Excerpted from Diane Roberts’s new book, Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America, now on sale.
“You’re an intelligent, cultivated woman,” he says. “You cannot like college football. You don’t like college football.”
He’s an historian, a distinguished scholar teaching at a distinguished university in Georgia. I’m an English professor at Florida State. We’re having lunch: salads, balsamic vinaigrette, decaf, no dessert. Somehow we get onto the subject of football season in the South. He rolls his eyes. The traffic. The noise. Those awful people in awful T-shirts baying in the stands. All for a ridiculous, expensive, violent game played by overmuscled postadolescents.
I am forced to confess: I’m one of those awful people—better dressed. The sect to which I belong cleans up pretty for ball games. While the historian reads scholarly articles or composts or binge-watches Game of Thrones, I spend fall Saturdays celebrating the sacraments of my people, following the ordo missae: ESPN Game Day, tailgate, kickoff, four quarters, final whistle, more tailgate—the rituals of the tribe.
He’s right. I don’t like college football. Liking is warm, but not scalding; it’s pleasant, something you can take or leave, not something holding you in thrall, not a force from deep in the unconscious and the gut. Love is closer, maybe, given that it’s chemical, a brain mystery, beyond free will, beyond reason, a gaudy and ungovernable creature fed on hope and desire.
But if love implies approval, then love won’t do either. College football is nasty, brutish, and long—at least three hours, four if the game’s on television—a great, messy stew of energy, anger, joy, signs, portents, symbols, athletic feats, madness, and what sports announcers call “pageantry.” It’s the preferred sport of Republicans, climate-change deniers, Christian fundamentalists, and people who think every American foreign policy issue can be solved by the 101st Airborne. The game’s in bed (possibly not quite the right term) with fundamentalist Christianity, anti‑intellectualism, and retrograde ideas about women and people of color. It costs too much in blood and treasure: at FSU, we’ve unscrewed half the lightbulbs in some campus buildings and removed phones from professors’ offices to save money. The library is having to cut databases and slow way down on buying books. The football stadium’s getting an $81-million makeover. It’s Big Business masquerading as play, savagery sanctioned by the very institutions of higher learning founded to civilize us, a quasi‑fascistic spectacle complete with uniforms, martial music, slogans, and an excess of testosterone. The crowd howls for harder hits; the boys on the field wreck their shoulders, their knees, their backs, their brains—sometimes for life. The NCAA always says it’s “studying” the problem.
Yet there I am, every Saturday from late August to early January. I guess you could say I’m conflicted. I’m like those people who aren’t sure they believe in the Virgin Birth and the literal Resurrection but still show up for church because they like the music and take solace in the liturgy. I’m a Seminole lifer: I grew up in Tallahassee, looking forward to the rhythm of fall Saturdays, making potato salad for the tailgate, making sure for the 14th time that we had the tickets and the parking pass and the corkscrew, singing the fight song and spelling F-L-O-R-I-D-A S-T-A-T-E (proving that education in Florida is not completely a lost cause), settling in to experience the ecstasy and terror of the contest.
Believe me, I’ve tried to abjure the realm of college football. I fully expected to outgrow it, though my mother (age 83) and my football godparents (ages 85 and 86) have yet to do so. During the 10 years I lived in England, I figured my college football obsession would wear off after a while. It didn’t. On Monday mornings in the Common Room, I’d snatch the International Herald Tribune out of the blameless hands of whatever economics grad student was trying to look at the stocks, and check the score from Saturday’s games. This was in olden times, before the Internet, before smartphones. An international call would have cost at least 20 bucks, so I rang home only in a crisis. Like during the annual FSU-UF game.
The United States is the only nation sufficiently deranged to make a life-and-death matter of college sports. The US is the only country in which so‑called “student‑athletes” can generate billions of dollars in profit just by excelling at running, tackling, blocking, throwing, and catching. Not that the “student‑athletes” are getting rich. The NCAA, the universities, the licensers of “official” college‑branded merchandise, Nike, Under Armour, sports broadcasters—they’re the ones doing well off college football.
But long before the money, before the dedicated college-football channels and websites and radio shows, before the live Signing Day and Heisman extravaganzas and the NFL draft and tailgating and skyboxes, there was passion and violence and pain. The game was never a simple pastime: by 1869, when Rutgers and Princeton met for what’s considered the first official college football game, it had already become a trial of honor, loaded with dramatic importance. On October 30, 1897, the Red and Black newspaper said of that afternoon’s contest between the University of Georgia and the University of Virginia, “Every man on both teams realizes the fact that there is much at stake, and each one will enter the game with a determination to win or die.”
