POINT: THIS IS ULTIMATELY MEANINGLESS, NOT UNLIKE TENNESSEE FOOTBALL (Holly)
I try not to think too much, on a given day, about Tennessee football. As a four-year attendee (and depending on who’s asking, a graduate) of the University of Tennessee, and the child of two more Tennessee alums, I have learned not to look directly at the Tennessee football program, as other children are taught not to stare into the sun. Looking at it won’t change anything, and might hurt.
For the most part, I wish the individual players and coaches of Tennessee well, but there’s only so many years one can sustain simultaneous affection for a team’s win-loss record and the absolute certainty that this program would cheerfully cover up the circumstances surrounding my untimely death in exchange for a marble’s worth of neutral-to-favorable PR, and besides, I saw them win a title game when I was just a teenager. I was a student the last time the Volunteers beat Alabama, Florida, and Georgia in one season. Me and Tennessee, we’ve had our honeymoon, and to pretend that it should still be ongoing is, at best, deeply silly. At worst, it’s unhealthy, and I already have corn syrup for blood; I don’t need to mash down the gas pedal any harder on this winding country road labeled EARLY GRAVES THIS WAY.
With all that stipulated: Tennessee’s new head football coach comes complete with his own mild-flavored D.C. Comics meme, and where I am willing to shrug off the mantle of fandom, I feel the responsibility of scholarship much more keenly. My people need me. Those people are you.
This photo exists. Let’s unpack it together. (Clinging to a piece of iconography that’s years out of date like it’s a floating branch in a torrential river flood: what a novel experience for all of us in Knoxville.)
I’m not looking for signs of life or foreboding omens here; I’m merely casting about for meaning. Any meaning. And again, like a child sitting down for lunch in a Tennessee public school, I’m not expecting fruit: This photo is almost eight years old, which means it can legally purchase handguns.
In happier times, I might thread this to the legend of Tennessee Sewer Batman and see what kind of quilt manifests itself; today, I will simply point out that – much like a program beset by offensive anemia hiring a shoot-em-up hotshot OC – the Vols have opted here for a guy in the physical inverse of Jeremy Pruitt’s mask.
There’s a willingness to commit to the bit here, in adding the snuggly mask to the jammy-jams Batsuit, that I suppose one ought to admire. And no one in East Tennessee will ever fault a man for kitting himself out in the name of comfort, not speed. But I can’t find it anywhere in my being to get too worked up over this, one way or the other. Maybe I’ll live longer. Is that a good thing? Who can say!
Look, I know the school is trying to pull a Kansas-on-David-Beaty on Pruitt here, and on some level I respect the blatant horseshittery of not even trying to disguise that, but the only thing I liked about the guy was that he paid his players, and citing that as a primary reason for his dismissal isn’t going to help your recruiting, fellas. Are we at all sure those weren’t Macbeth bags? Because this shit is some sound and fury, signifying nothing a’tall.
Hey, whatever happened to the tiger? I would vastly prefer to talk about the tiger.
COUNTERPOINT: ACTUALLY, JOSH HEUPEL IS THE BEST BATMAN (RYAN)
There’s a scene in The Dark Knight where we learn Batman’s got a fan club, an enthusiastic bunch of cosplaying uncles toting shotguns and rifles and other un-Batman weapons. The Caped Crusader isn’t happy about this development, and he winds up arresting his knockoffs along with the actual villains they were attempting to stop.
One of the false Batmen demands to know why the hero condemns their vigilantism but not his own. “What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?” he demands. Batman growls back, “I’m not wearing hockey pads.”
Consider how wildly undemocratic that response is. Batman’s not telling this aspiring crimefighter that his ethics are out of whack or his methods are improper. He’s just calling him a broke bitch. Bruce Wayne turns his billions of dollars into training and technology, and based on this answer, the fruits of that astounding amount of capital is what gives him the right to become the Bat. Random Gothamite over there? Why, he probably drives a used car and doesn’t even have a weekly housekeeper, much less a live-in butler!
And what does Batman use to protect his true identity, which gives him the clout and the cash to flout every law on the books in favor of his own sense of morality? A mask.
Sure, Batman talks a lot of shit about being a symbol, but at a purely functional level, Batman, by his own admission, can’t exist without Bruce Wayne, Unquestioned Billionaire.
Now look at that photo of Heupel again.
By taking the mask off, Heupel tells us that heroism isn’t about having tremendous resources or avoiding public accountability. He dares to propose that Batman can be a set of principles to live by. Because if changing the world is only for the superwealthy, what hope do the rest of us have? What inspires us to become our best selves, if capitalism will always hold us back?
I think that’s just the energy Tennessee football needs right now. The Vols don’t have the resources (in-state talent, out-of-state recruits, practice fields that aren’t constructed directly atop haunted Civil War graveyards) of an Alabama or Georgia. They can’t hide behind a mask when the world’s already seen them lose at home to Georgia State and BYU and Kentucky, all while apparently cheating their asses off (in the eyes of the NCAA).
If Unmasked Batman Heupel is right, they don’t need those things anyway. Being Batman isn’t about the costume or the gadgets. It’s a state of mind. Stop worrying about what you don’t have or how many problems you have to fix. Believe you are Batman, and live as he would, and you will become him, even if you’ve only got hockey pads. Believe Tennessee will win the SEC East and, so long as we live in a world where Georgia is Georgia and Florida literally throws games away, and you just might pull it off.