My Turn: Story of two fifth-down plays and our social change

  • mactrunk

Published: 5/26/2021 8:24:01 AM

Often, observers recognize how much social change occurred in America following World War II that culminated with the election of Donald Trump. There is a story whose parallel developments tells two opposite endings as a poignant testimony to what has happened to our society. As one of history’s small anecdotes, the story has dramatically come down to us as the “Saga of Two Fifth-Down Wins” and as a moral parable for America.

In November 1940, as the story is told, a college football game was played between Cornell and Dartmouth, an event that began as a normal college game but became a legend in the American lore of character and sportsmanship. Cornell, entering the game on a string of 18 victories, defeated Dartmouth, 7-3. But, the film review revealed that, after Cornell’s fourth-down play ended in an incomplete pass, somehow the referee signaled for another play for Cornell, giving it an extra down. On what amounted to a fifth-down play, Cornell scored and won the game in the last few seconds. When it was reported that Cornell’s victory had been illegally obtained as the referee made a mistake in giving Cornell an extra down, Cornell did not hesitate: They telegrammed Dartmouth and offered to forfeit the game, in spite of its 18-game winning streak and national championship prospect, which Dartmouth accepted.

Fast-forward 50 years to 1990 — the most tumultuous half century of social change in American history — an eerily similar “fifth down” play decided a college football game (this time between the University of Colorado and University of Missouri, with Colorado ranked No. 12 and Missouri unranked), but with a decidedly opposite result. Colorado, trailing 31-27, drove to the Missouri goal-line with minutes left. In the confusing last few seconds of the game, the officiating crew miscounted the downs and gave Colorado an extra down, a “fifth down,” with which it scored and “won” the game. When controversies erupted, following the game’s end, and Bill McCartney, the Colorado coach, was asked if he would “forfeit” the game since they had won illegally (in the same way Cornell had done exactly 50 years previously), McCartney adamantly refused to forfeit it. Colorado went on to win the national championship that year and McCartney retired from coaching in 1994, still dogged by his refusal to forfeit the game. He later founded the Promise Keepers, a national Protestant religious group for men, and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013.

Unsurprisingly, during the 50-year span between Cornell and Colorado, the ethics of college athletics, pretending a modicum of amateurism, underwent profound changes too. The time-honored tradition of high school athletes matriculating with a college degree before they joined the pros was abandoned during the 50-year span of deregulation in a highly self-indulgent consumer society. Begun formally in 1974, with the draft of Moses Malone out of high school, although an aborted out-of-high-school draft had occurred in 1962, athletes foregoing college, or part of college, became a norm, creating a buzz-phrase “one-and-done,” meaning the minimum one-year stay in college before bolting for the pros. By 2020, those who left college unfinished became a flood, numbering 107 in football alone, abandoning the façade of purity from commercialism and money in student-athletes. Without cynicism or irony, college athletics became an outright de-regulated component of unabashed commercialism and the entertainment industry.

Judged by what Cornell’s coach did and what McCartney did, under almost identical fifth-down wins yet coming to two opposite decisions, the two-generation span quite dramatically revealed what had become of America’s own character and sportsmanship. American society and culture, after half a century of incessant tearing down of self-protecting regulation and community, had become a very different place. Morally, spiritually and intellectually, sharp distinctions had vanished even among categories that ought to remain sharp, such as between good and evil, between profit and morality, between governmental and corporate, or between public service and self-aggrandizement. In such circumstances, it is fitting that a man of McCartney’s character (or no character) could easily move from the very-corrupt college football world to a very-media-hyped semi-religious movement. The two worlds met smoothly in the vortex of fame, celebrity and spirituality in the person of Bill McCartney, one of the quintessential “Americans” in this digital-capitalist era of moral grayness but sharp self-interest.

Of course, having gone through Donald Trump’s presidency, Bill McCartney appears richly deserving of his sainthood.

Jon Huer lives in Greenfield.

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