'Tribal' Connects College Football, American Culture And History

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The contradictions of American history, culture and sports combine to form the college football "tribes" we know today. (Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
The contradictions of American history, culture and sports combine to form the college football "tribes" we know today. (Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

To Diane Roberts, college football fans are more than just simple fans. College football "tribes" have unique histories and, for good or bad, are bound by tradition and proud cultures.

Roberts' new book, "Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America," examines this phenomenon and explores what the sport really means for Americans.

Roberts recently joined Bill Littlefield.

Highlights From Bill's Conversation With Diane Roberts

BL: In "Tribal" you write, “I’m a Seminole lifer. I accept and embrace my Inner Barbarian.” What do you mean by "inner barbarian?"

DR: Well, I mean the person who goes to football games, or watches football games, and stands up shrieking, "Not the sweep, you jerk! Didn't you see what happened last time?" And, "Pull his head off, cooter!" And, "Come on, hit the man, hit the man!" You know, I've been properly educated and well brought up and somehow this other critter comes out of me when it comes to football time.


BL: Just so we’ve got the central tension of your new book, you write, “Football, specifically college football, represents America as it really is: not a Field of Dreams, but a consecrated battleground where we celebrate violence and hyper-masculinity.” Talk to me a little about that “hyper-masculinity” and why you’re apparently good with it, even though you characterize yourself as a feminist…

DR: Well, 'good with it' might be going a little too far. I accept it. I am a product of my culture, the same way everyone else is. But, what I was really interested in once college football started to get weirder and weirder to me, which I should say happened at the University of Alabama — I taught there for a long time. I absolutely love it. It was important to me that I teach in a place with high quality college football. I thought, I mean, look at those guys on the field. They're enormous, they're the size of cows. But they're the shape of the perfect, kind of Greek god with the big shoulders and the narrow waists and hips. And then, look at where the women are. They're on the sidelines. They're tiny, they're very good gymnasts, but they're very, very little, and they wear bows in their hair, and they cheer the men on. And I think this is a pretty regressive vision of gender in the 21st century.

BL: So that's it, you can reconcile those two observations: football is great and football is a place where great big men are cheered on by tiny women.

DR: With big bows in their hair! I don't reconcile it, I live with the contradiction. I live with paradox. I think most people do. I mean, I live in the American South, which is ground zero for paradox. We are a part of American history that nobody is super proud of...except when we're super proud of it. We love, in a way, that the South is kind of a mess, because out of this mess comes, well, I think great writing, great music, great food. You know, so, paradox feels right to me. I just let the inner barbarian have Saturdays.

BL: You’ve written that “football gave Johnny Reb a do-over,” meaning football fans in the South could feel better about losing the Civil War after beating Northern teams on the field. I wonder if any coach in the SEC would go along with that, even off the record?

DR: Oh God, no. I think even in the subconscious, that's a tough one. But, if you look at it historically, that's exactly what it's been. You know, we stopped talking about it quite so obviously maybe by the mid '70s--the 1970s, not the 1870s. I mean, the University of Florida, in living memory, put Confederate battle flags on their helmets to go play Penn State. But, there are universities that have done a brilliant job of being conscious of this and dealing with it. The University of Mississippi, I think we all should be proud of. Yes, they're still called The Rebels, but they have managed to pull themselves out of a perpetual Gettysburg, which is where they were, for very good historical reasons, and stop waving the battle flag and stop singing Dixie. And, they've almost got the fraternity boys to stop shouting, "The South will rise again." You know, these things take time. Culture is a tough old bird. It takes decades for this stuff to work. We're still talking about the Confederate battle flag in America. We're still arguing about why the Civil War happened. I mean, in Texas, apparently it's not slavery, it's those workers they talked about. America wants to pretend history doesn't matter, but we are the most historically hidebound people. We are complete prisoners of our history; we just hate to admit it.

Bill's Thoughts On 'Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America'

Diane Roberts must have had a lot of fun writing this book.

She has a doctorate from Oxford, and she has put it to use teaching English at Florida State University. She supports the football team there immoderately.

[sidebar title="An Excerpt From 'Tribal'" align="right"]Read an excerpt from "Tribal" by Diane Roberts.[/sidebar]

Professor Roberts refers to the other supporters of Florida State football, even the ones who pass out in the stands before halftime, as her tribe.

She also refers to the college game in the south as potentially “a museum of ancient masculinity” that currently gives “Johnny Reb a do-over.”

Which is why writing the book must have been fun. Dr. Roberts pledges her love to a phenomenon that shorts out all the circuits of her feminist convictions. She told me she’s okay with the contradiction, and explained it by saying that embracing contradictions is business as usual for folks in her tribe.

This segment aired on October 31, 2015.



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