Monday, November 28, 2011

The Clannishness of Sport

Human societies have long organized themselves into some variant of the clan. Medieval Genoa built itself around a series of alberghi, not inns as the word means now but urban redoubts for the major clans and their adherents. My own Liaosingh ancestors in Ireland fought as major vassals to the ruling lord against the British interlopers. You belong to a clan, you follow the policies and customs of the clan, or face disgrace.
Certain of our institutions suggest nostalgia for such belonging, which of course has its benefits. Sport is one of a long list of half-hearted attempts we make to recreate clannish safety. Half-hearted, because the allegiances run so shallow and the symbols seem so wan. Forget about the precision of heraldry, tracing the etiology of an intercourse of families. We have Carolina blue, Harvard (and Alabama) crimson, Stanford cardinal red. Notre Dame has two colors, Marian blue and Irish green; talk about imprecision.
The obviousness of the clan-sport affiliation in American society hits home hard at Thanksgiving. The Detroit Lions play football on Thanksgiving Day itself, and countless arch-rivalries play out on collegiate fields over the following weekends, culminating in the Army-Navy game, the one that most resembles a true clan rivalry, heraldic meanings and all.
Plenty of writers have weighed in on this subject, but it took on particular significance for me in an incident that occurred yesterday. My dog Abby and I went to the library; well, Abby went as far as the parking lot. Said lot actually belongs to a shopping mall, the temporary home of the library during new construction. The same lot also serves as a “park and ride” location for football games at UNC-Chapel Hill. Yesterday they played their rival from the next town, the Duke Blue Devils (dark blue, as opposed to Carolina’s sky blue). Their fans occupied little patches of clannish turf as they celebrated the occasion in that most American of locations, the parking lot of a shopping mall. Shallowness incarnate.
If the Gospel according to Matthew has forty-two begats, intercollegiate football has, for all intents and purposes, one: tailgating. I commented to a Duke fan that doing it in a parking lot seemed so odd, what with the stadium a couple of miles away from us. As a child and then a graduate student, I tailgated at that very clannish rivalry, the Harvard-Yale game, in Yale Bowl’s sprawling practice field which doubles as a parking lot on game days, or used to, anyway. Chateaubriand, rack of lamb, pasta, burgers, you name it, washed down by anything from Heineken or Sierra Nevada to Chateau Lynch-Bages, a very good Medoc from the village of St.-Estephe, I think. Doing it at a shopping mall reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s wonderful line when he reveals the origins of his hero Earnest “in a handbag.”
One group from Duke took all this rather seriously, with pitch-the-hackey-sack games and, of course, a football tossed around with admittedly no little grace. Abby provided the liminal moment, the edge at which it all made sense. We had approached the Dukies from the other, open end of the grass island they had occupied, when Abby unceremoniously pooped. I scrambled to cover her leavings, to the relief of the rather caustic revelers. Little did they know that by the time I got back to the scene of Abby’s “crime” with some pine needles from the base of a tree, said scene eluded me. Abby had unwittingly passed judgment on the whole proceedings and I left that judgment undisturbed; who knows whether the Dukies did.
I write all this with a mild sneer, but nobody shot anybody at a football game yesterday, as happened at a Walmart the day before, retailers’ Black Friday, the day of profits. Nobody got trampled, as also happened on Black Friday and as has happened at European football (aka soccer in this country) matches. And yet a drum major at Florida A&M University died of hazing injuries this week, clannish behavior at its worst: you want to belong, let’s see if you can take the punishment belonging requires.
That death casts a pall on the whole pastime. Football games across the country should have had a moment of silence, but did not, at least not the three games of which I saw various parts, all played by predominantly white schools, unlike the predominantly black A&M. Football and its halftime ceremonies should not be worth dying for, and such deaths as occur bear acknowledgment, at the very least. Such acknowledgment, however, generally occurs only within the clan. Outsiders be damned, at least for sixty minutes of (American) football.

Chapel Hill, NC

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