The Conscience of a College Football Fan

It’s football season folks.  That crisp cool bite is back in the air.  The leaves are turning colors, and we are in the early half of the college football season where championships are still achievable and anything can still happen.  Excitement builds through the workweek until Saturday morning finally arrives, and we plop ourselves in front of the TV with a bowl of cereal to flip on ESPN College GameDay, not unlike the Saturday morning cartoon rituals of our childhood.

It’s these days that I love being back in the States.

Exactly one week ago I was standing in a crowded football stadium during a beautiful Seattle evening screaming bloody murder at the top of my lungs.  It was nearly the end of a Thursday night game (sometimes college games are featured on Thursday nights instead of the usual Saturday) and my team was shockingly ahead.  We had lost to this opponent 21-65 the year before, and 0-41 two years ago, which is why I use the word “shockingly”.  I had club ear from the collective noise in the stadium, and was pretty much hoarse from yelling.

And win or lose, I was having a lot of fun.  Though, winning (of course) would obviously be a hell of a lot more fun.

“KILL him, get him, oh my GOD, DEFENSE!” I screeched, my voice cracking.

DH looked a little freaked out as he flinched back in surprise when I snatched his arm a little too hard on a busted play.  Yes I really got into it.

A few moments later the crowd erupted and I was jumping up and down, both hands in the air screaming along with everyone else, “Yes YES!!!  OH MY GOD!  INTERCEPTION!  OH MY GOD YEEAAAAAH!” as my team intercepted a pass, virtually ending the game and snapping a four-year losing streak to the highly ranked opposing team.  I felt the urge to join the crowd streaming onto the game field alongside the fresh-faced students dressed in their blackout gear to celebrate the huge upset.  Thankfully age (and significant inflexibility) prevailed.

Now, I’m not usually a violent bloodthirsty sort of person.  Those who know me categorize me as pretty quiet—I’m an avoider.  I don’t usually yell or scream.  Most of the time during normal everyday life, people have a hard time hearing me when I’m talking.

But all that changes when I’m watching sports, especially football.  And I love watching college football, precisely because of all the tradition, pageantry and passion surrounding college football.  Why?  Quite simply, a lot of it is nostalgic.  I’m reminded of fond childhood memories growing up and going with my family to the local university’s home games.  Another part of college football is pride for where you come from, especially when you’re cheering on your school, a place where you’ve likely invested years and tens of thousands of dollars in exchange for a degree that hopefully helped you get a good job or get into graduate school, or helped to shape who you are today, etc.

Cheering on my college team is in many ways cheering on and taking pride in my own history and identity.

I’d also wager that aside from my physical appearance, what neighborhood I live in, and what car I drive, whom I cheer for on Saturdays reveals a lot about me.  You obviously know where I went to school and from there, it’s not a stretch to deduce a lot of other information about me, including my educational and socio-economic background, my political leanings, and even some of my likely tastes.

Now, I’ll admit that I’m a fickle person.  But when it comes to big time college football, I also cheer faithfully on Saturdays for my undergraduate alma mater because I don’t actually have the option to be a fair weather fan.  I can’t change where I grew up or where I went to school.  (Also I can’t cheer as enthusiastically for my graduate school alma mater given its FCS/Division I-AA designation and abstention from post-season play, but more on this later.)  My personal history limits my fandom universe, which is a good thing.

I love college football because it’s exciting—the American kind of exciting: a perfect blend of beauty and violence paired with clock management.  And having the attention span of a gnat, I also appreciate the multiple commercial breaks and media time outs during the game so that I can pee, get a drink and a snack, take a breather, pee again, etc.

The sensation of screaming at the top of your lungs is true catharsis… even when your team loses and the rest of your weekend is kind of ruined.  Passive-aggressive, I know, but still deeply satisfying when on the winning side.  And I’m certain I’m not the only one whose emotional charts during the autumn weekends follow a similar pattern of: 1) Curiosity and Anticipation followed by 2) three to four hours of Intensity, Exasperation, Cursing, Nervousness, Frustration, and Excitement concluding with 3) either Euphoria or Despair.

