College Football: America's Shared Culture

College Football: America's Shared Culture

This week, one is again reminded that America would be a better place if it its citizens assimilated into the melting pot as seamlessly as college football fans embrace their traditions. Technology, multiculturalism, and the breakdown of families and civic organizations have left Americans with fewer shared experiences, which makes the start of college football even more special.

Every fall, college football–and all of its unique traditions, fight songs, history, pageantry, hatreds, revelry–comes back, and it is a welcome constant in an world of uncertainty where traditions are becoming rare and fads more popular. 

Nearly a decade ago, I was walking out of a Target–with my Alabama cap on–when I heard strangers yelling “Roll Tide!” I instantly turned around, smiled, and we chatted for considerable length about SEC football as if we were lost friends, united by a love for Alabama football, the SEC, and college football. 

Team. Conference. Sport.

I felt then like I did when I went to Europe for the first time and my friends and I saw a group of Americans on two occasions while we were lost in Germany and France and subsequently went out to dinner with them, as they seemed as happy to see us as we were them.

Citizen. State. Country. 

My “reunion” with those members of “Bama Nation” was made the more remarkable because the Target was not in the South but in Northern California, of all places. And I am comforted by the fact that those experiences have not been rare and are not unique to myself–or Alabama fans. 

On Twitter, at bars, in living rooms, and in stadiums all across the country, fans–of small schools and big schools, doormats and blue bloods, powerhouses and pesky spoilers, service academies and religious institutions–are all sharing in a common culture, some united as much by a hatred for their opponents as a love for their respective teams. 

And through these shared passions, Americans get an opportunity to restore a sense of community and a shared culture that is dissipating. America once had stronger civic organizations, families, churches and even schools where they were taught assimilation and an “informed” and “learned” patriotism, something which President Ronald Reagan always spoke of as being essential to a healthy nation. Americans watched the same television shows together on the same nights at the same time–and then talked about them the next day at work. Americans went to movie theaters together and watched feature films when they were released.  

The country doesn’t do these things together as much. People “binge view” television shows, discover movies years later, listen to different music, go to separate graduations, learn different histories. But they all watch college football.

Sports is a unifying cultural force, and it is a meritocratic institution where the color of one’s skin does not matter. The same is true for fans–there are no “black” or “yellow” “brown” or “white” or “mixed” fans of college football teams–everyone is a part of the same team. And as the country celebrated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech this week, it is worth noting that a college football game in 1970–between integrated USC and an Alabama team that wanted to play black players on the field–may have done as much to fully integrate the South than Martin Luther King. 

If the adage that Sunday is the most segregated time in America is true, Saturday may now be the most integrated time in America, with Americans of all backgrounds and ethnicities gathering at college football stadiums that double as cathedrals.

Baseball will still be America’s pastime, but it does not inspire the fandom and passion that college football does, especially during its “juiced” era. Two fans wearing Red Sox caps on the opposite side of the street may not even acknowledge each other in New York. But two LSU fans–or Alabama fans–will most certainly at least give each other a nod, am acknowledgement given to allies–or countrymen. 

And in many ways, while baseball will still remind America of its agrarian and simpler past, college football most reminds individual Americans of their youth, when things were simpler and life wasn’t as hard. 

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz once told ESPN’s Ivan Maisel, who is fittingly an Alabama native who went to school at Stanford and so gets how college football traditions thrive in hotbeds like Tuscaloosa and more apathetic environments like Palo Alto, that he, like Alabama coach Nick Saban and many others, “likes the college game because he likes to develop young players.”

As Maisel wrote, “the rhythm and arc of a collegiate career embody the fulfillment of potential. It’s the same reason we continue to go back to our alma maters season after season. College football reconnects you with the kid you were, when Monday morning meant only a political science class, not the resumption of the mortgage chase. That’s why you go back to campus every fall.”

He wrote that the “appeal of college football is rooted in the simple notion that your team represents you, your state, your alma mater, your youth.” 

“There is no loyalty in the NFL,” he once wrote. “College football is all about loyalty.”

Like love of country, that loyalty can both acquired by birth and taught. And every Saturday, that loyalty is displayed from coast to coast. From dawn to dusk, college football fans unite–at team-specific sports bars in areas like Washington, D.C. and New York City, stadiums, and even online on message boards and Twitter. 

