But it’s not just what football means to us that fuels the passion we have for it. It’s that football opens up doors for explaining ourselves to other Americans and, perhaps more important, being recognized by them as equals. We believe our way of life is beautiful and we want others to agree with us. Unfortunately, the rest of the nation seldom recognizes these traits in us, choosing rather to focus on the social conservatism that still marks my state as well as the perceived backwardness of our culture. Ask a Nebraskan who spends much time on either coast and they’ve likely heard some variation of the “do you guys have electricity?” joke. If we show up in popular culture at all, it’s more likely to be in a Saul Goodman joke on Breaking Bad or as the butt end of a crack about “fly over country.” Mother Jones had a great time mocking one small town that allowed students to have guns in their senior pictures, showing a disappointing but not at all surprising ignorance of midwestern life in the process. And when we show up in bigger periodicals like the New York Times, it’s invariably in something like Mary Pipher’s condescending op ed about how Nebraskans need progressives like her to save us from all those barbaric conservatives and their aforementioned guns. As Wendell Berry noted over twenty years ago, the operative rhetorical principle in social elite circles seems to be that if you are polite in your comments about preferred social minorities you have license to say anything you want about poor people, country people, farmers, uneducated people, and so on. It’s hard to separate that basic insight from the sneering coverage of my home in places like Mother Jones and the New York Times.
He goes on to talk about the beauty and dignity of his home state, especially rural Nebraska. Read the whole thing.
I think there is a religious component to this as well. I am not a particular fan of the sport of football, but I get excited about the LSU Tigers because it’s a tribal thing. There were only two times in my life when I felt anything like what I feel at Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night: 1) the U2 concert, Joshua Tree tour, Thanksgiving Day, 1987; 2) being part of the vast throng at Pope John Paul II’s mass on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, 2000. The idea of being part of a large crowd, everybody loving the same thing, together, and sharing a sense of unity and transcendence … it’s sublime, really, and sport can do that too. For whatever reason, in my part of Louisiana, LSU football does that like no other sport does. Of course it’s excessive, but it serves a beneficial purpose that is hard for intellectuals who do not care for sports to understand.
I think there’s also a psychological dimension Jake didn’t mention in his piece. Jake and I talked by phone as he was preparing this piece. I told him that intellectual types who aren’t oriented towards athletics — people like me — tend to disdain spectator sports for a variety of stated reasons, some better than others. One reason many of us conceal from ourselves is that athletics make us feel inadequate, because people who are not as smart as we are happen to be a lot better at something we can’t do. Many people who aren’t intellectual try to rationalize their disdain for things like art and poetry, but we look at their crude excuses for what they are: expressions of insecurity. But intellectuals are a lot better at coming up with sophisticated rationalizations to mask our insecurities. I think that explains much (but not all) of the contempt many intellectuals have for sports and sports fandom.