Some regions are famously known for their cuisine or rich history, but these seldom unite their citizens in the same way that college (university) football unites the United States, especially the American South.
Although the football season only lasts from September to late November (with a few championship games played later in the winter), this sport unites people from all races and backgrounds, to cheer for their favourite team in a way not exhibited in professional sports.
Ivan Maisel, a columnist for ESPN (a US cable and satellite television channel), once wrote: ‘The appeal of college football is rooted in the simple notion that your team represents you, your state, your alma mater, your youth. The NFL [National Football League] represents — what, exactly? A bunch of 25-year-old millionaires who will dump your town the minute their agent secures a better offer. There is no loyalty in the NFL. College football is all about loyalty’ (‘Passion, tradition elevate college football over NFL’; ESPN; 8/15/2006).
Having grown up in the American South, and a proud University of Georgia supporter since I was born, I’d love to share with you the cultural impact of college football in the US, particularly the South, and how Christians relate to it.
While some argue that baseball is still America’s favourite pastime, football is by far the most popular. Whether it’s high-school football on Friday nights, college games on Saturday, or professional games on Sundays or Mondays, this sport draws millions and creates a multi-million dollar industry.
Each weekend during football season, people spend thousands of dollars on food and drinks for ‘tailgating’ or watching the game at their homes. 64 per cent of Americans watch football and some even watch over 16 hours of football a week!
Massive stadiums are built to accommodate fans, and even some college stadiums will seat over 100,000 people each weekend. It may be hard to imagine why this brutally physical game is so popular. It’s awfully complex, even for having roots in rugby, and demands a lot of expensive equipment that soccer, rugby, and other sports don’t require.
Some say it’s the controlled violence of the game that draws audiences to it, like the gladiatorial games. Others say that it’s just exciting to watch. Whatever the reason, American football is immensely popular.
As the summer waxes on into late July and early August, most folks in the South begin thinking about football (some even before then) and ‘gear up’ for it. Fans buy their season tickets (often a full year in advance) and start studying their favourite team’s roster and stats.
Football is something that Southerners feel intensely proud of and will staunchly defend their team’s honour. For many years, the major sports conference in the region, the Southeastern Conference or SEC, has sported more national champions than the other conferences in the nation.
Each school has its own traditions, such as ringing the bell at the University of Georgia after a win; rubbing ‘Howard’s Rock’ at Clemson’s Death Valley stadium; singing ‘Rocky Top’ at Tennessee, and countless others.
If you happen to live in a college town or city, as I do, college football creates a unique culture that is something to see. Some people buy cars in their team’s colours and decorate their homes with banners and other paraphernalia that remind them of their team. Even some grocery stores have their college’s mascot/emblem marqueed on their sign.
In college towns, throughout most of the Southeast, people seldom think or pay much attention to the other sports played at that college.
When football season arrives, college towns will often double or triple in population, just on the weekend. Some people buy caravans and camp overnight, while others will book hotels or stay with relatives. As Saturday dawns, the day’s festivities begin early, especially if the game is played at noon.
There are parades, pep rallies, tailgating parties, and so much more. Social events such as tailgating are a unique American experience, where people gather together to eat grilled food, drink and enjoy games, often congregated around the tailgate of a vehicle.
One college, the University of Mississippi (popularly known as Ole Miss), even has a 10-acre (4-hectare) area on its campus just for tailgating.
Just before the game begins, some schools have traditions where the band will play their fight songs for the fans and lead them in cheering for the team before they enter the locker room.
Once the stadium gates open, people flood the stadium dressed in their team’s colours, or even with painted letters on their chests. Particularly in the South, fans will dress in fancier clothes to go to the game. Girls sport pearls and cowgirl boots, while guys wear bowties and boat-shoes.
The stadiums will often boast well over 80,000 people and therefore the noise that emanates from them is unbelievable. As the game is played out, tensions remain high the entire game, as opposed to baseball where excitement peters out every now and then. Anything can happen during an SEC game, and that’s one of the beauties of this sport.
As fun as this pastime is to watch and participate in, there can be some dangers to this culture. As my dad once told me, the true religion of the South is college football.
Some people get very caught up in the game and their behaviour and mood will often depend on the outcome of the game — that’s certainly idolatry. Football is often paired with heavy partying and drinking, perhaps all weekend long. While football games are fun to watch, much of the college life that surrounds it is nothing but a grand bacchanalia.
So how does a Christian relate to the intense culture that surrounds college football? Like all things that the Lord has created, sports are a wonderful gift that God has given us for communal physical recreation and there is nothing inherently evil in them.
But when we let any sport or gift displace the love and worship that is only due to God, then we must be quick to confess our sin and repent. I thoroughly enjoy watching football and enjoying good food and fellowship with my family and friends around the sport. I won’t participate though in the heavy drinking that goes on near the stadium or at house parties. And I am thankful that college football is played on Saturdays and not Sundays.
There are many Christians that will preach near the stadium and try to share the gospel. It’s a weekly event where thousands are gathered, so it’s a great opportunity to share the gospel. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with watching football or enjoying good times with family and friends, but we should guard our hearts against idolatry, whether it’s a gold image or athlete that runs on the football field.
Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is now a Christian writer residing in the USA