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Want to Unify America? Try College Football

For the cultural elites, places like the Upper East Side, Lower Westchester County, the Main Line, Chevy Chase, McLean, and Palo Alto represent the pinnacle of American Civilization. According [1] to scholar Charles Murray, the people who live in these places graduated from the same schools, read the same columnists, worship the same gods, and have similar prospects for financial and vocational success.

Not only have the vast majority of Americans never heard of those places, they don’t know anything about the people who live there. The average American watches [2] a little more than five hours of television each day, and 93 percent [3] of men and women spend time viewing televised sporting events. The bottom line: the American everyman is far more likely to hold places like Happy Valley, Tuscaloosa, College Station, Athens, and Auburn in high esteem instead of the bourgeois enclaves of New York City, San Francisco, and Washington D.C.

That elites and Middle-Americans have different habits and mores should come as no surprise, especially given the results of the 2016 presidential election. Nevertheless, it’s important, both politically and culturally, to understand what Americans value and how they spend their time. While it’s undeniable that 35 hours of television per week is way too much time spent in front of a screen and likely contributes [4] to obesity, depression, and a whole host of other maladies, I’d still like to come to the defense of one of America’s greatest pastimes: college football.

Every Saturday growing up, I’d put on my University of Michigan sweatshirt and run down the road to my grandparent’s cottage. Upon my arrival, my grandpa would be sitting in his chair, with a Wolverine ball cap on his head, spending his Saturday watching college football. On special occasions, my dad and I would join him on pilgrimages to Ann Arbor. We always parked our car at Weber’s Hotel [5] and took the shuttle bus to our seats on the 15-yard line, opposite the press box. I still remember the Michigan vs. Ohio State game in 1997 when Heisman trophy winner, Charles Woodson, returned a punt for a touchdown and Michigan went onto the Rose Bowl and became national champions. I’ve never heard a crowd cheer louder than I did that day in the Big House with over 100,000 people.


It’s been more than a dozen years since my grandpa passed away. He was born of Polish descent to a family of five boys. All of them served in the military—some in World War II and others in the Korean War. One of his four brothers is still alive at age 88, and still lives in the home where his wife was born in 1929. As I reminisced about my grandpa while watching Michigan’s season opener against Florida this weekend, I picked up the telephone and called my uncle Richie. His wife answered, having just returned from Mass (at the same Parish where my grandpa was baptized and married) and passed the phone to my uncle who happened to be watching the Michigan football game.

When I asked him how he was doing, despite his poor health, he said, “I can’t complain, Johnny! After all, I’m still here, aren’t I?” Still there, in the same house, watching the same football team, worshiping in the same church, and whispering “I love you” in the same woman’s ear after over sixty years of marriage. I doubt many of the cultural elites know where Wyandotte, Michigan is or understand why something as simple as watching a college football game can unite a 27-year-old Burtka (me) with an 88-year-old Burtka (my uncle) who lives 560 miles away, but should they?

According to a 2016 Gallup poll [6], a record 77 percent of Americans believe our country is divided on its most important values. And given the rising currents of individualism and iconoclasm in our society, it’s hard to identify many shared customs, traditions, or festivals that unite us in our communities across generations. While college football may be an imperfect solution to a complex problem, it provides greater cultural glue and a more profound sense of solidarity than any other activity I can imagine Americans doing in the fall of 2017. Could it be time for us to take a break from virtue signaling on social media, if only for a Saturday afternoon, to invite our neighbors over for some cold drinks, hamburgers, and pigskin?

Despite our country’s democratic and protestant roots, college football may be the one area where Americans value tradition, history, and posterity by making pilgrimages, honoring the dead, and venerating their teams with song, swag, and flags. As my colleague, Emile Doak [7], succinctly put it, “College football, with all its rituals and legendary figures, supplies the mysticism that modernity’s disenchantment has left society wanting…” People travel long distances to tailgate with family and friends and cook recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation. Every game begins with a national anthem followed by fight songs and chants that have existed, in some cases, since the 19th century. Banners are raised to commemorate championships and Heisman Trophy winners, and old men and women tell stories about the wondrous deeds that have been accomplished on the field in year’s past.

Bill Buckley once said [8] that he’d rather “entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” And I’d rather be governed by the first 400 people I saw at a Big Ten football game than by the editorial board of the New York Times. Nowhere will you find a people more patriotic, loyal, hopeful, and willing to defend our American experiment than you will on a Saturday afternoon in Lincoln, Lansing, Bloomington, or Iowa City (Note that Columbus may be one exception to the rule).

