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The College Football Hall of Fame (CFHF) in Atlanta, Georgia (relocated from South Bend, Indiana in 2014) is, perhaps, best described as a more a place of worship than a museum. Of course, most sports halls of fame are more about veneration than education for a variety of reasons. However, the College Football Hall of Fame takes this approach to a new level, as it very much is about experiencing and celebrating the meanings, traditions, and legacies of college football. There are, relative to the size of the museum, very few artefacts, and the displays – while familiar to most contemporary museum patrons – are less about sacred treasures and more about reliving and celebrating the past and present of the sport. In fact, most of the collection – including the inductees themselves, as well as the many sights and sounds of college football – are entirely digital. Even more than that, they are personally curated based on your college football affiliation.
To the uninitiated, college football in the United States involves – in theory – amateur competitions between institutes of higher education. However, the scale, scope, pageantry, and money (particularly for the coaches, administrators, broadcasters, sponsors, and many athletics programs) involved in college football are entirely professional. Different regions and conferences will have different football cultures – from styles of play to tailgating traditions. In addition, there are hundreds of college football teams throughout the United States – from internationally known programs like Notre Dame, Alabama, and Ohio State who fill 90,000 seat stadiums and attract millions of dollars in support, through to small division two and three programs which have limited spectatorship and financial support. Indeed, the challenge of a CFHF is that is has to be both general – in terms of representing the whole of college football – while also being specific to the recognizable teams, games, and athletes.
The CFHF experience begins with a “log-in” procedure where your information – and fan affiliation – are recorded, both to personally curate your experience (each visitor receives a lanyard to wear that allows for swiping at interactive stations along the way) as well as collect visitor information – including contact information. Most visitors view a 10 minute video that provides visitors something of the experience of a college game day at a large stadium and university. Visitors can then view some of the famous trophies from college football, including the Heisman Trophy (awarded annually to the top player in college football). A large part of the museum space is dedicated to fan traditions, such as tailgating and team fight songs, and there is also a section on college football bands and cheer teams. Visitors then proceed through a section about college football coaches, training regiments for college football, the evolution of college football equipment, college football rivalries, and famous college football broadcasts. The one section that comes close to a broader social history is a small display about historically black colleges and universities, as well as a small display about “service” college football programs from the armed forces.
The top floor of the CFHF is the actual hall of fame itself – which is entirely digital – and a section about players who have gone on to great careers outside of football. Finally, there is a large, indoor practice-type facility where visitors can try their football skills before exiting through the gift shop and back into Atlanta’s Olympic Plaza.
The basic narrative of the CFHF could be boiled down to “College football is great, and it has created great games, great champions, and great men – both on and off the field.” I wasn’t expecting anything different, nor is it really set up to do anything different than celebrate college football. Again, most halls of fame aren’t particularly interested in broader social or political issues, and a visitor is not going to find much about race, gender, economic, or health issues at the CFHF. In other words, it does what it says on the tin, and is unapologetic about it. And, judging by the crowds that were there the day we visited, it is an unabashed crowd-pleaser and, it would seem, people broadly enjoy the experience.
Of course, I believe this rather hagiographic approach is – broadly speaking, and not just for the CFHF – limiting. I think there is room for places like this to be, in the terms of the new museology, forums and not just sites of worship. And, I think that forum approach need not be just about some of the broader issues in college football and university athletics, but can be celebratory as well. From what I could see, there isn’t much space for temporary exhibits, nor did there appear to be any form of public, live interpretation or other form of programming. I think this is limiting, both in terms of the broad content and presentation of the CFHF, but also its broader appeal. In many respects, once you’ve “done” the CFHF, there are not many reasons to go back – at least for several years. It is possible that repeat visitation isn’t one of their major goals, and given that the CFHF is in the tourist district of Atlanta, right near the stadium that hosts numerous college football games that attract visiting fans, it may not need to attract regular repeat visitors. In some ways, it is set up to visit every three to five years, which may entirely meet their mandate. However, I’m just not sure there is much room to grow or change its galleries, and offer something new to the annual visitor.
