This morning one of my dear friends posted this eminently reasonably question on her Facebook feed: “Ok. Before I go to bed, I must ask, “Is football really that important?. . . and what if it isn’t?”
This query reminded me of some anthropological work I conducted five years ago to investigate the role that American football plays as a medium for social cohesion. I published my findings in another venue, but I have received permission to republish here in its entirety.
My travels as an amateur ethnologist/anthropologist have taken me to many exotic – dare I say dangerous – locations. Whether it be sampling indigenous herbs in a tourist-unfriendly dance club in Montego Bay, mentioning positively a taboo word like Hillary among Baptists at a cousin’s Orangeburg County funeral, or infiltrating the decadent underbelly of Folly Beach debauchery at the Sand Dollar Social Club, I have repeatedly put myself in harm’s way for the sake of science.
So when my friend and colleague Furman Langley suggested we make the trek to Columbia, South Carolina, to witness and study first hand the ritualistic warfare known as college football among a savage and frustrated tribe known as Gamecock Nation, I jumped at the chance. Of course, I have witnessed these fascinating spectacles before, but always as an outsider, someone peering from the periphery, distant, in the upper tier of the stadium squinting my eyes while choking on jet fumes.
This occasion offered, however, the rarest of rare opportunities, to don rooster regalia, to hobnob among, not only proletariat practitioners, but also among the upper echelons of the Gamecock Nation, culminating spectacularly with a meeting with the Big Chief, himself, Dr. Harris Pastides. And, more importantly, I was able to witness the ritualistic warfare from a vantage point from which the combatants didn’t look like ants scurrying across a green and white napkin but like gigantic human beings I wouldn’t want colliding with me at literally break neck speed.
Based in St. Amelia Island, FL, Furman Langley has concentrated his anthropological career studying Late Empire American behaviors among large crowds. His particular field of expertise is rock concerts. In fact, when I encountered him doing field work at a Springsteen concert in North Charleston a couple of years ago, he informed me that he had attended another Springsteen concert in Jacksonville just days before.
This dedication to science has taken him all over the globe, as he as has repeatedly put his hearing in jeopardy by witnessing live shows by – a full catalogue would run pages – let’s just name three: the Dead, the Stones, and Dylan. So, of course, I leapt at the chance when Furman asked me if I would like to accompany him to Williams Brice Stadium.
We decided that the wealth of data that such a trip might yield demanded we stay overnight to observe the Gamecock Nation’s behavior after the game, to experience their jubilation if they triumphed, or more likely, their despondency if they happened to lose.* So we met at a Travel Plaza outside of St. George, South Carolina, left my rather cramped vehicle there, and proceeded in Furman’s appropriately black Carrera, black being one of the totemistic colors of the Gamecocks.
*The abysmal performances of the Gamecocks over the past century has given rise to a myth called the chicken curse. Indeed, the Gamecocks had not defeated their opponents of today’s game since 1933.
Actually, more time is spent during what natives call pregaming or tailgating than viewing the ritual of warfare that follows. To obtain the widest range of data, we tailgated at two different locations, one in the hinterlands of the stadium, an area populated by lower tribespeople, and the other in a so-called cockaboose, a refurbished train caboose that elite members of the tribe purchase for tens of thousands of dollars.
Furman selected an area with which he was familiar along a street of various warehouses. Many of these businesses supplement their income by charging money for the privilege of tailgating in their parking lots; however, Furman shrewdly parked in a free spot across from the parking lot pictured above.
Our provisions consisted of a six-pack of Kalik beer (whose name voiced in conjunction with the second syllable of the team’s totem for some reason produces eruptions of laughter from tribesmen and women alike).
We hadn’t been standing there long before two African Americans rolling a cooler down the street asked us if we’d like “a free sausage biscuit.” When Furman answered in the affirmative, they asked us if we wanted condiments. We thanked them profusely and consumed the gifts, which though generously bestowed, consisted of a half-dollar sized sausage on a saucer-sized bun.
Observation 1: Normally capitalistic tribesman engage in communism with total strangers if those strangers have donned the colors and paraphernalia of the tribe.
(The photograph below offers an example of Gamecock paraphernalia – a beverage refrigerator/hand protector called a koozie).
Minutes later two other tribesmen parked their vehicle behind Furman’s and set up a small table with their provisions: wings, crab dip, and light beer. These two, who consisted of an elder, Frank, and his son, Bruce (both sporting black jerseys) offered us some of their wings, crackers, and crab dip as they discussed recent battles and this particular assemblage of the Gamecock warriors. In fact, they voiced some trepidation about the competence of the Gamecock Field General, a 6-year senior called Garcia. As it turned out, these worries ended up being prophetic.
Observation 1 confirmed: these red state Obama haters communistically offered us members of the intelligentsia their bounty in the name of Gamecock solidarity.
Via cellphone, Furman established communication with Jay and Lee Ann, fellow anthropologists who have forged a trusting relationship with the owner of a cockaboose. So we set out on foot to rendezvous with them so we could obtain entrance into the sacred grounds. The following photo of three exuberant tribespeople we encountered on the trek demonstrates how total strangers abandon social inhibitions when they encounter others sporting totemistic regalia. Note the young tribeswoman’s fingers, not, as the uninitiated might assume, declaring cuckoldry, but rather as a sign of solidarity among rooster rooters.
At the gates of the Cockaboose confines, security officials distributed plastic bracelets designating us as among the cockaboose elite. Jay offered us two malted beverages and escorted us into the inner sanctum of the cockaboose where a cornucopia of high calorie culinary delights stretched before us like a highway to a heart attack.
Once again, I found the natives to be absolutely hospitable to me, a total stranger.
After what seemed a short time, we began our journey to the field of combat, but not before Furman and I ascended to the steps to check out the rooftop vantage point.
As we neared the stadium, the density of celebrants increased as did their levels of exuberance. Below we see Jay returning from greeting some natives he has gotten to know.
The trip to the stadium offered several curiosities:
Among them an encounter with the Supreme Chief of the Gamecock nation who had his bodyguard snap a picture of us together.
Eventually, we made into the stadium found our seats, and enjoyed the pageantry.
Alas, after all of the hullabaloo, the ritual warfare proved to be anticlimactic, to say the least. Frank’s and Bruce’s worries about the field general proved all too prescient as the Gamecocks managed to blow a fourth quarter lead and have defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
After the debacle of the game, the once jubilant nation shuffled off like participants of the Bataan Death March. Some could be heard muttering under their breath Shamecocks and Gamecrocks.
Subdued about sums it up.
Although a victory would perhaps offered more interesting data collection, we did, I think, confirm that these ritual gatherings may help to unify a diverse community of otherwise potentially combative elements. Here, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, blacks, whites, hispanics, and the rare albino can for a few hours form a brother/sisterhood.