Interview by Misha Rai
Diane Roberts is a native Floridian who was educated at Florida State University and Oxford University where she was a Marshall Scholar. She’s a political columnist for The Guardian newspaper and The Tampa Bay Times, an essayist for National Public Radio, a commentator for the BBC and a Contributing Editor at the Oxford American magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Best American Essays and Best American Food Writing. She is the author of several scholarly books as well as nonfiction including Dream State, an historical memoir of Florida. Her newest book is Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. Roberts is currently Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at FSU.
Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America will be released October 27, 2015 and is available for preorder.
Misha Rai: To tell a story in book form, you must have great longing because of the time and effort and energy that goes into it, so what was at the heart of your need to write this? Where did this book come from? What triggered it? At what point did you say to yourself, “You know what? I’m going to write about football”?
Diane Roberts: In a way, I’ve been writing this book all my life. I was born into football culture and always loved the game and the rituals that surround it, though the older I get, the more my affection for it is tempered by a knowledge that like so much of what passes for a great American social institution, football’s rotten at its core. The real origin of the book comes from an enormous article I did for the Oxford American in 1998. I’m being serious about the size: The thing was at least 8,000 words long. Since then, I kept a file labeled “BALL” and kept putting cuttings and notes and all kinds of stuff in it with the intention that I’d do a book “some day.” I seem to be incredibly slow. Finally, as a way to avoid another writing project (my writing avoidance techniques are quite sophisticated and effective), I took up the football project and, once I was lucky enough to sell it, wrote the book in 16 months.
As for why I wrote Tribal, the more I looked at football, the stranger it became: all that money, time, love and suffering tangled up over a bunch of 19- and 20-year-old boys running around a green field. As a football lifer—I inherited my father’s season tickets when he died—it finally dawned on me (as I said, I’m slow) that football is about all the things I’m most interested in: race, gender, and history.
Are you a post-adolescent? I couldn’t help but latch on to that word, not in the sports playing context, but more so because I think all sport turns “grown-ups,” the spectators, into post-adolescents as well. Do you agree? Why do you think we transform into our Neanderthal-selves when it comes to sports?
Well, you could argue that post-adolescence lasts a long, long time for some of us, maybe from about 18 to 60. Sports is elemental: We identify with a team as a way of belonging, of being a part of the clan. Me, I have an Inner Barbarian, who glories in the violent overthrow of my enemies, especially the University of Florida, Notre Dame and other miscreants. On second thought, maybe that Inner Barbarian is really an Inner Fascist, chanting and clapping and braying for blood along with 80,000-plus of my people as we watch our champions assert our honor and puissance on the field.
This is demented, I know. But we love contests; we love the proxy-fight on the field to determine superiority; and, of course, we love winning. Humans seem hard-wired to keep score.
To me, Tribal: College Football and The Secret Heart of America is not just a book about football. (The cover is ruddy fantastic.) It is about football, but through this sport your book is talking about so many different things: abstinence, purity, public health programmes, and Puritans. You reference Dickens, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Star Trek, politics, He-Man v. Skeletor, and Marvel Comics. You mention a study about how people’s brains react when they look at images of people they despise and how hate focuses our brain in a more efficient manner as opposed to love. Faulkner makes an appearance, bows, lest we forget pictures of Lane Fenner kept in a Romeo y Julieta cigar box. Stadiums are likened to cathedrals, and you address the idea that the support given to Jameis Winston during the alleged rape allegations can be dressed up as racial progress—white womanhood versus defending an African American football hero. You remind us that women are left out of the game even though so many of us watch it. And there is all that history, not just of how the game was almost outlawed in Georgia but also the many variations of the game cultivated over the centuries in various countries. This is a sprawling book that tackles so many topics, no matter how tightly or loosely connected to football, and I love it for precisely for that reason. OK, so my question is: Why was it necessary for you to write in this manner?
