College Football Foreign To All But Us
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George Will recently wrote that when archeologists excavate American ruins centuries from now, they may be mystified by the Big House in Ann Arbor. “How did this huge football emporium come to be connected to an institution of higher education? Or was the connection the other way?”
It’s a fair question, one
I’ve pondered myself many times. When I try to explain to foreigners
why an esteemed university owns the largest stadium in the country,
their expressions tell me it’s – well, a truly a foreign concept.
Ken Burns said our national
parks are “America’s best idea.” If so, then our state universities
must be a close second. They’re why we have more college graduates
per capita than any nation in the world. And also why we have
college towns rising out of cornfields – another uniquely American
phenomenon. But when you put thousands of young men in one place,
all that testosterone has to go somewhere. That’s why football
grew not in the cities like baseball or in the YMCAs like basketball,
but on college campuses.
The students loved it as much
as the presidents hated it – and almost as much as they hated the
binge drinking that was turning Ann Arbor into a “place of revelry
and intoxication,” as one president complained, back in 1871.
They hoped football would give
them something else to do. And that’s why there’s no drinking
on campuses today. Can you imagine what college would be like
if football hadn’t ended drinking on campus forever? I shudder
at the thought.
But football did have one very
important role. For the university’s first 150 years, state
taxpayers picked up 90-percent of the tab. For the farmer in Fenton
or the factory worker in Flint, one of the best reasons to support the
state school was the Big House – the university’s front porch, the
one place on campus where everybody feels welcome.
In most countries, universities
were intended to serve a small sliver of intellectual elites.
In America, they’re for everybody – and football is one big reason
why. Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy once said, “A school without
football is in danger of deteriorating into a medieval study hall.”
Alabama’s Bear Bryant added, “It’s kind of hard to rally around
a math class.”
Joining 100,000 like-minded
strangers solves a modern problem, too. Both the Dali Lama and
Mother Teresa noted the great disease of Western Civilization is loneliness.
Yes, it’s possible to be lonely in a crowd – but not that one.
Studies show our endorphins
spike when we’re marching in formation, singing in unison, or cheering
together in a stadium. Where else can you be certain 100,000 people
are feeling exactly what you’re feeling, exactly when you’re feeling
it? This is why such places are more important now than ever.
Think about it. Michigan
does not play one game this season that’s not televised. You
can sit back in your easy chair right at home and watch the whole thing
for free. Likewise, every song in the world can be purchased for
a few bucks, and every movie is on DVD. Yet we still pack Hill
Auditorium for concerts, Michigan Theater for movies and Michigan Stadium
for football games – just like our ancestors did almost century ago.
If Beethoven, Humphrey Bogart or Fielding H. Yost visited those places
today, they would think almost nothing had changed.
We need to be together.
We need to share something with strangers. And to fill that need,
you could do worse than Michigan football. I’ve spent the past
three years following the players at close range, and I can tell you
that, with few exceptions, they are hard-working, honest guys who care
deeply for their school and their teammates. For many fans, when
a Wolverine running back breaks through the line into the endzone, then
simply hands the ball to the ref, Michigan-style, and celebrates with
his teammates, he represents our cherished Midwestern values at their
One fan, who lost his dad at
a young age, wrote to Michigan’s athletic director that, “Michigan
football is my father.”
Copyright© 2011, Michigan Radio
Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnubacon
John U. Bacon is the author of, "Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football," due for release October 25. It can be pre-ordered now.