In order to heal our divided nation, we must identify and build upon the areas where ties bind communities together and families invite neighbors to their homes for feasting and celebration. If, as the late Andrew Breitbart once said, politics is downstream of culture, then college football may carry more weight than we think. Why not fire up the grill and order some gear from your local university bookstore? Given the direction our country’s headed, what do we have to lose?

John A. Burtka IV is the Director of Development for The American Conservative. His writings have been featured in American Theological Inquiry, First Things, The Intercollegiate Review, and Touchstone.

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "Want to Unify America? Try College Football"

#1 Comment By Conewago On September 12, 2017 @ 5:49 am

Does anybody know what time it is?


#2 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On September 12, 2017 @ 8:48 am

While it is true, from pre-game tailgate through post-game press conference, college football is an enjoyable pastime. That said, like religion, it can and sometimes does appeal to the very same base, binary/tribal, win at any cost, instincts – the “value, tradition, history” to which you refer – that have corrupted our political and cultural institutions. Ever see a (alcohol fueled) brawl between Alabama and Auburn fans? I get it, there is good and bad in everything, and your personal experiences/connections to college football aside’ let’s not go making college football (sports in general) more than it is; entertainment. And be honest, as a Michigan fan you “felt good” when Woody Hayes got canned after he punched a Clemson player in the 1978 Gator Bowl

#3 Comment By RCPrice On September 12, 2017 @ 10:15 am

As a resident of one of the named cities from whence the gallant-but-inebriated 400 would come, I can assure everyone the author has his head, metaphorically, in a very dark place. In any event, American football is a barbaric display of ignorance that in 50 years will be little more than a bad memory. Watch an MLS game instead. It’s much more entertaining.

#4 Comment By simon94022 On September 12, 2017 @ 10:19 am

Sed contra: College football is less popular than the NFL, less appealing to youth than basketball and less deeply rooted in American culture than baseball.

And let’s be honest, I love football but it’s headed toward long term decline due to the ugly reality of brain damage. Maybe the country should unite around boxing?

#5 Comment By Court Merrigan On September 12, 2017 @ 10:51 am

Let’s be honest here, though, Nebraska would have absolutely waxed Michigan in ’97.

#6 Comment By James On September 12, 2017 @ 11:08 am

I do not believe it is a coincidence that the elite attacks college football at every opportunity.

Look at the photo. This is a multiracial team, but the only colors that matter are Maize and Blue. The same thing is true for virtually every college football team, and if it’s not, that team won’t be very successful. Football (and all athletics) provides opportunities for those who wouldn’t otherwise have them, even if the player doesn’t go to the NFL. College football coaches have solved problems that the Ivory Tower can’t and the Ivory Tower hates them for it.

#7 Comment By McCormick47 On September 12, 2017 @ 11:49 am

How many kids are we willing to brain damage for this sport? The effects are well documented. If this is a kind of civic religion, it’s one that involves human sacrifice.

#8 Comment By MEOW On September 12, 2017 @ 12:03 pm

College football is a good common denominator. No one felt good when Woody Hayes was removed from the collegiate circuit. The Oklahoma QB apologizing for planting the flag on OSU “O” was a cut above what a neocon would do. How many apologies have you heard from this group about their lies to get us into a war with Iraq? The Brits have another take:
There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night—
Ten to make and the match to win—
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
‘Play up! play up! and play the game! ‘

The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
‘Play up! play up! and play the game! ‘

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the school is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind—
‘Play up! play up! and play the game!
Go Blue!

#9 Comment By Positivethinker On September 12, 2017 @ 12:10 pm

Joe the Plutocrat makes a/some good point(s). Football like anything and everything has good and bad when taken even slightly to an extreme.

#10 Comment By mrscracker On September 12, 2017 @ 2:04 pm

I thought this was going to also be about bringing together Americans of all ethnic backgrounds. Sports does that well I think.
ESPN aired a wonderful documentary about a white college football player who through a collision in a game caused a black player to become a paraplegic.
It’s an incredibly moving story. I’d really recommend watching it:
SEC Storied: It’s Time – Chucky Mullins

And just PS: Go Gators!

#11 Comment By Dave skerry On September 12, 2017 @ 2:38 pm

I’ve often heard it said that Bear Bryant did more to end segregation than any other American, and I believe it. However I’m a Yankee war eagle and can’t wait for Auburn to burn Alabama once again.