One of the other aspects that was pointed out to me – and one that I may have overlooked otherwise – was that the focus of the CFHF really is the “big time” college football programs, particularly from the South. Working at Clemson, we are one of those big-time Southern programs, so it all was instantly recognizable to me. However, I could understand how a college football fan from a smaller school or, say, a west coast university might not necessarily recognize the depiction of the sport and its traditions. I would also suggest that the digital approach, though interesting and interactive, also had its issues. Despite it being only two years old, many of the interactive displays were already showing some wear-and-tear, and several were down for maintenance. Furthermore, I found it difficult to find information not related to Clemson. While the personal curatorship was an interesting approach, it was a bit more challenging to find out about other athletes, games, and programs.
As a visitor, I found it enjoyable enough, but I also have the real-deal of a big time college football program just steps from my office. I think it is a site that would appeal to both the dedicated fan and, possibly, might be of interest to someone wanting an introduction to the sport. In some ways, I could see it appealing to foreign visitors as a way of having an immersive American football experience on non-game days and in the off-season. As a heritage scholar, it is very much a corporate museum – a football museum celebrating football as a self-contained phenomenon. In other words, there wasn’t much about a broader context for developments in the sport and its traditions. The influence of corporate sponsorships were also a bit invasive (Kia branding throughout the tailgating exhibit, for example) and, I felt, detracted from the experience. Finally, if we are to understand heritage as the “present use of the past,” the CFHF celebrates all that is good about the college football experience, perhaps to mask the myriad of issues the sport currently faces – concussions and other health issues, sexual assaults committed by players and ignored by athletic and university administration, players’ labour issues, including unionization and pay, and the fact that college football coaches and administrators are almost always the highest paid employees on campus, to name but a few.
You may have noticed that the NFL has faced a few issues (mostly of their own doing) the last few weeks. Some of the issues are explicitly about heritage – such as the nickname of the Washington team – while others have little or nothing to do with heritage, such as player safety, off-field player conduct, and transparency about the NFL’s disciplinary procedure (particularly how these procedures are handled by the league’s commissioner). The interesting thing to notice will be how heritage is used going forward to as a way of addressing these issues – or, alternately, distracting from them.
On the surface, heritage hasn’t seemed to be a major part of the NFL. Although at a franchise level, heritage might be mobilized for a variety of reasons from establishing a history and legacy to selling tickets a products, NFL heritage hasn’t been a large part of how the league is positioned, at least in comparison to MLB and the NHL who are quite explicit using their past as a product (the NBA might utilize it’s past even less than the NFL, though that is a different blog for a different time). There are certainly elements of NFL heritage that are used, such as the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio that kicks off the pre-season schedule, the NFL Films retrospectives, and some teams (such as the Chicago Bears) that use retro jerseys, but by and large the NFL is about today and tomorrow and the draft and next season, and not so much about the past.
However, it appears that heritage is now on the radar a bit more than before. Mid-September to mid-October is Hispanic Heritage Month in the NFL, a program instituted a few years ago seemingly to both recognize the contribution of Hispanic players, coaches, and media as well as broaden the appeal of the NFL to Hispanic-Americans. A recent set of ads asks fans to send videos about how football is a part of their identity, and how it helps connect them to others – a kind-of existential authenticity/heritage narrative. Franchises have also incorporated heritage in new stadium amenities and design, most notably the San Francisco 49ers team museum at their new stadium.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see if the NFL use heritage more than it has in the past. As we know, heritage is often used when a site or tradition or way of life is under threat. Certainly, the Washington name controversy has generated heritage discussions, particularly in the case of fans citing team traditions and personal heritage affiliations in support of the maintenance of the team name. However, at a league-level, might the NFL draw more substantially on its past to remind (or, perhaps, distract) from its current controversies? For example, next year is the 50th Super Bowl – might the league have a year-long celebration of itself, particularly if some of the issues from the past few seasons carry over to next year? Could the NFL do something akin to the NHL’s Winter/Heritage Classic, and remind fans of the “roots” of the game as a way of muting these issues and reminding fans what they might lose? Might there be more programs similar to the Hispanic Heritage month, recognizing the contributions of a particular people while also creating a narrative that the NFL is and has always been a source of social change (similar to Jackie Robinson Day and the Civil Rights Game in MLB)? Of course, whether the NFL has ever been a source of social change is highly debatable, but that is hardly the point. After all, heritage is a tool meant to address any number of contemporary needs and circumstances. As such, it will be fascinating to see how the NFL uses this tool this season and in the seasons to come.
