The quintessential American cultural experience is still college football
There must be some deep, hidden relationship between American politics and American football, though no one knows what it is. So far, no theory linking the Founding Fathers to men in spandex pants has been satisfactory, perhaps because gridiron is such an exotic animal that it’s not really like anything else at all, not even any other sport (Canadian football doesn’t count). It is more a study in abstraction than a game: over more than three hours of play time, the football itself might be in motion for only 10 minutes, and most players present are not supposed to touch it (an offensive linesman might complete a successful career never having touched it). The crowd can extend this faffing-to-action ratio further still, to a full day, thanks to tailgating, so-named for the pre-game tradition of people eating food from their cars. Together, this festival of apparent absurdity has been called not just the most popular sport in America, but the most popular thing in America. Experiencing it is experiencing American culture at a pharmaceutical grade.
Football’s fanbase is so large and dedicated that it is both the most and third-most watched sport in America (the second-most watched is baseball, which was already looking old-fashioned when it was supplanted sometime in the 1960s). The professional National Football League ranks first in viewership, but college football ranks third, and many purists prefer it (Sports Illustrated once claimed that “For fans of fun, the choice is clear”). The varsity version also tells a story about American priorities – in most places, the highest-paid state employee is a college football coach, and eight of the 10 biggest stadia on earth are purpose-built for college football.
The largest single arena ever built is May Day Stadium in Pyongyang (where “multipurpose stadium” means alternating between those dancers with the coloured cards, and dissidents being executed). But the second largest in existence is Michigan Stadium at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is nicknamed “The Big House”, and has been filled with more than 100,000 Michigan fans watching the Michigan Wolverines for 281 consecutive games, stretching back into the 1970s.
All those “Michigans” might give you some sense of what being there is like, where it is the branding and not the building that creates the most awesome sense of scale. My hosts were distant relatives, a couple named Jim and Lois, mad fans from Toledo, Ohio, (Jim was a U Michigan band alumnus) who had been going to The Big House for 40 years. I quickly lost count of the Wolverines merchandise in their house, most of it embossed with a block letter “M” (in the middle of the night, I stumbled to the guest bathroom, switched on a football-shaped night-light, and was greeted by a bar of soap striped in the team’s blue and maize colours). On the morning of the game, Jim’s car (with Michigan vanity plates), was loaded with a Wolverines ice bucket, a mimosa dispenser in the shape of a football helmet, three flags, three tables, a sun shade, two table cloths, a selection of cutlery, plates and cups, and two lawn flamingos, all on theme. I was gifted a T-shirt that read “It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine”, before Jim emblazoned the car doors with magnets before departure (I offered to help, but there was a special order).
I wondered if this level of festooning might be overkill, but in comparison to the rest of the tailgaters, it looked almost discreet. Jim and Lois’s set-up did not include a satellite TV dome jutting from the top of their truck, for example, or a portable tiki bar, or a custom-made flag detailing how long the family had been tailgating for, or an airbrushed vehicle depicting scenes of Michigan triumph on every panel. Kick-off was at 3.30pm, but by 9.30 in the morning, schools and parking lots and golf courses neighbouring the stadium were resplendent with blue and maize canopies, like a medieval tournament. There were bus-sized motorhomes and custom-built trailers, and special areas where parking alone cost $500. In the near-distance, a huge M on the side of the stadium – several storeys high – hung over it all. The Big House carries no advertising, except for advertising for itself, and instead, light planes drag banners for car dealerships across the sky.
There was time to take a tour of the university sports facilities. A lot of American state-funded infrastructure looks tired or decrepit these days, so this outcrop of blooming public largesse was a shock. Near the Olympic-standard softball ground there was an ice-hockey rink. The state-of-the-art indoor football field turned out to have a roof too shallow for punting, so they built a roomier duplicate right next door. There was a special field for the marching band, who are said to spend more time drilling than the football team itself, and we caught them practising their high step. Each of these fields had an observation tower, this one for the band director, and Jim was not the only one who joked that it reminded him of a prison. We had passed three prisons en route, one announced by signs that said “DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS”), and this pre-echo made me think of the pat Amerikkka explanations for the origins of American football.
In this version, what links American football and American politics is violence, especially the kind that the historian Richard Slotkin called “regeneration through violence”. Early gridiron was so barbarous that it was sometimes fatal, and in 1905 the college game produced what the Chicago Tribune called a “death harvest” where 19 players died in one season, including three killed on a single November day. Teddy Roosevelt himself helped introduce rules to prevent the game being banned, but still ensured football would temper the kind of men who had made up his Rough Rider divisions in the Spanish-American War. It was as though the United States had become an heir to the Mesoamerican blood cults, making human sacrifices on the prairies instead of on holy ziggurats, with football somehow linked to the rites, just as the ancient Mayan “ballgame” was.