#12 Comment By Ken T On September 12, 2017 @ 4:59 pm

College football encourages both “us vs. them” tribalism and a “win at all costs” mentality. Unify America? Hardly. I know this will come as a shock to you, but in reality millions of Americans couldn’t care less about football. But I guess that’s your real point, isn’t it? You are not trying to unify anyone, just the opposite. “Real Americans ™” watch football – anyone who doesn’t, doesn’t count in your book.

#13 Comment By Ines On September 12, 2017 @ 5:15 pm

I would be more willing to sing the praises of college football, if it was not for what I believe to be damaging effects to academic pursuits. Perhaps it has to do with growing up in a culture in which the idea of a sports team attached to an University is quaint at best.

Seriously, with student athletes being given easy grades at the request of the coach, or with the most admire students being the jocks, and girls seeking to become cheerleaders instead of serious scholars, the quality of the graduates keeps coming down, and the downward pressure infects high schools, too (it is instructive to compare the math curricula in European institutions and in American ones).

With so many non-academic sports teams, why put on the Universities the burden of being unificators?

#14 Comment By FL Transplant On September 12, 2017 @ 5:59 pm

The problem with college football is that the big-name teams–the ones in the places the author lists–have become semi-pro farm teams for the NFL. The teams have nothing to do with the colleges they “play” for; the players are a bunch of semi-nomads from across the nation attracted to the place they think will give them the best athletic deal. They’re not student athletes.

I went to a service academy, which is probably one of the few remaining DIV I schools where the guys who suit up on Saturday (or Thursday or Friday, depending on the needs of the networks and conferences to broadcast games to maximize revenue) actually sat in class with you on Monday morning, lived in the same dorms with the rest of the students, ate the same meals in the same dining hall, and actually could be called “student-athletes” without requiring a sarcastic wink and a nod. But big-time college football today, concentrating on recruiting the four/five star high school players from across the nation by offering facilities that cost hundreds of millions (those indoor practice facilities and 15,000 square foot weightlifting facilities with strength and fitness coaches making upwards of $250,000 don’t come cheap)? You’re watching bunch of mercenaries. Let the NFL begin drafting kids right out of high school or after one year of college like the NBA does and see just how many have any loyalty to the blue and maize.

Any vestige of college football that has any meaning is played in DIV 2 and 3 schools.

#15 Comment By ADC Wonk On September 12, 2017 @ 6:42 pm

I doubt many of the cultural elites know where Wyandotte, Michigan is

Why the silly, juvenile, attacks that smack of identity politics?

I doubt anybody in Wyandotte, Michigan knows where Bristow, Virginia is, either. So what?

I guess college football fans are “real Amuricans” and the rest of us aren’t? Bonding with neighbors or kids and grandkids is great. There are ways to do that other than college football. Or does saying that make me a cultural elitist which deserves your scorn?

#16 Comment By Steve Waclo On September 12, 2017 @ 7:25 pm

Perhaps University of Nevada Reno is an outlier, but despite a new coach and millions spent on Mackey Stadium upgrades, season ticket sales and attendance has dropped consistently (per Reno Gazette Journal) for the past 6 years.

Reasons elude.

#17 Comment By Fred Garvin On September 13, 2017 @ 1:56 am

College football is the ultimate regional sport. Does that make for national healing? I don’t see it.

You should hear what students and alumni–not faculty–in LA and Westwood and Palo Alto say about the academics at SEC schools (and about the lack of fiscal probity of same). I assume the feelings are mutual.

#18 Comment By ADC Wonk On September 13, 2017 @ 3:13 pm

This is an article ( [10]) that talked about the highest paid state employee of each of the 50 states.

In 39 of them, the highest paid state employee was either a head football coach or a head basketball coach.

Awesome, eh?

#19 Comment By ADC Wonk On September 13, 2017 @ 3:16 pm

You should hear what students and alumni–not faculty–in LA and Westwood and Palo Alto say about the academics at SEC schools

Big deal. Those commie-pinko California schools employ, and graduate, Nobel winners in Physics. SEC schools produce champions!

#20 Comment By Tyro On September 14, 2017 @ 9:05 pm

Midwestern and Southern American whites’ interest in following the football teams of colleges they themselves did not even attend is itself a regional and cultural provincial affectation.

I do have a tinge of regret that I turned down a school with a strong football tradition, because it’s my deep, dark secret that I love watching football. I went to a college with a poor quality division III team that nonetheless could field a full team because the students really, really liked playing football.

But to willingly watch, follow, and root for a football team at a college I’m not even vaguely associated with? That seems as inane to me as taking public transit to work every morning must seem to you.