They share “Roll Tide” chants. And Tiger Walks. And a multitude of other traditions. There are bands–and a Leland Stanford Junior Marching Band that claims to be one. Tennessee sings Rocky Top and opens the “T” while Ohio State dots its “i” and Wisconsin jumps around at Camp Randall Stadium. The Trojan Warrior at the Coliseum and Chief Osceola at Florida State remind fans that some things will never change. Notre Dame is reminded to “Play Like a Champion” and the Red River Shootout between Oklahoma (Boomer Sooner!) and Texas unites two states. Death Valley at night in Baton Rouge, “2001: A Space Odyssey” in South Carolina, and South Carolina’s Death Valley in Clemson. Sweatshirts, cheerleaders–or USC cheerleaders in sweatshirt–frat boys with pom poms in the SEC. And don’t forget Bevo, Uga, Mike the Tiger, and Ralphie the Buffalo. And these traditions are re-learned or taught for the first time, ensuring that they will endure. 

Berkeley and Stanford students who may have known nothing about football will be familiar with every second of “The Play,” with Stanford students instantly learning that they were robbed, since Dwight Gardner’s knee had actually hit the turf! But all Berkeley fans need to do is point at the scoreboard, and remind John Elway he never went to a Bowl game. Ole Miss fans will learn how to tailgate at the Grove. Cowbells will ring at Mississippi State and Miss Americas take their redshirts at Ole Miss. Football will matter even at Harvard and Yale and at historically black colleges and universities like Grambling and Southern. The 12th man at College Station will make opponents dizzy and the voice of The Bear will echo in Alabama. Fight songs at Michigan and Notre Dame will give even non-fans goosebumps and chills. So do Army’s and Navy’s alma maters.

New traditions are created in Oregon and Boise State while others are restored, which is especially true in the South, where college football not only represents regional pride. The South’s domination of big-time college football has coincided with the region’s rise as an economic power.

In one of the best pieces ever written about the culture of SEC football in the South, Wright Thompson perfectly described the “grandmothers in Chanel and pearls” who get “worked up — I mean fired up, brother — about beating LSU” in the South as football season is on the horizon. He wrote about how much he loved the “SEC football idiosyncrasies” because “they come from the same kind of passion: Mississippi State’s cowbells, the Vol Navy, an Arkansas fan using the Freedom of Information Act, the way the crowd sings along to ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ on a warm Southern Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium”:

In Birmingham, they love the gov’nah, indeed. Me, too, even if I don’t know a single thing about him. That’s what football can do. It can even make me love Steve Spurrier. That rat bastard, I love him so.

As in other regions, but most prominently in the South, which has not been accustomed to professional teams, “the passion for Southern football begins at an early age”:

In Knoxville, when football season seems like it might never arrive, they can laugh about the fans who’ve almost sunk a boat in the Tennessee River. They can sing “Rocky Top.” In Arkansas, they can let a “Pig Sooie” fly, like a maintenance drink for a boozehound. A few states over, a War Eagle or Rammer Jammer can keep a man (or woman) from going insane. 

Thompson referenced Tony Barnhart’s book about why the South’s obsessions and “dominating at football [offer] a chance for Southerners to feel equal, a chance to avenge past defeats on the battlefield, which is admittedly bizarre, since no one else in the country ever thinks about the Civil War.”

But nonetheless, “like every group has a set of shared experiences,” so do college football fans in the South, as Thompson noted:

Each school has its legends. There’s the time a potential game-winning field goal was blown back by a sudden gust of wind, costing Mississippi State a victory over Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, removing any doubt which team God himself pulls for (though Alabama fans might argue by quoting Ezekiel 20:29 … look it up). There’s Billy Cannon’s punt return which, almost 50 years after he ran into the Louisiana fog, is still played on the radio in Baton Rouge. There’s Spurrier reminding us all that you can’t spell Citrus without “U” and “T”. There’s Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott, and if you need an explanation, you’ve probably never eaten barbecue cooked at a gas station.

Hope springs eternal this weekend, but in a college football world where every week is a playoff, it is often dashed in the first month of the season for many fans. But for all those teams without a chance at the national title or a successful season on paper, the whole year can be made with a win in the season-ending rivalry game, which gives fans of even the worst teams something to look forward until the very last game. And then, when the season ends, like clockwork, the cycle starts again, with more fans to assimilate, traditions to preserve, enemies to be hated, and passions to be shared.