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The Curious Case of Rip Van Engle

How did twenty-five years pass so quickly?

Day 2 - 70th Locarno Film Festival
There were no Getty Image pictures of Rip Van Engle, for whatever reason, but I figure this guy kind of looks like him.
Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

As we approach the twenty-fifth season of Big Ten football competition for Penn State, the tale of Rip Van Engle brings to mind the changes that have occurred in that time. How has the experience for fans evolved over the past twenty-five years? How does today’s experience compare to the early 1990’s? What changes can we expect to take place over the next twenty-five seasons?

Legend or Leader?

In the early 1990’s, so the story goes, while standing at a Penn State football tailgate, a man began to hear a thunderous sound coming from Nittany Mountain. Initially he thought that a storm was nearby, and wondered if it would interfere with the football game that was to take place later in the day. He soon realized that it was not thunder, and that he was the only person that was hearing the noise. He ate the last few bites of scrapple on his plate and then finished his beer before motioning to his giant blue ox to follow him toward the noise atop Nittany Mountain.

When he got there he saw a group of men playing nine-pin bowling. Apparently they lost one of their pins, he thought, as he and the ox approached the game. The players did not notice Rip, so he sat down underneath the shade of a nearby tree to nod off, figuring a quick power-nap before the football game was in order. When he woke the men were gone and so too was his ox.

He scanned the horizon for familiar sights to regain his bearings. Down the mountain he saw Beaver Stadium, but was shocked to notice a massive upper-deck blocking his view of the field. As he approached the tailgate area he reached into his pocket and was relieved to find that he had a dime. Now he just had to find a phone, somewhere, anywhere, to call his family. He walked the streets of State College desperate to find a phone booth. People passed him without making eye contact, instead they stared blankly into what appeared to be fancy calculators. It seemed that everyone was inundated with their calculator, as though it was commanding their every thought and move. They tapped it with their fingers, spoke into it, and connected themselves to it with a headset. Often they would hold it far from their face, with their arm fully extended, until a flash of light sprung from it. Is this how the robots feed their human host?

He soon realized that he had been asleep for twenty-five years and began to try to make sense of this new world, one seemingly dominated by calculators.

The World He Left Behind

When Rip went to Nittany Mountain in the early 1990’s the internet was not yet in popular use. Most mobile phones were permanently mounted inside of cars. There was only one ESPN channel and college football coverage was seasonal. If you wanted updates from your favorite team, forget about free content. The best you could do was to call a 1-900 number at the cost of $1.25 per minute, which equates to $2.35 today with inflation.

Recruiting information has become a very popular facet of off-season college football coverage. It simply did not exist twenty-five years ago. There were rumors, maybe one or two publications randomly that spoke of the top incoming players, but certainly not the mass of information available today. There was a time when freshmen were not listed on the media guide and were not available to speak with reporters.

Now high school kids are followed on twitter, their every emoji and retweet dissected in an attempt to extract information to feed the public’s insatiable appetite.

The transformation of the media in general over the past twenty-five years has changed the way that college football fans take in the game. Years ago it was rare to be able to watch college football games if you were outside of the team’s region. If a person did not attend the game, the best they could hope for was to read a newspaper article the following day. If you lived outside of the area, you were effectively left in the dark. The box score was the only unbiased recap of the game available, and we know how little that can show at times. Many fans considered radio the best option to follow the team.

Today we upload to the internet highlights of momentous plays that happen during the game, in real time. A person in the stadium is able to watch the highlight minutes after it happens on their phone. Others, spread all over the country and world, are able to see the same highlight in the same rapid time frame. Imagine explaining that to a fan twenty-five years ago; it would sound like science fiction or as though someone imbibed a little too much Yuengling for breakfast.

Outside of the rare newspaper article or the costly $1.25 per minute phone line, we used to get information from one another, verbally. The dying art of face to face conversation used to be the chief means by which fans learned about the team, mostly during tailgate parties prior to the game. And there were kegs at the tailgates.

Imagine what it would be like today to only have the information gathered in personal conversation to fill in around sporadic print newspaper articles. We used to know so much less about the little things surrounding the team that we were better able to see the broader picture.

The Fan Experience 25 Years From Now

It would be comical to put together a list of things that we think will be around in twenty-five years and then look at it in 2042. I guess that is what I am about to do, provided that the internet as we know it will remain intact. Let me set my google alarm for 5:30 a.m. on August 8, 2042 and put a link to this article in there. I figure it’s safe to set it very early in the day, since by then I will be very, very old and will wake before the sun rises.

What inventions will alter the way that we take in a football game in another quarter century? Which social norms or human behavior will remain the same and which will change?

Today a phone call can be considered an intimate form of communication when you consider the other options; texting, Facebook, Twitter and the many internet-based methods. Phones used to be considered an inappropriate way to deliver important information, thus the term phoning it in. As with many inventions and social norm changes that have occurred since the early 1990’s, the phone itself is no longer a phone; it is a computer that can mimic what a phone used to do. Talking to someone, as some people refer to it, no longer requires speech, hearing, or direct contact. We no longer hang our phones anywhere, much less up. They are now tethered to our person like a tiny conjoined twin; the portal to our social interests, the giver of directions and information, the memorizer of phone numbers that we used to keep in our brains for decades, the security blanket that soothes our growing inability to interact with strangers in situations that are not stimulating such as lines, waiting rooms or public transit. Will the next twenty-five years see a continued evolution of the personal mobile computer unit that we still call a phone?

Will our social deviation continue to widen in the next twenty-five years? The internet brings a person closer to another person that may physically be a world away. It can also make you less likely to interact with those around you. Instead of phoning it in, will we send our own personal holograms into Beaver Stadium to take in the game rather than going in person?

The cameras that are sometimes on the umpire’s hat or on the helmet of a player will likely become more prevalent. Camera technology has come a long way in the past quarter-century and is likely to continue. It seems logical that there will be an option to watch the game from any player’s perspective.

It is doubtful that the officials will use a physical set of chains to determine whether a player made the first-down distance. Remember when the chains used to get hung up on one another at times, shortening the actual distance of the span to less than ten yards? Yeah, that wasn’t very scientific. GPS placed inside of the football should cure that.

It is likely that the game itself will become much less violent as the social acceptance of gruesome injuries decreases and clearer knowledge of the long-term damage caused by unseen sports-related wounds is gained. In the future the games may resemble what the NFL Pro Bowl has become; a performance that mimics a football game that is more similar to a choreographed dance in football pads. Let’s hope I am comically wrong about that.

Rule changes geared toward protecting the quarterback have altered the game. A team used to establish the run to set up the pass. Now that is no longer necessary as the pass has been set up by a bevy of rules that favor the offense. The removal of the chop block to protect defensive lineman would have negated the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl victories in the late 1990’s.

What changes in the game or fan experience have you witnessed over the years, positive and negative? What will it be like twenty-five years from now, in your best estimation? Which changes are you hopeful to see and which do you hope never occur?