Few teams can match the heritage of the Montreal Canadiens. I would argue that, aside from perhaps the New York Yankees, the “Habs” (an oft’ used nickname for the team; short for “Les Habitants”) perhaps possess one of the most rich and recognizable heritages in North American sport. One need not be a Habs fan to admire the team – not only have they been one of the most successful franchises in terms of championships in North American professional sports, the have also been home to some of the most famous players in hockey history: Vezina, Morenz, Harvey, Richard, Plante, LaFleur, Dryden, Robinson, Roy…to name just a few. They are also a cultural touchstone, often uniting – though, sometimes, dividing – the city’s population.
Given the team’s long and important history, it is perhaps strange that the a hall of fame is relatively new. This may be in part because the team moved buildings from the Forum (a beloved arena and a hockey shrine if there ever was one) to the Bell (nee: Molson) Centre in 1996 and that a hall of fame wasn’t a priority until recently. However, given the wonderful collection of artefacts, memorabilia, and team displays, I’m certainly glad that they opened this museum. It is an excellent team/corporate museum, nicely balancing between nostalgia, memory, history, and culture. Like most any team museum, the narratives don’t overtly dabble in politics, and their is very little in terms of dissonance (it is triumphalist, indeed – few mentions of some truly awful seasons over the past couple of decades). However, these are forgiven, as the sheer weight of importance of some of the artefacts make this museum rival – and often surpass – the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. This is no mere team museum, my friends.
One of the interesting elements of the displays is that it takes the visitors’ knowledge for granted. Indeed, it expects that the visitor knows some of the famous players, games, and seasons. In some ways, I didn’t mind this – overt interpretation can sometimes be intrusive and, in this case, may have taken away from some of the power of the artefacts themselves. Take, for example, the case that greets visitors immediately upon entering the Hall:
Any hockey fan – heck, many sports fans – only need to see the Number 9 on the back to get a sense of awe and, for me at least, shivers. Indeed, the jersey (vestments is, perhaps, a better word) of Maurice “The Rocket” Richard – the most famous cultural symbol of the Montreal Canadiens – is the visitor’s first encounter. For those with the cultural capital to read and decode this text, this is gives the museum a sense of gravitas – there is important stuff in here. This is more than just hockey. Come, be close to these relics, and remember. Je me souviens, as it were. Subtle, political, and powerful.
There are a few brave choices as well. The visitor also encounters some very overt nostalgia with regards to the Forum which, in some ways, challenges the legitimacy of the Bell Centre as the home of the Habs. Perhaps enough time has passed and fans have settled into the idea of the new arena but, still, to have numerous displays to the old, beloved rink was surprising.
Again, the Habs have always been about more than hockey. Famously, in their dressing room they have a quote from McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields along with pictures of all of the former team captains:
To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high
There is, of course, irony in using a First World War poem given that conscription was a very controversial practice in francophone Canada. Still, the idea of connecting the team to something more than just sport is interesting and points, again, to the broader cultural impact of the Habs:
Of course, for a quasi-retired goaltender like me, a Canadiens museum is a point of pilgrimage. Simply put, some of the greatest goalies in hockey history were Habs.
Again, there was an implicit trust that the museum narrative placed in the visitor. The museum knew it was important, and didn’t attempt to interpret the galleries for the non-supporter/non-fan. I am all for the “new museology” and dialogue and co-creation, etc, but it was nice to be able to see the mask of Ken Dryden, know about him, his accomplishments, his biography, his books, and be lost within my own acquired memories of him without an audio guide or intrusive interpretive panel dictating my connection to the artefact. Calling it spiritual might be a touch overboard, but it was something close to it.