By Diane Roberts
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.
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 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 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 frontrunner Donald Trump crashed a fraternity party.
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, Ga.; 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.
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 “faggots” and told them to “go back to the projects.”
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.
Then there’s the fascism that lurks under the surface of a college football game, 80 or 90 thousand people shouting “Gator Bait!” in unison or making a noise they imagine to be a Native American “war chant” while making a chopping motion with one arm.
Fun fact: One of Hitler’s inner circle in the early 1930s, a Harvard grad named Ernst Hanfstaengl, composed Nazi marching music based on a Harvard fight song.
Hanfstaengl said “Seig Heil!” was inspired by a Harvard cheer.
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 sportswriter 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 one 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, Haley, 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 is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books.