Let me be clear first-the traumatic brain injury that we now know happens in contact sports-specifically football-cannot be left as a silent issue. It deserves the very best attention we can give it to change the outcome. That said, I want to talk about a different side of the sport.
Last Saturday I, along with maybe 80,000-100,000 other souls, performed a social ritual. It begins with a pilgrimage. Cars and trucks lined up, moving inexorably toward the stadium, each pilgrim focused on a particular strategy for parking in order to do the last few hundred yards or, in our case the last mile, on foot as a member of an extended tribe. The tribes, one clothed in royal purple and gold, one in cardinal and white, are formed by all of us agreeing tacitly that whatever our birthplace, station in life, political beliefs or other predilections, the next 4 hours will unite us under the colors, symbols, chants and ritual that makes us an LSU Tiger or an Arkansas Razorback.
As the lines of pilgrims get closer to the stadium-as much a shrine as any on earth, music, dance and symbolic speech of all kinds become more intense. Entering the gates, a young Tiger defiantly shakes his plush “Rally Possum” (a talisman of a past miracle victory) at a smiling 60 year old in a red plastic “Hog Hat” who snorts back at him and we move as shoaling fish, finding our sacred peanuts and cokes and settling in our assigned places.
The sun is shining, the sky is perfectly blue, the stadium is a jewel of color, punctuated by the upbeat walla of the crowd-excited but not yet ready to release their focused energy. Now a hush as the band takes the field then, as a single organism, the crowd is both bound together and unleashed and, with a raw animal roar, rises to its feet and becomes a unified People. The formal rituals of Alma Mater and National Anthem complete, a pounding drumbeat announces the arrival of The Champions. The Warriors. The Heroes. Young men, skilled and disciplined through practice wearing their exotic tribal colors pound onto the field through a gauntlet of respect as fireworks explode and a pair of fighter jets fly over in perfect synchrony. The challenging warriors then emerge and-as has been agreed by tradition-they take their place on the field of honor facing the roaring symbolic displeasure of the home crowd.
The game itself is a roller coaster of emotion, each side voicing their encouragement and adoration for performance, disappointment at errors and pure hostility when a penalty call goes against “our side”. It is fully “Our Side” for me too by now because even though I was born 2000 miles away and went to college 40 years ago in a distant land, I had become part of a tribe, investing every bit of the emotional capital in my screams of Geaux Tigers! as my died-in-the-wool LSU local seat mates. The thing is, it feels good to be an “Us” on a beautiful day. It makes a connection and; whether it’s a Saturday SEC football game, a performance of “La Boheme”, a jazz trio in a jumpin’ bar or a high school production of “Hamlet”, this is us connecting as the profoundly social animals we are in our hearts. The Tigers won and the return walk to the car was a warm bask in the happiness of that huge, ad-hoc village all moving back toward the central fire to relive the victory or staunch the wounds of defeat in sunburned stories of the day and the camaraderie of food and drink. It is good to be human.