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A View from Backstage

The idea of going behind the scenes is an alluring one.  As Dean MacCannell argued, the “backstage” is where the secrets are, where people are truly themselves, and where we can see something “authentic.” Of course, a behind-the-scenes view is often still, in some ways, a front stage experience (perhaps the presence of the outsider makes it so).  In any event, the backstage can be a commodity – particularly in sport.  In sport heritage research, there have been a number of studies about behind-the-scenes stadium tours – including a few by yours truly

This past weekend, I was invited to spend twenty-four hours with the Clemson Tigers football team as they prepared for their home game on Saturday versus Wake Forest.  Inviting faculty to spend time with the team happens every week, both home and away, so my visit was not unprecedented or even extraordinary by any measure.  Still, the idea of the program – as it was presented to me – was for student athletes to see faculty in a different light and environment, and for faculty to understand a little about what goes into the university’s most recognizable program.  I suspect that I have had a few football players in my classes perhaps also singled me out, though I don’t know this for sure.

In any event, there were a few major components to the visit.  On Friday evening, the visit began by sitting in on a speech by head coach Dabo Swinney to his players, followed by dinner with the players and coaching staff.  As it was Homecoming Weekend on campus, the team and coaching staff participated in a rally at the near-by basketball arena. We were quite literally backstage during the rally, as the picture below demonstrates: 

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Following the rally, we were police escorted (!) to a nearby cinema, where an entire theatre (plus drinks and popcorn) were available to us.  After the movie, we were police escorted (!!) to our hotel (yes, they stay overnight for home games) where there was more food waiting (!!!) in case we weren’t stuffed already.

The following morning was breakfast, again with the coaching staff (very nice people, all around) followed by team meetings for offense, defense, and special teams.  Lunch, then a walkthrough of their key plays for each of the units.  Below is the walkthrough for the offense – notice everyone is now in their jackets and ties:

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After the walkthrough, we loaded onto the team buses for the game.  We arrived at the stadium and participated in the Tiger Walk – which is, essentially, the team walking through tens of thousands of supporters, plus the marching band and cheerleaders.  Let’s just say that having kids high-five me and adults wanting to shake my hand for the better part of five minutes was pretty surreal (if not just a little embarrassing) for an assistant professor.

Following the Tiger Walk, we sat in on Coach Swinney speaking to a room full of new recruits.  Of course, college sports teams must replace their labour every year.  Some of the talk was about the football program, but much of it was about the academics at Clemson:

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We were escorted (not by police this time, thankfully!) to the field level to watch the team warm-ups:Image

Finally, we went to our seats to watch the game – a 56-7 victory for Clemson:

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The view from the backstage of a football program was interesting, to say the least.  It is very regimented and, despite the luxuries, the players are under tremendous pressure to perform. It was also interesting to see that each of the coaches emphasized academics over athletics (unprompted, many said to me that the first thing they tell freshmen is that 98.3% of them will never play professional football, so they better focus on their degrees).  Of course, this may have all been for my benefit – and, as Clemson is a top-10 ranked football program, it is easy to support the academic side when the athletic side is going well.  The backstage can, after all, feel real and authentic even when it is not.

I also struggled at times with the privilege of the football program and, try as they might to meld the athletic and the academic (and, I do not doubt their sincerity in this effort), it still very much felt like a professional football program sitting uncomfortably next to a research institution.  Perhaps the privilege of the program could be considered a form of “payment” for the players’ labour – but, I’d find it challenging to remain grounded and level-headed if I received a police escort to the cinema every Autumn Friday night!

The logistics were fascinating as well – and, it was great to see the inner workings of the stadium, as well as all of the memorabilia.  Why Clemson doesn’t offer stadium tours is beyond me!

As to whether programs like this could be successful in creating a kind of empathy between faculty and athletics is interesting and worthy of study, I think.


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