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Site Review – The College Football Hall of Fame

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Of Time and Timelessness

It has become somewhat of a gospel truth that, in order to appeal to sports fans these days, games have to be (among other things) relatively quick.  That is not to say that the sports must be speedy in terms of the run of play itself – though, of course, this helps – but rather that a match cannot last an interminable length of time.  Get the game over with, and in under two and a half hours if possible.

Of course, there are massive – and massively successful – exceptions to this rule.  American football – be it NCAA college football or the professional National Football League – is far and away the most popular sport in the United States, and many matches can take upwards of four hours.  If one is actually attending a game, the commitment of time is much greater.  And, given that both college and professional football in the US normally involve a significant social component – tailgate parties (or tailgating) – the time commitment can stretch to several days.

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(Play Ball – and do it faster)

However, many traditionally leisurely sports – golf, baseball, and cricket among them – are looking for ways to speed up, mainly to enhance the spectating and television viewing experience, but – in the case of golf – to curb a large decrease in participation. A recent essay in The Economist about golf’s decline in the US and Europe points to several factors: economic decline in the US, the skills required to make golf an enjoyable experience, the time commitment and pace of play, the change in aspirational capital for the middle class, the rise of video games as a form of sporting leisure for young people, the fact that the sport is largely still hostile to women and minorities, and that white males – the bread and butter of the industry – are often significantly more engaged in child-rearing and other family and career activities.  As such, many people in golf are looking for ways to engage a time/money stretched population with ways of making golf – or versions thereof – enjoyable again:

Similarly, baseball – the most timeless of sports – is looking to speed up.  In particular, as this excellent article from Grantland explains, the sport that has no clock – where a game, in theory, could last forever – has introduced time limits, in particular for the time between pitches and the time between innings.  The reasons for this are similar to golf, albeit looking at the preferences of the viewer rather than participant.  In particular, the idea that a game should be finished quickly, that the pace of play should increase, and that the sport must attract the next generation of fans who, it is supposed, are not used to a leisurely pace in their leisure, are all part of the reason for these changes.  Timelessness, and perhaps a sense of stillness, is not conductive to contemporary habits, it would seem.

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(Under the floodlights at Headingley: T20 match between Yorkshire and Durham, July 10, 2015)

While golf is looking to attract more participants through changing their game, and baseball is looking to appeal to more (and younger) spectators through the introduction of time, cricket has been grappling with these issues for years.  Indeed, cricket’s introduction of different forms of the sport – the one day limited overs match, and the Twenty20 three hour bash – have, in some ways, both enhanced and divided the sport, particularly between those looking for a pure representation of the sport (such as exists with long – and multi-day – traditional formats like test cricket) and those looking for a fun, exciting, and enjoyable day or night out.  Personally, I am a huge supporter of test cricket and, if I was living in England or another cricketing country, I would almost certainly cast my support behind something like the county championship – with their four day matches – rather than any sort of limited overs competition.  Still, when I witnessed my first T20 match earlier this month at Headingley, I could see the appeal of that form of the sport.  Indeed, the ground was full, the weather was beautiful, and the match was truly exciting.

Sport – at least in the examples I provided – is a business, and the idea that tradition, ritual, and heritage must bend to the demands of Mammon.  Indeed, many of the golf pros I know both lament the potential changes to the sport while also acknowledging that something has to be done to bring people back to the course.  In baseball, I understand that viewing habits have changed, and that there is a desire to make watching a game – for lack of a better term – efficient.  With cricket, there seems to be more of a balance in terms of time – choose your “brand” of cricket, as it were.  But, the great success of, in particular, T20 cricket in virtually every cricketing nation has lead to suggestions that longer forms of the sport are inevitably doomed.

However, I wonder if something will be lost if we simply try to appeal to a perception of what non-or-casual participants and spectators want.  Indeed, I wonder if one simply “grows” into more leisurely sports.  I, for one, have noticed my palate changed considerably in recent years.  I simply couldn’t imagine myself at 15 or 20 wanting to watch baseball or cricket, no matter how many rule changes were introduced.  But, similarly, now I find that I enjoy the spaces between play that a golf, or cricket, or baseball allows (and for which hockey or cricket or football seeks to eliminate).

In his excellent article about test cricket, Wright Thompson wonders whether timeless – or, at least, time-intensive – sports like cricket might actually be welcome in contemporary society; that we go so fast and cram so much in to our days that a “slow” sporting event might actually be an antidote of sorts for our industrial lives:

I’m into the rhythm. I enjoy the silence. I work a crossword puzzle, looking up every minute or so to see the bowler begin his run. A thought assembles in the white spaces. Being here feels like a vacation, not just because the days are free of responsibility, but because they feel so different from the rest of my life. The world is full of people trying to slow down. There’s the slow food movement, a rejection of consumerism and industrial convenience. Knitting, baking, urban farming. There’s yoga. Folk music is inexplicably huge in England again. People are seeking something.

Maybe Test cricket is part of that search. Maybe slowness won’t kill Test cricket, but instead will spark a revival: the right game at the right time. Not long ago, I read a magazine excerpt of a new book, “About Time,” by astrophysicist Adam Frank. He believes we are living at a vital moment in the history of time. For thousands of years, we’ve been shrinking time, making minutes important, then seconds. Frank says we can’t shrink it any more. An enormous change is imminent. Oil will run out and with it cheap transportation, both of goods and people. He believes that, contrary to our view of a world always growing smaller, the planet will spread apart again. Only the extremely wealthy will be able to afford flying to Europe, for instance. Global shipping will regress. Email won’t be as commercially important since the businesses it exists to support will lag behind. “We’re at a breaking point,” he says. “We just can’t organize ourselves any faster. We’ve grown up with this amazing idea of progress. That’s operating with the mindset that science will provide miracles. There really are limits. One of the things I think about this generation we’re living in: This is the age of limits.”

Time is important in heritage; age often makes particular legacies more important and, in certain contexts, more saleable. However, the idea of time itself – and how we use it, or at least comprehend it – is often overlooked as a kind of heritage value as well.  As Wright says, we seem to be interested in aspects of antiquity – even from the recent pasts – as a way of slowing our lives down; that the choice of inconvenience might actually be a pleasure.  Certainly, sports have – and always have – adapted to suit contemporary tastes; Stuart Shea’s recent exploration of the Wrigley Field argues that this historic stadium was, through much of its history, considered rather modern, comfortable, and convenient. That said, perhaps not only its there a pleasure – and, maybe even a market – for slow sports, we have to question whether we can make sport any faster than it already is and, if we do, what would that mean?  Do we really want a baseball game to last an hour?  Isn’t the pleasure of sport that it is different from the rest of our industrial lives; that we can lose ourselves and feel something of our real selves and the real lives of others in a “day out” at the ballpark, or cricket ground, or golf course?  Shouldn’t sport be different?

 

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.

Sport Heritage at a Southern Campus

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.