A couple of years ago, for a funny five minutes – actually it was about a week – the Missouri Tigers, the University of Missouri football team, was ranked the number one college football team in the nation.
It had been nearly fifty years since it had last happened. People wandered about with slightly dazed, disbelieving expressions on their faces. Nobody could talk about much else. Everyone was cheerful. The whole atmosphere in Columbia changed. As a town we can occasionally be guilty of a little too much municipal pride, which sometimes morphs into self-congratulatory preening. But, my God. Number one in the nation. In football. We were floating on air.
College sports matter in this country. It took me a while to understand this. The only college event that anyone pays any attention to in England is the Oxford v Cambridge boat race, possibly one of the most tedious sporting spectacles in the world. I suppose tradition has something to do with it.
But back to Missouri. (Small sigh.) Even when the Tigers were a nothing team, regularly getting thrashed by all comers, 60,000 people would pull on black and gold and cram into Memorial Stadium to watch them lose again. Sixty thousand. That’s more than double the number of people who went to watch Arsenal, the greatest soccer team ever, when they played at Highbury.
So, what’s it all about? Well, I think the phenomenom can be explained on a number of levels.
- Unabashed loyalty to one’s alma mater has a lot to do with it. People over here identify themselves with their school more than people in England, and (for the record) I think this is a good thing. Alumni flock back to every home game to revisit the scenes of their student days. Colleges make fortunes flogging hats, sweatshirts, and other apparel with logos. When I was in college the only people who wore “Oxford University” sweatshirts were tourists, but when I walk through the MU campus 90% of students are festooned with black and gold clothing with “MIZZOU” written on it somewhere. Heavens, even my parents own some of that stuff.
- Tailgating. This was a revelation to me. Before Arsenal matches I would meet up with my friend Raffi for a pint before the game and make gloomy predictions about the scoreline. They do things differently here. People turn up hours (and hours) before the game is due to begin to indulge in Bacchanalian feasting that would have made Rabelais proud. Epicurean bounty of unimaginable excess comes out of the back of people’s pick-up trucks. It’s quite astonishing. Many, many people have been turning up to football games for years and have never seen a ball being thrown or kicked. They spend all day out in the parking lot, eating and drinking. Of course, depending on your opinion of football, this makes a lot of sense.
- Sports mania. Americans love their sports, really they do, and there just aren’t enough pro games to keep everyone satisfied. The market abhors a vacuum, and all that, and so people follow college games as well.
- Sporting Spectacle. If you’ve ever watched an NBA game (note to my English readers: this is basketball) it’s one of the most boring things in the world. Why? Because the athletes are too good. They almost never miss a shot. With college sports, though, although the standard can be high, there’s always a danger of somebody screwing up, big time. (See, for example, fourth quarter of Missouri vs Nebraska, 2009.) And while it might not be good for your nerves, it does make things more interesting for the neutral.
- Social Spectacle. Tubas! Sousaphones! Brass bands marching in perfect formation! Cheerleaders. Elite cheerleaders (oh yes.) Drunken students with painted faces yelling incoherently at the roving ESPN cameraman. Canons. It’s all very strange, but rather fun.
Now, certain people, my wife included, take huge exception to all this. Why, for example, do the football and basketball coaches get paid a gazillion times more than the most prestigious academic appointees? Isn’t this all topsy-turvy? Well, yes, of course, it is. But come on. Does it really matter? Eat, drink, be merry, and if your team is getting its collective asses whipped, retreat to the parking lot and have another beer. There’s always next year.