the brutal truth of the two-deep roster

If you’re a football player on a high school or college football team, right about now your world and how you fit into it is probably becoming clear. Perhaps painfully so.

This week, a player who formerly played for the college football team I follow was kicked off the team for violation of team rules. Because that player had been arrested for theft, it was pretty easy for the local newspaper to ascertain what team rule the player violated. He broke the rule against getting arrested, especially if you’re not on the two-deep roster.

I’m not saying there would have been more leniency for a player on the two-deep roster, though that’s what I suspect. More than anything, this made me see how a football team is a little self-contained society inasmuch as many individual parts make up a whole and the less necessary parts tend to be marginalized.

For example, the player who was kicked off the team was the third-leading tackler on a terrible defense last season. Apparently sometime between then and now, his role on the team slipped, which was probably either the cause or effect of distractions in his own life. If he was arrested for theft, then it’s a pretty easy connect that he wasn’t all that focused on football. The question: was he less focused on football because his decreased role, or was his role decreased because he became distracted? I have no idea and maybe I’m being altogether presumptuous. Either way, it’s only an example and part of a larger point.

A football team, especially a Football Bowl Subdivision college football team has a ton of players. Usually 85 scholarship players plus walk-ons. So at any given practice, there’s at least 100 players. Of those 100, about 35 are going to actually consistently play in games during that season. Another 15 to 20 are freshmen who are a year or so away from being in that mix of 35 guys that will play. That leaves 30 to 50 guys who are on the team just to be on the team.

When I covered the North Texas Mean Green several years ago, I attended many practices late in the season as they were on the way to a bowl game. I became about as familiar with that football team as any I’ve ever been around and I’ve been around my share. But I would still notice guys whom I had never seen. Clearly some of these guys had no expectation of playing that season or in any coming season. They were happy to be on the team and especially happy to be on the way to the New Orleans Bowl.

But what happens when a guy who played last season begins preseason practice only to find that he has been relegated to that segment of the population that’s clearly not going to play much?

I imagine it’s pretty frustrating. Even the most self-aware individual, upon recognizing a slip in his performance, would likely still be at least a little bit disgruntled as he slid down the depth chart. A more combustible person might be inclined to act out, get arrested and get kicked off the team.

It seems like a theory economists might give when explaining crime rates. Any individual is motivated to adhere to the structure of society as long as that adherence leads to better standing within that society. But when that motivation goes away, the desire to adhere to the rules and regulations is mitigated.

The same thing that happens on football teams happens in schools and churches as well. It’s not the kid in the gifted-and-talented program who drops out. The kid who doesn’t see where he fits within the scope of the school who’s much more likely to bolt. The church member who doesn’t find any kind of role in a church is likely to move on to another one and maybe even criticize his or her former church as unwelcoming.

I suppose I could break down the different football positions and describe how they relate to roles within other organizations. I don’t want to get too technical, but clearly the quarterbacks are the most secure and even propped up class so much so that they usually wear colored jerseys that indicates they are off-limits during contact drills. The punters and kickers are the weird guys who sort of keep to themselves, not unlike musicians. But they’re nonetheless essential and tolerated. The importance of all the guys in the middle hinge on the likelihood that they’ll play.

Take notice in a couple of weeks at a football game when a player gets hurt on a kickoff. All of the fans of that team will be holding their collective breath, waiting to get a glimpse of that player’s number. If it’s a number the fans don’t recognize as an important number — that of an essential starter — see if the fans let out a sigh of relief.

I’m not necessarily attempting to make some high-reaching criticism of the model society of a football team and actual societies. It’s just an interesting time of year, what with plenty of practice reports and NFL preseason games, to observe football politics.

Lest this essay end abruptly, I’ll finish with a Ben Folds lyric that seems applicable to most of us in the middle of the football team of life.

“There’s never gonna be a moment of truth for you, while the world is watching. All you need is the thing you’ve forgotten and that’s to learn to live with what you are.”

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