Win or die. 17-year‑old Richard Von Albade Gammon, on defense for Georgia, leaped to tackle Virginia halfback Julien Hill. Von, as he was known, missed. He fell hard, chin‑first on the ground. He died of massive head trauma later that night. Georgia canceled the rest of its season. The legislature in Atlanta passed a bill outlawing football in the state. The governor was about to sign it. Then he received a letter from Mrs. Rosalind Gammon, Von’s mother, urging him to spare football. Von’s “love for his college and his interest in all manly sports, without which he deemed the highest type of manhood impossible, is well known by his classmates and friends, and it would be inexpressibly sad to have the cause he held so dear injured by his sacrifice. Grant me the right to request that my boy’s death should not be used to defeat the most cherished object of his life.”
Two Florida State fans. Photo via Getty
Back in 1980, Florida State beat No. 3 Nebraska 18–14 on the road. Thousands of students drained into the streets, screaming in happy surprise, pounding Miller Lites and passing around bottles of Jim Beam, hugging, hooting, jumping up and down like mad children. I sat on the hood of my sorority sister’s birdshit green Chevelle, yelling, “F‑S‑U! F‑S‑U!” The Strip, the section of Tennessee Street lined with vital FSU institutions such as the thick-crust pizza place, the four‑for‑one cocktail place, and Mike’s Beer Barn, had become a parking lot of honking horns and wholesale violations of Florida’s open-container law. The cops just watched. We sang the fight song. We tried to sing the Alma Mater, though most of us couldn’t get past “High o’er the towering pines, our voices swell. . . .” We hollered “We won! We won!” till our throats hurt, though every soul making a ruckus that night was a good thousand miles from Lincoln, Neb., where the actual winning took place, and none of us did anything to help the Seminoles win, unless you count wearing our lucky socks while listening to the game on the radio. But the victory belonged to us, too, as much as the team. We all belong to the same self‑selected clan. We exult and we suffer as one.
I was never a cheerleader or a majorette. I never played the game. I sat in the stands. Yet college football is central to my identity as an American. I grew up in a two‑team town where football is as ubiquitous and unremarkable as air, yet as important as the sun. Florida A&M University is small, historically black, and historically good at football: The Rattlers won eight black college national championships between 1938 and 1961. Florida State University is large, historically white, and became seriously and consistently good at football in the 1980s, winning national championships in 1993, 1999, and 2014. Football is the axis on which Tallahassee turns; we arrange our lives around the power of the season—even people who despise the game and refuse to notice who’s winning think twice about venturing into town on a home-game weekend, unless they enjoy driving five miles an hour amid packs of revelers bedecked in the colors and symbols of their people as they perform mysterious hand signals and chant the name of their college over and over on their way to the stadium or the bar.
Around here, nothing, not even a constitutional crisis, trumps football. In the middle of the presidential election vote recount of 2000, former secretaries of state, Pulitzer Prize–winning columnists, $600‑an‑hour lawyers, political operatives, and reporters for outlets from Buenos Aires to Bonn suddenly found themselves kicked out of their hotels and turned into the street. The Florida Gators were coming up from Gainesville to play the Seminoles, and all the rooms had been booked up a year in advance.
Some people still think it’s just a game.
I can criticize college football; anyone with a functioning frontal cortex can. And should. Look at the money: in 2014, Ohio State’s football program was the most valuable, worth $1.1 billion. That was before the Buckeyes won the national championship in 2015. FSU, the 2014 national champion, looks poor in comparison, coming in at $326 million. To put that into context, the entire appropriation from the state legislature to fund Florida State, one of its two “preeminent” institutions of higher education, was $398 million in 2013-14. That’s for just about everything besides football: professors, paper, books, computers, air conditioning, campus cops, roof repair, reading labs, paper clips, flower beds, desks, janitors, grad students.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association, college football’s multibillion-dollar governing body, is frequently useless and often venal. At a congressional hearing in the summer of 2014, Missouri senator Claire McCaskill lit into NCAA head Mark Emmert on the NCAA’s feeble response to sexual violence committed by athletes: “I feel sorry for you,” McCaskill said. “I can’t even tell whether you’re in charge or whether you’re a minion [of the universities]. If you’re merely a monetary pass‑through, why should you even exist?”
