Mad Men and modern college football: Into the great wide open

Noted sports fan Jon Hamm - Jared Wickerham

Is being a college football fan today very different than being a square advertising executive in 1968? Aren't we all just trying to get a grasp on where the culture is headed?

Season 6 of Mad Men was about the show's characters experiencing everything around them seemingly disintegrating. As one might expect for a season set against the backdrop of the United States in 1968, the season hit all of the historical notes from the year: the Tet Offensive and the unraveling of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, and the disorder surrounding the Democratic National Convention.

The main characters of the show experience these events, most often on TV. The major events serve as a macro metaphor for the micro changes that are going on with the employees of Sterling Cooper & Partners. Don Draper spends the season experimenting with various drugs – weed, speed, and hashish – before coming so unglued that he admits the hidden backstory of Dick Whitman to shocked Hershey executives and tells them that they did not need to advertise. From the first introduction to Draper, a character straight out of the Fifties, we always imagined how a guy with a fedora and a pocket square would react to 1968, and we were not disappointed:

Don is hardly the only partner at Sterling Cooper who seems a little out of place in 1968:

Draper's former protege Peggy Olson undergoes a different form of disorientation, as she encounters the rising violence of New York City in the late '60s first-hand. She moves to a not-so-safe neighborhood, one that (unbeknownst to her) will prove to be a good investment if she can hold onto it, but first, she has to get past her boyfriend being stabbed and becoming so paranoid that she bayonets poor Abe in the stomach. By the end of the season, she has a cat and about seven locks on her door, the perfect target for membership in the Silent Majority.

And then we have dear Pete Campbell. Season 6 sees him lose: (1) his family when he can't be discreet about his philandering; (2) his largest account when his father-in-law sees him in a brothel; (3) his mother when Manolo Colon Marcus Constantine mistakes Ms. Campbell for a rich old lady, marries her, and then nudges her off the side of the SS Sunset Princess; and (4) his shot at being the key account guy with GM because he manages to knock over the GM '69 sign after failing miserably at driving a stick. And for good measure, Pete's introduction into the Sexual Revolution was Bob Benson making a pass at him. (Megan Draper got the same introduction, mere episodes after she and Don politely declined being part of a foursome with Jefferson D'Arcy.) When everything is coming apart at the seams, the only solution may just be to take a hit and enjoy a skirt walking by:

The thing about great art is that it should be able to speak to its users in unintended ways. In a season about Dante and doorways, Mad Men's tale of bewildering its characters can speak to people in any number of ways. It can speak to a professional who is confused by changes in the workplace. It can speak to cultural consumers who just don't get music or movies anymore. It can speak to a fan of steaks and potatoes who does not want to have to figure out what rabbit galantine or mondongo are. (And yes, I had to use a resource to come up with those dishes.)

It can even speak to a college football fan living through a complicated time for the sport. Just think about what we have experienced in the very recent past:

  • The media has spent increasing attention on the sorry health of many former players, leading some to question whether football will be able to survive the barracking that it will take from the court system in the coming years.
  • Speaking of pending civil litigation, major college football's winningest coach was fired in disgrace, then died a matter of weeks later. The NCAA then levied massive sanctions against the Penn State program, stopping just short of salting the fields of State College and proclaiming, "Nittany Lions delenda est."
  • And speaking of random sanctions, no one can figure out what the NCAA is doing anymore. At times, the organization clobbers programs (USC and Penn State); at others, its sanctions are embarrassingly light. This week's feather-dusting of Oregon is only the latest example.
  • And speaking of paying players, the specter of the Ed O'Bannon suit lingers over all of college football. While the notion of players getting a slice of the enormous pie that they help bake is hardly an offensive one, there's no doubt that the prospect of a court ordering that programs compensate their revenue athletes for using their image rights creates a million separate questions.
  • And speaking of filthy lucre, we have no idea where conference realignment will end or what form a playoff will take once we experience the first few years of a four-team tournament picked by a star chamber of grandees (and the hailstorm of criticism that will inevitably follow that process).
  • And speaking of a dangerous course, there is the very real prospect that college football is a big bubble, waiting to pop. Tickets have never been more expensive, schedules have rarely been as stuffed with unappetizing filler, and the experience of watching from home has never been better.

At times, it seems like college football is ideal for an anarchist who just wants to watch the world burn but hard to grasp for anyone who does not like uncertainty. The sensation that ordered-universe college football fans feel right now is not that different than what Don Draper feels at a party in the Hills or Peggy Olson feels when her boyfriend will not cooperate with a police officer to help catch the man who stabbed him: I don't recognize this place and I am scared about where it is headed.

The good news if you play this analogy out? The world did not end after 1968. It might have felt as if the United States was spinning out of control, but the country survived. People are prone to feeling as if the apocalypse is right around the corner. Just read a book on Jerusalem if you want a dozen examples.

College football might be governed by clueless, greedy suits in Indianapolis. It might be run by demographic-obsessed executives who claim that their teams will take their balls and drop to Division III if they have to pay their players with anything more than scrip from the company store. It might be coached by grim martinets who are offended by the idea of their players have leverage. The sport may be completely changed in a decade. But just as companies still pay handsomely for creative professionals to capture the zeitgeist in a thirty-second spot, fans will still be interested in seeing the springiest 20-year-olds elevate in the end zone to catch a jump ball.

If the country could survive Nixon, stagflation, and Vietnam, then college football can survive Mark Emmert, Jim Delany, and Mark May.

More from SB Nation:

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You can bet on how many games your team will win

Bill Connelly’s Big 12 preview countdown is complete

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