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Festival of Reading: Review: In 'Tribal,' Roberts is a football fan who knows better

Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts
Published Oct. 14, 2015

Diane Roberts loves Florida State University football.

It's a hereditary condition, she writes: "I knew I was a Seminole before I knew I was white or a Presbyterian or even a girl. I knew I was a Seminole before I knew what a Seminole was. It meant I wasn't a Gator."

Roberts' new book, Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America, is not a love letter, though. Think of it as more of an intervention, the kind you'd undertake when some long-beloved family member is seriously drinking, drugging, gambling and/or beating up his kids. You still love him, but he's making so many terrible decisions you just can't ignore them anymore.

Roberts' book deals to some extent with all college football, but its focus is mainly on teams in the South and especially on FSU. It's a natural subject: She is not only a lifelong fan but a professor in FSU's literature and creative writing department. Roberts has a Ph.D. from Oxford University and is a contributor to NPR, the Tampa Bay Times, the Guardian and many other media outlets as well as the author of three earlier books.

Feminist English professors with a satirical turn of mind are not, perhaps, typically football crazy. But Roberts' dual perspective uniquely suits her to her task, and she undertakes it with brio and careful research.

One of the book's subjects is, inevitably, Jameis Winston, former star FSU quarterback, accused of rape but never charged, now not exactly burning up the field as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. But Roberts is less interested in dissecting his case than in putting him into a wider context of football's endemic problems.

It has always been a controversial sport, she points out in a survey of its history. One reason the Puritans left England was that they so disapproved of an early form of the game, regarding "football as a menace to the Christian life."

Objections to its violence have led to many calls for banning it — and that violence wasn't always perpetrated by the players. Roberts describes the first Georgia-Georgia Tech game in 1893, with "Georgia fans hurling rocks from a newly plowed field at the Yellow Jacket players."

The game was long strictly segregated; Georgia's governor tried to pull all-white Tech out of the 1956 Sugar Bowl because the Pittsburgh Panthers had one black player. Change finally came in 1970, when, Roberts writes, "the University of Southern California, a thoroughly integrated bunch of top-flight athletes, beat Bear Bryant's all-white Tide like a rented mule, 42-21. ... The heavens opened, the light of inspiration shone upon the Bear, and white Southern coaches started recruiting African American football stars."

Racism endures in the game, she makes clear, in more complex forms tied to its nature as essentially a plantation system that chews up the bodies of players, black and white, and pays little more than lip service to what happens to them afterward. Some of them get an education, but, as Roberts details, many of them don't.

Countless young men, many without much in the way of economic resources, are lured with overblown promises. A mere 1.7 percent of college players will make it to the NFL; the NCAA (for which Roberts has little love) pays for insurance on these athletes, who are subject to devastating injury every time they step on the field — but the deductible is $90,000.

As for the argument that football teams benefit universities financially, Roberts is unconvinced that those benefits go anywhere but the athletic department. "At Florida State, the combined professorial salaries of Pulitzer-winning writer Robert Olen Butler and the prima ballerina Suzanne Farrell, Balanchine's muse and one of the greatest dancers of the twentieth century, add up to less than that of the lowest-paid coach on the Seminoles' football staff."

Roberts explores the intimate ties between college football and Christianity and looks at the sport's history as a stand-in for re-fighting the lost cause of the Confederacy. She is mordantly funny on the indecent power wielded by star coaches like Bryant and Bobby Bowden; grimmer but just as insightful about the sexism inherent in the game, especially its most violent manifestations off the field. And she joins the chorus predicting that football's masters won't be able to sweep the terrible long-term effects of player injuries under the rug much longer.

And yet, Roberts assures us, she will be at Doak Campbell Stadium when the Seminoles take the field. "College football endures — for a few more years, anyway. Me, I'll still care way too much, even though I know better. This is my tribe. These are my people."

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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