Why indeed? The NCAA’s power, like that of the Wizard of Oz, exists only to the extent people believe in it. Between players voting to unionize and courts heaping scorn on the NCAA’s conveniently lucrative definition of amateurism, keeping players as poor and hungry as Dickensian orphans—they often don’t have the money to order a pizza on the weekend or a buy a shirt without a swoosh on it—the NCAA begins to look like the last days of the Roman Empire.
I’ve often wished I could love baseball instead. Baseball wears an air of innocence and simplicity; it’s the game of the nation’s childhood—pastoral, redolent of springtime, green shoots, and hope. It doesn’t require body armor, and its players rarely suffer brain damage. Overeducated people like me are supposed to like baseball—the favored sport of National Public Radio–heads and New Yorker writers. Either baseball or the Tour de France. Poetically minded sportswriters, romantics, and foreigners celebrate baseball as the soul of the nation. They quote Walt Whitman: “It’s our game—the American game”; they quote Saul Steinberg: “Baseball is an allegorical play about America, a poetic, complex, and subtle play of courage, fear, good luck, mistakes, patience about fate, and sober self‑esteem.” But the truth is, baseball represents how America wants to see itself; football, specifically college football, represents America as it really is: not a Field of Dreams but a consecrated battleground where we celebrate violence and hypermasculinity, usually in the name of Jesus.
I can’t quit college football. It’s like a bad boyfriend: you hate that he’s so right-wing, his table manners embarrass you, he’s barely read a book, and you don’t want your mother to meet him, but damn, he’s so fine and makes you feel so good (when he isn’t making you feel so bad), you just can’t help yourself.
Have you ever seen 100,000 devotees of the University of Alabama football team urging, in high‑decibel unison, “Roll, Tide, Roll! Or 80,000 Seminoles performing what’s known as the Tomahawk Chop while singing what purports to be a Native American war chant? There’s more than a touch of Nuremberg Reichsparteitag about it. Seriously: Ernst Hanfstaengl, born in Munich, kin to the illustrious Sedgwick family of New England, and a 1909 graduate of Harvard, became part of Hitler’s inner circle in the 1930s. Hanfstaengl wrote martial music for Hitler and, he claimed, used the rhythm of the cheer “Harvard! Harvard! Harvard! Rah! Rah! Rah!” and turned it into the infamous “Sieg heil! Sieg heil!” One day he played his friend Adolf some of the Crimson’s most adrenaline‑rousing marches: “I had Hitler fairly shouting with enthusiasm. ‘That’s it, Hanfstaengl, that is what we need for the movement, marvelous!’ and he pranced up and down the room like a drum majorette.”
I accept and embrace my Inner Barbarian. The world is divided into Us versus the Forces of Evil as manifested in the other team, my colors versus the rest of the spectrum, my team versus yours, beauty versus ugliness. During football season, you are either with us or against us. College football harks back to a never‑never time of moral clarity, a time when we didn’t need to think, just cheer, when we cherished our prejudices. . During the 1970s and 1980s, Alabama–Penn State games were habitually cast as battles between Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, though it was the University of Florida Gators who actually affixed Confederate battle flags to their helmets when they played Penn State in 1962. Human beings love to pick a side.
The game can be so beautiful, you see. Watching Rashad Greene get under a long ball or Dalvin Cook juke left, right, left, left, running under and around to make 15 yards, gives me immense pleasure. You could argue that ballet displays the same gorgeous athleticism, and it does. So I’ll admit that violence is part of the pleasure too. America is the land of redemptive violence.
We may be entering the End Times of football. Not that the game will disappear anytime soon. Too much money involved. The NFL will carry on raking in profits while trying to divert attention from brain injuries. Universities will continue to tout “tradition” and “pride” as the marching band blasts out the fight song and cheerleaders high‑kick on the sidelines and the alumni write checks. People will still insist football prepares players for the Game of Life or makes a boy into a man.
It may be that when it comes to football, America is like Saint Augustine, who, in his Confessions, asks God to make him chaste, just not yet. We know the game will have to change. Just not yet, not this season.
Excerpted from Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America by Diane Roberts. Copyright © 2015 by Diane Roberts. A Harper book, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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