Life Inside The Tribe Of College Football Fans

Nov 18, 2015

Maybe you're a college football fan. If you are, regardless of your team loyalty, you understand all that goes with fandom: the ecstasy of winning, the despair of losing and everything in between. You own a T-shirt or jersey or cap, at the least. You may even go as far as painting your face, maybe your whole body, to the games.

No matter whether you attended the school, that team is like family. And every person you pass while running errands or simply strolling through the mall, if they're wearing the team colors, you each give each other a nod or some sort of recognition of your connection with them. 

All of these behaviors almost sound as if a true college football fan is a bit... tribal. 

That's what Diane Roberts claims in her new book, Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. It's a look at how the love of a game can bring a group of complete strangers together in unity, and also blind us to the social ills that plague the phenomenon.

Here's an interview with her:

You said in your book that college football is like the bad boyfriend you don't want to introduce to your mother but he makes you feel so good.

When he isn't making you feel so bad. I don't know what is more beautiful than a long pass being caught by a very good wide receiver who leaps up and grabs it. It's like ballet. The fact that it's also extremely violent and dangerous can't be denied. Football is what America really is. We are tribal. We are violent. 

You wrote about the controversy that surrounded Jameis Winston. He was the former Florida State University player who was accused of rape. What was it like for you and for the people on campus as that story was strewn out?

Diane K. Roberts on Saturday, 30 April 2005 at a book signing for “Dream State: Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans, and other Florida Wildlife” at Goering’s Book Store in Gainesville Florida, USA
Credit Lipsio

I was feeling very conflicted on the one hand. Something happened. I'm confident of that. I don't know if Jameis Winston raped that young woman. I don't know if that young woman was telling a straight story.

I don't know that anyone will ever get justice because the investigation seemed to be so botched and so obstructed by people who love football, in the police and the athletic department. By the time it got to the state attorney it was a God-awful mess.

A lot of the Seminoles' [fans] just refused to believe that anyone belonging to the team that they loved so much could ever do anything wrong, though historically football players get arrested at a pretty high rate in Tallahassee and Gainesville and in Miami.

Some of America's finest universities have a God-awful record in investigating rape or assault charges in their football programs. Notre Dame, for example, is just horrendous. There are other universities too that ought to hang their heads in shame. But we've got to get better at this, this is not OK. You know being a football player does not make you a sacred king. Though that's how we treat them.

Why do we treat athletes in such a way that we will look the other way when accusations of crime, especially sexual assault, come up?

Well, athletes are the most special people. You would think maybe the National Merit Scholars would be the big men and women on campus. But football players? We admire what they do.

They are really interesting people a lot of the time; they're very accomplished people. We do treat them as very special, as heroes.

Then look at the game of football. It's a very violent game. You might tell small children that violence never solved anything. That's not true on the football field -- violence solves quite a lot.

I don't know how much time you spend hanging around 19- or 20-year-old boys. I teach them. They are delightful and charming and the stupidest creatures you ever saw. Their brains aren't fully formed.

I'm not being funny, that's really true. Neurologically their brains aren't fixed, especially their judgment centers. So why do we expect them to behave exactly like 40-year-old sober citizens. They are creatures of impulse and hormones and everything else.

Florida Atlantic and Florida International universities have relatively young football programs. Can they ever reach that same level of success and fandom you see at a Florida State or University of Florida or University of Miami?

University of Miami playing Duke, Sept. 27th 2014
Credit C.W. Griffin / Miami Herald

Oh, of course they can. Florida State started their program in 1947. That's very late compared to say, Auburn or Michigan or a lot of these other grand places that have a tradition. 

In 50 years FAU and FIU might be big. The University of Central Florida might be regularly taking on, I don't know, Flagler College for the national championship. You just never know.

Sometimes it doesn't work.

The University of Alabama Birmingham, for reasons best known to themselves, wanted a football program. There was one forty miles away in Tuscaloosa. But Birmingham's a different place. They wanted their own college program. It lasted a few years and broke lots of hearts when it shut down.

When the University of South Florida beat FSU, the whole of Tallahassee collapsed in a dead faint. That just wasn't the way the universe is supposed to work. But you know sometimes the universe takes a little turn. Tradition is just a thing that somebody decided to do one day and then they kept doing it.

Florida State didn't always have a guy on a horse galloping around. You know I remember when the mascot was a guy in buckskin britches, which was not exactly correct Seminole gear. He was called Sammy Seminole.     

Diane Roberts will be presenting at this year's Miami Book Fair International, 11 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 22, at the Sports Center. You can hear the entire interview with Diane Roberts below.