By Hardy Jackson
Every Sunday morning, when I turn on the TV to hear some football “analysts” tell me what I saw the day before, I know that sooner or later one of them will sagely observe that the winning team won because it was able to “dictate the tempo of the game.”
Once I agreed.
Now I know better. Now I know that the all-important game-tempo is only incidentally “dictated” by a team or a coach or a player on the field or anyone officially affiliated with the schools struggling each to defeat the other.
The tempo of the game is dictated by the folks who talk to the guy in the red hat.
Let me explain.
Up until a few years ago, I had not been to many games that I could have stayed home and watched on TV. Most of the games I attended have not been televised.
However, a couple of years ago, with my son enjoying the fruits of an SEC education, I decided I would combine my love of football with his mama’s maternal desire to see her baby boy and get season tickets in the nosebleed section of a big stadium.
So we went to the first game.
It started well enough. Kickoff was right on time. And for a few minutes, the squads banged away at each other as teams should.
Then, without warning, everything stopped and the players collected on their respective sidelines while nothing happened.
The mother of my son turns to me and asks, “what’s going on?”
I scan the stadium for an answer and find nothing out of the ordinary. Then I saw this guy in a red hat, standing on the field. He had a head-set. He was talking to someone somewhere about something.
The head referee, the guy who was supposed to be in charge of it all, watched him.
At first I thought an official might throw a flag – you know, sideline violation by someone who strayed where he shouldn’t be. But, no flag appears.
Then I thought the guy in the red hat might be the sideline official who keeps the “official” time. He was looking at something in his hand. Could have been a watch.
But sideline officials – the guys who carry the chains, record the downs and keep the clock – were wearing sickly-green vests, and the guy in the red hat wasn’t. He was decked out like a fraternity man – khaki slacks and a white shirt.
Except he wore a red hat.
There he was, on the field, alone. Listening and talking and watching whatever was in his hand.
Then, all of a sudden, red-hat guy waved his arm in a circular motion, like officials do to signal the clock to start and the game to commence. When he did, the referee, the guy who was supposed to be in charge, began to wave his arm in a circular motion, and the clock on the scoreboard started.
And play resumed.
Until, about 15 minutes later, play stops, tempo breaks, and out comes the man with the red hat.
The same ritual is repeated. The referee watches him as he talks to someone somewhere about something. Then he signals the referee who signals the teams and play begins again.
Then it hit me – commercial break.
And I realized that controlling it all, dictating the tempo of the game, stopping play so that sponsors could sell whatever they are selling, was whoever was talking to the man in the red hat.
They are the key, the essential cog in the wheel of commerce on which college football turns. Because of them salaries are paid, athletic budgets are balanced, and stadiums are built big so there will be a seat for me.
My theory – shared by a number of other observers – is that the man in the red hat is on the phone to someone at ESPN, or CBS, or ABC or FOX, someone who is trying to cram in as many commercials as they can before fans who are watching the game at home get tired of all the hucksterism and go for a beer.
Meanwhile, folks in the stadium wait while this guy in a red hat talks to some guy in New York who tells him that the game can go on. Then the guy in the red hat springs into action, signals the referee that play can resume and it does.
Until someone at ESPN or CBS or ABC or FOX decides it is time to sell something.
And the guy in red hat returns.
But he is not in charge. He is only doing his boss’s bidding.
The bosses – the networks and the sponsors – are the ones dictating the tempo of the game.
Understand that, and you understand big-time college football today.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.