College football reflects America as it really is | Column
The author says it’s indefensible in a world that wants to call itself civilized but also still watches the games.
Southern Mississippi offensive lineman Kyron Barnes, front left, gets tied up with Florida State defensive lineman Patrick Payton (11) in the first quarter of their Sept. 9 game in Tallahassee. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)
Southern Mississippi offensive lineman Kyron Barnes, front left, gets tied up with Florida State defensive lineman Patrick Payton (11) in the first quarter of their Sept. 9 game in Tallahassee. (AP Photo/Phil Sears) [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]
Published Sept. 25

It’s college football season in Florida, and you know what that means: trash talking, martial metaphors, peculiar rituals involving animals, bizarre clothing in colors not found in nature, bad grammar, mansplaining and racism.

College football is violent. Beat-your-brains-out violent. Repeated hits to the head cause degenerative brain disease. The guys who play the game risk blowing out their knees, fracturing their spines and breaking their necks.

College football reinforces some of our least attractive stereotypes — those Black kids sure are fast! — and extreme gender roles as well: huge dudes on the field knocking the living hell out of each other, while small (though quite athletic) women with incongruously large bows in their hair cheer them on.

Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts

Boosters, rich men trying to borrow sporting glory, raise millions to fancy up the facilities and attract the best players. At top football schools — Michigan, Ohio State, Georgia et al. — the locker rooms have marble showers, miniature golf courses, hydrotherapy suites with waterfalls and customized, Wi-Fi-enabled sleeping pods for each player.

Meanwhile, the social sciences building has mold, the library roof leaks and the graduate teaching assistants, without whom universities cannot function, live off dust bunnies and rainwater.

To be fair, grad students at FSU just got a raise: The minimum stipend is now $18,700 — half of what’s considered a living wage in Florida. A lower-level college strength-and-conditioning coach can expect to make around $56,000 a year. But let’s look on the bright side: At least FSU graduate assistants can upgrade to a better class of ramen noodle.

Indefensible, but …

There are plenty more reasons why college football is indefensible in a world that wants to call itself civilized. I know them all. Nevertheless, dear reader, at the risk of embarrassing you on my behalf, I must admit that I love the game.

I grew up watching FSU play, even when the Seminoles were spectacularly bad (0-11 in 1973). Maybe I’m imprinted. Maybe I’m just a hypocrite. But hey, I have a journalistic, even academic, interest here (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it): College football — the bands, the cheerleaders, the chants, the mascots, the majorettes — reveals a lot about American culture.

American politics, too. At the recent Iowa-Iowa State game in Ames, the Republican combatants for their party’s nomination were thick on the ground. Asa Hutchinson and Doug Burgum showed up (for all the good it will do them); bounding around like a vole on meth, Vivek Ramaswamy tried to drink from a shot glass affixed, for some reason, to a ski; Ron DeSantis haunted tailgate parties and sat grimly in the stands with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds; and front-runner Donald Trump crashed a fraternity party.

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Republican candidates like to show up at big college football games because big college football fans, like lovers of NASCAR and, at the other end of the class spectrum, pro golf, skew Republican.

However, the college towns where these gladiatorial contests take place are often populated by progressives given to book learning. This includes Ames, Iowa; Athens, Georgia; and Tallahassee.

Democratic voters, in other words. A number of them (like me) also go to football games. This could explain why some of those nice Iowans booed Trump and gave him the finger. But I’ll bet a preponderance of those in the stadium intend to vote Republican.

Race line

The players on the field are majority Black; the fans in the stands are majority white. The University of Colorado’s “Neon Deion” Sanders notwithstanding, major college coaches are also white. So are most athletic directors, university presidents, boards of trustees and, if the player makes it that far, NFL brass.

Older white men have the power; younger Black men do the labor — just like in the good old days. This is the America that makes conservatives happy.

Women do not play Power Five college football: Good girls support the men on the field. If they’re dressed in tight, sequined outfits, well, so much the better. Any departure from sexual norms or what one team’s adherents define as the correct order of the universe can unleash a nasty bout of insults and taunting.

When the Crimson Tide lost to the University of Texas the other week — and they ain’t used to losing — ‘Bama fans called Longhorn players a slur for gay men and told them to “go back to the projects.”

Sportsmanship! Football is old-school heterosexual masculinity on steroids — often literally. You have to be big, fast and seriously strong to play the game. You must be prepared to hit and get hit, and bounce up and say, “I’m fine, coach!” even if your left eyeball has relocated to your cheek.

Football players wear what amounts to armor as if they’re going into battle. In fact, their coaches tell them they’re going into battle. The game is entangled with militarism: Quarterbacks are called “field generals” and throw “bombs,” actual soldiers show up to raise flags and fighter jets fly over the stadium.

Some colleges, especially here in the South, used to confuse football with the War Between the States. After all, one side invades the other’s territory and takes control of their land, a signal trauma for Southern white folks.

When the University of Georgia upset Yale in 1929, one sports writer said it was like “charging up the slope at Gettysburg.” In 1926, when the University of Alabama, then considered a lowly bunch of farm boys, beat the Washington Huskies by 1 point, white Southerners crowed that “the honor” of Dixie had been restored, as if Johnny Reb had got hisself a do-over.

Now the war is between the “woke” pinkos with their books and their science up yonder at the university and the conservative zealots worshiping in football cathedrals every Saturday.


If you, like me, indulge your inner barbarian and watch college football on television, know that your enjoyment will soon be interrupted by campaign commercials for DeSantis, Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott and probably Trump — assuming he has any money left after paying his lawyers.

The Republicans would love an election decided by the college football fan base, all those bellicose white folks who think “their” country is being taken away from them, even as they cheer on a bunch of Black kids.

If they saw those same kids in jeans and T-shirts walking down the sidewalk on a Saturday night, they’d be scared to death.

As for me, I guess I just have to live with paradox.

Diane Roberts, an eighth-generation Floridian and an English professor at Florida State University, is the author of “Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America.” This essay, reprinted under a Creative Commons license, originally appeared in the Florida Phoenix.

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