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 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 a little more than five hours of television each day, and 93 percent 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 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 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, 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, 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 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.