows why it is happening, that’s the familiar part—but how it came to happen, and who made it happen, and where it might go as it inevitably continues to happen. None of us necessarily has answers on the last part, though Ben did help clarify some questions I had about the viability of soccer-style relegation in a 24-team Big Ten, but all of us had opinions. And when those opinions failed, we were rude to Rich Rodriguez and remembered clomping oafish Michigan quarterbacks in bulk. I will not give away much more than that, but it is my duty as a journalist to explain why there’s a picture of John Navarre at the top of this post.

This left us just a little bit of time for the dumb stuff, but we did our level best to make it count. I pulled the emergency brake on a question asking us about our fursonas of choice—somehow this is becoming my beat—and inflicted some Maine Chat and porcupine-appreciation on Drew, Ben, and you, the listener. We discussed the use and abuse of meats as a relationship-balancing device. We remembered another Michigan quarterback, but this time because of a prompt from Drew. It was, all in all, a decently jam-packed episode. Not as crowded as a 24-team athletic conference, and not as cynical, either, but roughly as full of sound, and fury, and nonsense.

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