America’s Most Dystopian Halftime Show

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Written By Pinang Driod

At halftime of college football’s Big 12 Championship last weekend in Arlington, Texas, two students met on the field for a competition that would have, in its way, higher stakes than the game itself. It was time for the Dr Pepper Tuition Giveaway.

The promotion has been held at major conference championship games since 2008. It works like this: Students wearing Dr Pepper–branded jerseys have 30 seconds to lob as many Dr Pepper–branded footballs as possible into a giant Dr Pepper–branded can with a circular hole cut into its side; whoever sinks the most wins $100,000 for tuition or to help pay off student loans. The announcer then asks the winner what this means to them, and the winner thanks some combination of their friends, their family, God, and Keurig Dr Pepper Inc. The runner-up gets $20,000, and third-place finishers, who are eliminated the day before in a preliminary round of football-tossing in an empty stadium, receive $2,500 in tuition money. They are not mentioned on the telecast.

As an exercise in corporate branding, this is fairly standard. Basketball games have their sponsored half-court heaves; hockey games have their center-ice shots; baseball games have a truly bewildering array of inter-inning promotions. The Dr Pepper Tuition Giveaway appears to be well liked by fans, and students who participate are not inclined to have regrets. But still there’s something dark about this entertainment. More than 40 million Americans have student-loan debt, amounting to at least $1.6 trillion in all. That burden may affect their choice of when to marry, have children, or buy a home. A tuition giveaway—with students’ futures set against each other on national TV—turns this crisis into a spectacle.

This year’s Big 12 edition pitted Ohio State’s Gavin White, who’d use the money to pursue a degree in meteorology, against the University of Pennsylvania’s Ryan Georgian, who needed it to launch a career as an entrepreneur working “to help address social inequalities.” They aren’t quite the anonymous fans picked out of the stands who might win some halftime cash if they’re really lucky. The tuition giveaway’s contestants are defined by need: Students apply to participate in the promotion by uploading a 60-second video explaining how the prize would enable them to pursue their goal of becoming a teacher or a pediatrician or a scientist at NASA.

On game day, the announcer then shares the finalists’ backstories with the crowd, just before the competition starts. They might ask a student what the prize would mean to him, and the student might reply, “This tuition money would take a huge financial burden off my family.” (That exchange, from the 2019 SEC edition of the giveaway, has stuck in my mind.) It’s all a bit grotesque, the way students’ dreams and desperation are leveraged for our entertainment.

Any tuition money is a boon, even when it comes from an utterly inane but high-stakes contest for the casual enjoyment of spectators and, by extension, the enhancement of the Dr Pepper brand. When I spoke with past winners of the event, they had nothing but positive feelings to share. Reagan Whitaker, who won last year’s SEC edition of the giveaway, told me that she still keeps in touch with both of her co-finalists, and with the Dr Pepper reps she met at the event. (She used the money to help pay for her enrollment at Vanderbilt University, where she is studying to be an audiologist.) This year, the company arranged for Whitaker to go see the SEC Championship again, even though she wasn’t competing for financial aid. A representative for Dr Pepper declined to comment on the ethics of the event, saying only in an email that the company “has awarded over $17.5M in tuition to deserving students over the past 30 years and has a vibrant alumni network that the brand continues to keep in touch with.”

This line was straight out of the company’s promotional materials (and, seemingly, the script given to the announcer at each tuition giveaway), which emphasize that Dr Pepper is in the business of giving money to “deserving students.” The competition’s official rules do not specify any standards for determining which students deserve to be finalists beyond an evaluation of their videos. As for which finalists are deserving of $2,500 and which are deserving of $100,000, that’s a question of who can throw the most footballs into a giant Dr Pepper can in 30 seconds.

The participants have weeks to prepare for the toss. Because time is of the essence and the giant cans are only five yards away, the chest-pass technique is the most popular, though you’ll occasionally see a classic overhand throw or even an underhand toss. White told me that he spent an hour every day perfecting the technique for his toss (a chest pass capped off by a flick of the wrists, though he tried one-handed, underhand, and overhand throws as well) and transfer (better to keep your eyes fixed on the target and grab the next football blind than to look into the bin as you do so). His opponent, Georgian, practiced in his backyard with a detached basketball rim. Whitaker said she built her own giant-can replica from PVC pipes and a hula hoop. She spent more than 40 hours training.

When the shot clock hit zero at the Big 12 Championship on Saturday, White and Georgian were tied at 10. “Oh my goodness! Are you kidding me!?” the announcer said. “We get overtime from Dr Pepper here!” Remarkably, even after the 15-second overtime, the contestants remained deadlocked—16 all. Which meant a sudden-death double-overtime shootout. White won the Dr Pepper–branded–coin toss and went first, but he missed his shot, and Georgian sank his for the win.

Or so it seemed. Almost immediately, viewers began pointing out online that the referees had made a counting error in the first overtime period. They’d given Georgian an extra point, meaning that White should have been the out-and-out winner there and then. The competition never should have gone to a shootout. Fans demanded #justiceforgavin, and that afternoon, the company, presumably realizing that a La La LandMoonlight–style rescinding of Georgian’s title would not be a good look, awarded both contestants the full $100,000. Georgian walked away with an extra $80,000 in tuition money—probably good for at least a couple of semesters at a private college—because of a counting error.

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