An Excerpt From 'Tribal'

This excerpt reprinted from "Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America" by Diane Roberts with permission from HarperCollins Copyright © 2015 by Diane Roberts

For more information, please visit

Check out Roberts' conversation with Only A Game’s Bill Littlefield.

“YOU’RE AN INTELLIGENT, cultivated woman,” he says. “You cannot like college football. You don’t like college football.”

He’s a historian, a distinguished scholar teaching at a distinguished university in Georgia. I’m an English professor at Florida State. We’re having lunch: salads, balsamic vinaigrette, decaf, no dessert. Somehow we get onto the subject of football season in the South. He rolls his eyes. The traffic. The noise. Those awful people in awful T-shirts baying in the stands. All for a ridiculous, expensive, violent game played by overmuscled postadolescents.

I am forced to confess: I’m one of those awful people—better dressed. The sect to which I belong cleans up pretty for ball games. While the historian reads scholarly articles or composts or binge-watches Game of Thrones, I spend fall Saturdays celebrating the sacraments of my people, following the ordo missae: ESPN Game Day, tailgate, kickoff, four quarters, final whistle, more tailgate—the rituals of the tribe.

He’s right. I don’t like college football. Liking is warm, but not scalding; it’s pleasant, something you can take or leave, not something holding you in thrall, not a force from deep in the unconscious and the gut. Love is closer, maybe, given that it’s chemical, a brain mystery, beyond free will, beyond reason, a gaudy and ungovernable creature fed on hope and desire.

But if love implies approval, then love won’t do either. College football is nasty, brutish, and long—at least three hours, four if the game’s on television—a great, messy stew of energy, anger, joy, signs, portents, symbols, athletic feats, madness, and what sports announcers call “pageantry.” It’s the preferred sport of Republicans, climate-change deniers, and people who think every American foreign policy issue can be solved by the 101st Airborne. The game’s in bed (possibly not quite the right term) with fundamentalist Christianity, anti‑intellectualism, and retrograde ideas about women and people of color. It costs too much in blood and treasure: at FSU, we’ve unscrewed half the lightbulbs in some campus buildings and removed phones from professors’ offices to save money. The library is having to cut databases and slow way down on buying books. The football stadium’s getting an $81 million makeover. College football is Big Business masquerading as play, savagery sanctioned by the very institutions of higher learning founded to civilize us, a quasi‑fascistic spectacle complete with uniforms, martial music, slogans, and an excess of testosterone. The crowd howls for harder hits; the boys on the field wreck their shoulders, their knees, their backs, their brains—sometimes for life. The NCAA always says it’s “studying” the problem.

Yet there I am, every Saturday from late August to early January.

I guess you could say I’m conflicted. I’m like those people who aren’t sure they believe in the Virgin Birth and the literal Resurrection but still show up for church because they like the music and take solace in the liturgy. I’m a Seminole lifer: I grew up in Tallahassee, looking forward to the rhythm of fall Saturdays, making potato salad for the tailgate, making sure for the fourteenth time that we had the tickets and the parking pass and the corkscrew, singing the fight song and spelling F-L-O-R-I-D-A S-T-A-T-E (proving that education in Florida is not completely a lost cause), settling in to experience the ecstasy and terror of the contest.



More from Only A Game

Listen Live