The heart of fall is upon us, with its crisp nights, crunchy leafs, midterms: the time of year that epitomizes campus life. When I think back to my undergraduate days in Chapel Hill, it is always late October, with the smell of rotting leafs in the air and my backpack laden with books and papers. It is also the heart of football season, with alumni and boosters returning to campus for key rivalries and homecoming, parades, tailgating, and mixers. As faculty members we tend mostly to be removed from all that; it is perfectly acceptable, even prestigious, to be a keen and knowledgeable baseball or basketball fan, but among our tribe football is a little outré. I have spent most of a previous column critiquing the corrupting influence of football on the mission of the university, and its impact on the health of players. Gregg Easterbrook has helpfully reminded us that a very similar set of concerns existed a century ago, when Teddy Roosevelt staged the only presidential intervention into the sport. (I agree entirely with Easterbrook that Obama should undertake something similar). Yes, it is a violent sport, with serious injuries, bloated coaching salaries, and inhuman working conditions for players. Still, it is the king of sports in this country, especially on college campuses and one of two “revenue sports” (I am convinced that baseball could be a third if they got rid of those horrible tin bats). It is, as Joe Biden said about something else, a “big fucking deal.”
Why is football the king of sports in this country? Why are Americans not fans of soccer, cricket, rugby, wrestling, or even basketball to the degree people in other countries are? At around the same time that TR was helping to create the modern game with innovations such as the forward pass, Émile Durkheim theorized that collective representations, as he called the symbols and rituals most closely associated with religion, were indeed reflections of society itself. Thus the Catholic Church presented a view of the universe as hierarchical and bureaucratic, just as medieval European society was hierarchical and bureaucratic. Social scientists long ago accepted that Durkheim’s insight extended well beyond explicitly religious phenomena, and I think we can clearly apply it to football. At the same moment in the early twentieth century, Henry Ford was inventing the assembly line. (He got the idea for this by watching the disassembly line in the Chicago Stock Yards—again, in American culture, all roads lead to Chicago!). Football mirrors this new production process explicitly. Each player has a well-defined role, which is repeated endlessly, each role melding with others to create the maximum efficiency of physical effort. In a broader sense, this represented the intensification of what Durkheim called the “organic” division of labor. That is, formerly unitary occupations (“factory worker”) were becoming much more diverse and specialized. (An uncle of mine who worked for GM designed interiors for optimal acoustics). In the broader society, the number of officially-recognized occupations has increased dramatically. Football also models the political economy of Fordist capitalism. In the NFL, yeomen players are paid a good salary, as were unionized line workers, but the stars in the “skill positions” make much more. The quarterback is at the top of the heap, often making millions per year. He is the on-field “manager” and “coach” and “team leader,” as well as the public face of the franchise. The situation is not much different on the college level, but with prestige replacing money, except in the case of the coach, who may be paid millions. (For those of you not on Facebook, there is a popular map of the US showing the highest-paid public official in the states; in most states it is the football coach).
The structure of the game is likewise a reflection of the nature of American capitalism. Far from a Csikszentmihalyian “flow activity,” which most team sports (soccer, hockey, basketball) are, football is a game of stops and starts, complicated play calling, and strategies that seek to exploit the smallest advantage; just as Tom Wolfe’s “masters of the universe,” could arbitrage a differential of one or two basis points, football coaches and quarterbacks seek to exploit ever-so-slight advantages in speed, size, and ability. Coaches are rewarded for high-risk, high-return strategies if they are successful. If not, they can easily be fired by team owners or college athletic directors. It is a star system with no social safety net that accurately reflects the realities of American capitalism and society itself.