Football is the most popular spectator sport in the United States (here’s another poll that doesn’t break out professional vs. college football) and I find that there’s something about the unique and violent impact in football that’s also distinctly American.  It’s obvious that we as a culture are obsessed with violence (just look at what’s on TV and in the movies) and it follows that we’re also obsessed with the game of football.  And while football is entertainment, college football (despite its amateur designation) has also become a very lucrative business for the universities and the television networks because of our insatiable demand for this game.

My personal experience last week got me to thinking about my own love affair with college football, and how I’ve been trained as a kid to buy into it.  It’s a culture that’s been cultivated in many of us since were young.  Our football classmates in school are always revered as stars, though perhaps not to the degree that Buzz Bissinger depicts in his bestselling book, Friday Night Lights.  But the football season is as American as Apple Pie and a Back to School sale.  And by the time we become adults, those of us who attended FBS schools have and feel an obligation to cheer loudly for our alma mater on Saturdays.

While Sunday and Monday nights are for the NFL, Saturdays are reserved for college games.  We forget that the institutional buildup of football mania starts young, with the high school games held on Friday nights, and middle school games on Thursday afternoons.  It’s a sacred tradition, and the inculcation of football culture starts early, especially if you grow up in certain parts of the US, like Texas or other parts of the South.  Frank Deford writes that “football is the war game, and Dixie has always produced a disproportionate number of our warriors.”  Deford goes on in his article to argue why the teams in the SEC are so dominant in today’s college game.  Part of the reason is also financial.

While SEC football teams have been very successful in the recent past, the Midwest and its Big-10 teams also boast one of the largest football television markets in America.  Take a look at Nate Silver’s article on the geography of college football from last year during the massive conference re-alignment.  In his article, Silver took the 210 television media markets in the United States, figured out how many college football fans were in each market, and then allocated these fans between the 120 current Football Bowl Subdivision programs.  Silver’s data-driven article deduces that the top four most popular college teams (by inferred number of television media market fans) are Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Notre Dame.

We all agree that college football has become a mammoth media and advertising business.  This hugely entertaining American amateur sport we love so much is now a thriving billion dollar plus business.  So it shouldn’t be a surprise that when a school’s football team is winning, alumni tend to donate more.  And where there is so much at stake, corruption and exploitation starts to occur in the name of winning.  We’ve seen the impact and how the college game has suffered with sanctions from multiple instances of rule violations and infractions, exclusive of the abhorrent scandal at Penn State University.

I recently came across another recent article by Bissinger in the Wall Street Journal about the role of college football in our universities, and whether or not it should be “banned.”  Now while this is a brilliant headline-grabbing hit-magnet title for an article and a debate, no university with a thriving, profitable football program is realistically going to get rid of its football program unless the underlying economics makes sense.  Simply “banning” football on college campuses just isn’t a realistic outcome.

Which brings me back to my earlier point.  The Ivy League adheres to a strict 10-game season with no post-season play because of academic reasons.  Now I believe there is a lot to say about the correlation between the actual quality of a university’s academics and the success of that university’s football program.  In his article, Bissinger argues that the success (or lack of success) on the football field often comes at the expense of academics.  I would tend to agree with him, and that the correlation is generally inverse.

Academically rigorous schools generally do not field competitive, profitable, big-time football programs.  Sure, it makes sense that nerds don’t play or appreciate football.  And according to the 2013 US News rankings nine of the top ten US universities on the 2013 list do not field a competitive FBS football program.  The exception on that list is of course, Stanford—those confounding Smart-Jocks!

So I’m guessing that those of you who attended Ivy League or other top-tier or private liberal arts colleges that didn’t have a competitive football program probably received a much better undergraduate education without the distraction of big, time-consuming football games on Saturday.  This chart from the Knight Commission says a lot, and illustrates the growing disparity in funding student-athletes relative to regular students.

While I don’t have any good answers to this growing problem, I continue to faithfully cheer for my college team on Saturdays.  But I cheer knowing that my Saturday entertainment comes at a high price, and that something needs to change in this game that I love.  Soon.

The purity in college football is certainly becoming a scarce reality, and I’m certain I’m not the only American college football fan with this weighing on her conscience.