Since September 11, there is a real military element to the game too, not just a metaphorical thread. When the band took to the field for real, this time in brass-buttoned uniforms, they marched in an M-shaped formation to the tempo of a drum major. They started with the famous fight song “The Victors” (first performed by John Philip Sousa and his band) and finished with “The Star Spangled Banner”, and as the anthem culminated, two F-35A Lightnings streaked low over The Big House in a flyover. (These extravaganzas can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each, written off by the Air Force or Navy as a recruiting tool). This “appreciation of military service” is omnipresent in American sport, and why National Football League players protesting during the national anthem attracts such controversy. “Dishonouring the troops” in a football game constitutes secular sacrilege. Only one African-American player, from the opposing Southern Methodist University team, raised his fist, but it was a gesture so small and peripheral that a sports reporter sitting next to me thought he must be holding up a phone to take photos.
The protest did at least work as reminder that viewing American football solely as a proxy for militarism is a mistake. It’s too big and complex to be so smugly reduced. Michigan versus SMU was not scheduled to be a classic (the visitors were 35-point underdogs with a leaky defensive), and it did prove lopsided, though not as slickly one-sided as the True Blue fans would have liked. Still, it was enthralling for the initiated. Gridiron is an acquired taste, and not a sport that is easy to understand intuitively (at first glance, it matches Bill Hicks’s description of soft-core motel pornography – “bobbing man-ass”). It is also an American-originated art form, like jazz or studio cinema, and as creative a spectacle as either.
American football’s depth means it repays dedication like no other sport, perhaps why its fans are so invested. The most thuggish enforcer on a team still needs the intelligence to memorise and reproduce hundreds of plays, while coaches rely on whole encyclopaedias of theory and enterprise. This tactical chess game is not rigid though, and so SMU committed to no huddle snaps, relying on uncalled and unplanned plays that tried to harness their athleticism, while papering over their deficiencies. It didn’t work, but their spontaneous and ingenious quarterback was good enough to watch that it made you hopeful.
In the arena, the all-in patriotism and “rooting” feels eccentric and communal rather than fascistic. A same-sex couple, old friends of Jim and Lois, had joined our tailgate, and for them this unity of purpose was apparently linked to the upcoming elections in some unseeable way, as though America’s true “fanbase” was rising up to best a rival. The mid-west was one of the key battlegrounds in the vote, and while Ann Arbor itself was liberal, it was possible to parse other cities and neighbourhoods almost street-by-street. “It’s almost like they’re brainwashed” said one half of the couple. “Even my family. They have Fox News on 12 hours a day. I end my calls home by saying ‘Mom, change the channel. I love you, but change the channel’.” The “M”, she said, should stand for Mueller – “Now there’s a true patriot.”
The half-time show chimed with this as well, how intentionally, though, it was hard to tell. One of the more nationally humiliating moments of my life was enduring an Australian Football League Grand Final half-time show alongside a visiting American. As he watched Thirsty Merc or some other forgettable three-piece jam on a shabby riser, cognitive dissonance flooded over his face, as though he’d ordered dinner in a restaurant, and had instead been served a single pea. It couldn’t have been more different in The Big House. The theme of the half-time show was the importance of voting, and the band formation spelled out “We the People” in perfect copperplate, before morphing into turnout statistics. Apparently only 55–60 per cent of eligible people vote, the marching band semaphored, while big-screen broadcast quotes from John McCain and Barack Obama garnered applause. It should have looked ridiculous. But soundtracked by the thunder of the drumline, and in the very same venue where LBJ had first announced the Great Society platform, it instead felt unironically majestic.
There must be some deep, hidden relationship between American politics and American football, though no one knows what it is. So far, no theory linking the Founding Fathers to men in spandex pants has been satisfactory, perhaps because gridiron is such an exotic animal that it’s not really like anything else at all, not even any other sport (Canadian football doesn’t count). It is more a study in abstraction than a game: over more than three hours of play time, the football itself might be in motion for only 10 minutes, and most players present are not supposed to touch it (an offensive linesman might complete a successful career never having touched it). The crowd can extend this faffing-to-action ratio further still, to a full day, thanks to tailgating, so-named for the pre-game tradition of people eating food from their cars. Together, this festival of apparent absurdity...