April 2018

Thursday, November 5, 2015


My partner Ann and I visited her brother and sister-in-law in College Station, Texas, last weekend. With them, we attended an event for big sports donors, a football game, and a women's basketball game. We love sports, so this was an excellent visit.

Though I lived in Dallas in my twenties, the visit was as much an introduction to a culture different than my own than any travel I’ve done in rural Latin America or Ethiopia. 

In my favorite moment of the donor party, the speaker cheered on the equestrian team, which was competing on Friday, with the traditional Aggie cheer: "Beat the hell outa [insert opponent here.]" The equestrians were competing against a school called "Incarnate Word," an epithet for Jesus, so the cheer went "Beat the hell outa Incarnate Word." Then the speaker ducked and looked up in case lightning was coming to get him.

Saturday, we returned to the new coliseum, I mean football stadium, to witness a football game. (One does not merely “watch” a football game in Texas, but the attending takes on the religious tones of “witnessing.”)

The game was not an important one for conference rankings, so only 102,000 were reported to be there (though Ann’s brother said it was probably more like 85 or 90,000.)

We watched from 30 yard line seats for the first half and then moved to some of their generous friends’ box for the second half. Our hosts were warm and welcoming, as people in Texas generally are. (This may be a stereotype, but it’s true, so maybe it’s just a cultural description. I’m not sure of the difference.)

The game’s pageantry fascinated me. The new stadium, which can seat 104,000 people (and often does) called to mind the Roman Coliseum with its grand arches and tall pillars. (At the entrance, were tall brick rectangles recognizing the biggest donors, though to me the rectangles looked, unfortunately, like gravestones.)

There were cheers and songs that, it seemed, everyone knew. “Yell leaders,” young men dressed in tidy white, led the cheering with large gestures. (No cheerleaders at this previously all-male school.)

Each time the Aggies scored, a corps of young men wearing army green uniforms and tall leather boots lit a canon. (Made me jump every time.)

The crowd cheered loudly but remained seated until the marching band took the field at half time. Then there must have been a couple of hundred instrumentalists zigging and zagging in complicated designs, the trombones bowing in rhythm so that they didn’t run into one another and didn’t break stride.

The whole thing was marvelous, but also had eerie echoes of The Hunger Games, or Gladiators, or—I hesitate even to write it because it’s both terrible and true—those films of Hitler’s troops performing for the dictator.

With a couple of minutes left in the game, ROTC students, “the corps,” in military kaki, lined up just past the end zone. Ann said they were “protecting the field,” but she couldn’t say from what.

It had seemed to me that the players needed protection from one another. Throughout the game, they stapled one another to the field, and four times the medics had to help a player up and out of the way. I wondered aloud to Ann (but not so loudly as to seem a traitor) if there might be something wrong with a sport where the crowd expects some players to be so hurt that they need help getting from the field (or even sitting up) on their own.

I have been wondering a lot about football lately. I love sports and football’s strategy and athleticism amazes me. However, so much about the game troubles me. A crowd of mostly white fans yell thunderously as a team of mostly black players pound one another.

I know some people say that these black men are lucky to play their roles, that they have chosen and worked hard for their accolades, and yet I wonder what the game says about racism and violence in our country.

Is there a connection between the fact that the USA is the only major country (as far as I know) that plays football and the number of guns in our country? What about our country’s history of racism, and these mostly black teams playing for mostly white fans?

Football fans are rabid in Seattle, too, so the obsession is not just a Texas thing. Seattle fans stole the #12 from the Aggies fans, and everywhere are blue and green #12 signs.

The Seattle Times sports pages may as well be called the football pages, though in the nether pages there are sometimes articles about other sports and even (gasp) women’s sports.  

The parallels between the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and the Rise (and perhaps Fall) of the American empire strikes me, and here’s another parallel: grandness of a violent sport where the more privileged watch the burly less privileged fight—though the death here is generally protracted rather than immediate.

I hate to be a spoiled sport, but who are we?

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