On the broadest level, then, football models American society, or at least an idealized image of it. (The hyper-popularity of football in cities of the Rust Belt is no doubt driven by nostalgia for the golden age of industrial capitalism). From the standpoint of the fan, specific and local features of a particular team provide motivation for their participation. Just as in Durkheim’s analysis of Australian ritual focused on the churinga, the experience of the football game is centered on the display and performance of key symbols. Likewise, football teams possess symbols: most importantly the mascot and logo (usually the same), but also including secondary or unofficial mascots (e.g., the late “Barrel Man” of the Denver Broncos), as well as songs. Participating in these performances creates among the participants a sense of “collective effervescence,” by which Durkheim meant the feelings of emotional attachment to a group. In a sense, the function of ritual is to renew and strengthen the ties the individual feels to the group.
The differences between NFL and college football are significant, but too extensive to explore thoroughly here. One important distinction is seen in the case of “flagship” universities, especially in rural states lacking professional teams, where the university is the one institution with which most of the population identifies, and serves as a repository of key symbols of the state’s identity. A case in point is the University of Wyoming. We have a proliferation of symbols, including three visual symbols and three songs. The official symbol of both the University and State of Wyoming is Steamboat the bucking horse. This constitutes a sacred symbol, which the State guards jealously. The main mascot, which is depicted graphically and impersonated at games (and is, unfortunately, shared with Oklahoma State University), is Pistol Pete, a frontier gun fighter, more a product of Hollywood and comic books than the real West of the post-Civil War era. Third is Cowboy Joe (which is the name of the booster club), a pony that runs ahead as the team takes the field and crosses the field after every score. Three songs—the alma mater, the fight song, and the ever-popular “Ragtime Cowboy Joe”—are performed at various times during the game. (As at other schools, typically the more formal and sentimental alma mater functions as introit and recessional). This excess of signification reflects contradictions at the heart of Wyoming identity. As Charles Nuckolls has argued for Oklahoma, official state symbols are often a means of eliding these paradoxes. For Wyoming, a deeply rural state with rich symbols of the past and unspoiled natural beauty, the reality is that most employment is in either heavy industry, such as railroads, refineries, and mines, or in tourism. The southern tier of the state, historically dominated by the Union Pacific railroad, and where the university, state capital, and major cities are all located, is much different from the sections of the state devoted to ranching or unspoiled public lands. And yet the symbolism weighs heavily on the agrarian and backwoods aspect. Only “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” hints of urbanism, and then only in ironic fashion.
Following the local team, then, reflects questions of identity that are often deeply contradictory. In Wyoming, as reflected so well in the stories of Annie Proulx, a sense of exceptionalism sits uneasily alongside status anxiety, and an awareness that much of the outside world ignores the state as “flyover country.” (Even this is deeply paradoxical; the billionaires in places such as Jackson and Sheridan attest to an elite interest in the state going back to the “remittance men” of the 19th century, a fact about which most Wyomingites are deeply ambivalent).
We might ask what all this does for the individual fan, as opposed to states or localities in permanent identity crisis? Recent research in social psychology has shown that attachment to local sports teams is positively correlated with increased longevity and physical and mental health. One theory is that even the ad hoc comradeship achieved in a sports bar gives men (on whom the studies primarily focus) a sense of connection that was previously provided by church and fraternal organizations. In an increasingly atomized world, characterized by long work weeks, and “bowling alone,” sports provide a temporary respite that actually can increase self-esteem and well-being.
We can begin to understand why it seems to us that people “in the state” seem to care only about football when it comes to the university. This is not really true, as many university administrators can tell you. Membership in a booster club or frequent attendance at sporting events is a good predictor of non-sports-related donations to the university. Rather, the experience of attending the game, and maybe socializing with old friends, is the most rewarding and potent way for alumni and supporters to reconnect with the institution.
Like TR in a previous era, I am convinced that football needs serious reform to make conditions more equitable for players, to eliminate the absurd salaries paid out of public funds to coaches, and, most importantly, to reduce concussions and other catastrophic injuries. However, in an ever more disenchanted world, we need all the outlets for play—and connection to others—we can find.
Michael E Harkin is a cultural anthropologist and ethnohistorian at the U of Wyoming. He is editor of the journal Reviews in Anthropology and co-editor of Ethnohistory.