This weekend marks the beginning of the NCAA college football season in the US. While this often a big part of the sports calendar at most colleges and universities across the country, no where is it more a eagerly anticipated than in the South. It is here – at places like Clemson University in South Carolina, where I am a faculty member – that the rituals, traditions, and heritage associated with the collegiate game are on full display.
If you are not familiar with the scale and scope of college football, Stephen Fry provides an interesting cultural translation of what the game experience is like. Here, he attends a match between Alabama and Auburn, a fierce intra-state rivalry, and describes his impressions of the festivities:
In his description, and to paraphrase, it is on the scale of a “Grand National” but, in actuality, the games are often little more than a local derbies played between teams of amateur university students. This may be a bit misleading, but taken on the surface – and certainly to spectators from other countries and cultures – it all seems a bit ridiculous.
However, the game – as grand a spectacle as it is – is merely the centrepiece (or, perhaps, even the excuse) for another cultural tradition, that of the tailgate party or “tailgating.” Typically, tailgating occurs in the hours leading up to kickoff – it can be over multiple days on some campuses, but normally it is anywhere from three to twelve hours before the game actually begins – and involves food, drink, games, and socializing. It sounds rather informal, but it is highly regulated in many respects. For example, tailgating spaces are not ad hoc – spaces are allocated based on donation levels to the athletics program. Thus, a tailgating spot next to or near a stadium may cost thousands of dollars a year whereas spots further away may be a few hundred dollars a season. Beyond that obvious display of capital, there is also a strong cultural capital to your tailgate. Many tailgates will have very extensive set-ups, including full canopies in team colours and a large spread of food and drink (most of which is cooked on-site by the tailgaters themselves). Many fans will also bring large screen televisions and satellite hook-ups to watch other games, and some supporters will even specific tailgating cars (i.e.: vehicles painted in team colours, etc) that they bring to the games. As such, there is often a one-upsmanship to the tailgate – and having the “best” tailgate (be it through food or decoration) carries a great deal of pride. Some fans won’t even enter the game itself – so, for example, a group might have two tickets to the game but ten people at the tailgate. Given that, in Clemson’s case, the stadium holds about 85,000 (yes, to watch “games played between amateur university students”), and ticket prices are often significantly more expensive than NFL tickets (e.g.: a pair of tickets for this weekend’s Georgia v. Clemson game will, at minimum, cost $400), there may be just as many outside the stadium and enjoying the atmosphere.
As I was not born, raised, or educated in the US, let alone the southern US, the college football culture took me by surprise. However, it is one of those displays of culture that, though I don’t often participate (I find it just too long a day for me, so I prefer to stay home on game days), I make sure visitors get to see. I know many of my UK and Canadian colleagues who have come to visit me are astounded at the scale and the passion of the fans – as I was the first time I went to a game. I also think there is certainly something of a heritage to the whole gameday ritual. When I ask my students to describe what “heritage” is to them, they tend to focus on family, church/community, and football/tailgating. Many students see their tailgating spot as an important family heirloom, one that they want to keep in the family and experience with their children and grandchildren for generations. And, if we are to understand heritage as being formed through discourse, it seems that heritage on a southern campus in the US is frequently positioned through this very bizarre – though, for the people here, very important – sporting ritual.