The short answer may be that I just don’t know any better. The longer answer? Football exists within culture, so in order to, well, not explain it, I could not presume to do that, but at least begin to understand it, I try to situate it in history. The Puritans left Britain in part because James I refused to ban football on Sundays. Little did they know, they were landing on a continent where the inhabitants had been playing a football-like game for eons, and where the inhabitants of the future United States would take in the Protestant work ethic and prissiness about sex of the Pilgrim Fathers, but also embrace the game that tainted the Sabbath in the Old Country, bigging it up to gargantuan proportions and watching it all Sunday afternoon and evening, when everyone knows they should be reading the sermons of Cotton Mather. And yes, as an English professor, I do throw my book learning around the way frat boys throw around go-cups of beer: literature explains the world! I am a Faulkner scholar and so I find minimalist prose rather beige. I like a big, baroque, digressive sentence full of subordinate clauses and references and allusions and images all in the service of trying to illuminate, tell the story in a way that, as Horace (I believe he played wideout for LSU back in 30 BC) recommends in Ars Poetica, both “delights and instructs.”
You write, “I knew I was a Seminole before I knew I was white or a Presbyterian or even a girl. I knew I was a Seminole before I knew what a Seminole was.” You also write, “Identity is a vexed business as it ever was.” Could you talk a little more about this?
Well, I’m not sure I can put it any smarter than I did in the book (not that I’m claiming the way I did it was smart). Football punctuated our lives from September to December: My parents got dressed up for Saturday games the way they would for Sunday church: coat and tie, hat, heels, gloves, corsage. They disappeared for hours—sometimes days—leaving my little brother and me with a babysitter. They arrived back either ecstatic or, in the case of my father, sullen and angry. Daddy took the game very seriously. My mother, who graduated from FSU (she was an athlete, an archer, in college), had a healthier attitude, but still, I couldn’t help figuring out that football was a large, large business. My parents would talk of other people—less fortunate, less intelligent, less wonderful people—as “Bulldogs,” “Deacons,” and “Gators.” We were Seminoles. This was identity; this was belonging; this marked us off from them. Identity is formed in contrast with others: We are who we are because we aren’t the people from the mountain or the lake or those assholes in Gainesville.
You have a deep love and an uneasy relationship with football, one that is both hilariously and poignantly documented in the book. In the first few chapters, every time I would begin to get comfortable with your joyous love for football your narrative would slap me in the face by bringing up something horrid about the game whether it’s the twenty-year-old kids on the field risking brain damage or Jameis Winston and the alleged rape. I felt as though your discomfort was mine also. Did you set out to write the book in that manner? Or was the narrative within the book symptomatic of/mimicked your relationship with football?
Ain’t that the way with every deep relationship: love mixed with loathing? The narrative is entirely a product of my trying to deal with my own football problem, my own participation in the Football Industrial Complex. I didn’t set out to write the book in this way; I couldn’t write it any other way. It’s a kind of fraught conversation with myself. My dear friend former FSU quarterback Tommy Warren, now a very distinguished civil rights lawyer, helped to expose some very serious abuses in the Seminole program back in the early 1970s. He does not go to games and does not usually watch on television, though sometimes, say when FSU plays Notre Dame, he’ll sneak a look or two. His reasons for abjuring the football realm are compelling, correct and detailed in the book. He assures me that I can overcome my addiction. But I’m not convinced I want to. I kind of cherish my Inner Barbarian, even as the sight of white people painted with garnet and gold checkerboards or wearing “Indian” feathers cause me to cringe in shame, even as I know that some of the young men on the field will be injured in pretty terrible ways over their years playing for FSU. I know that cake, Bourbon and charming, narcissistic men are bad for me, too, but that doesn’t mean that I can just quit them.
You say, “I can criticize college football; anyone with a functioning frontal cortex can,” but the book isn’t only a commentary that criticizes the culture—it asks the reader to try to understand where all of this stems from. Often in the book, the reader comes across the first person plural voice, the “we” voice, especially when something horrible is happening in the world of football. Why use that voice and make yourself just as culpable as every other football-goer? Why don’t you, an “overeducated” person, distance yourself from those who football-enthusiasts who act in ways that you would not?
I’m implicated. I buy tickets. I watch on television. It would be irresponsible to pretend that I’m somehow morally better than everybody else in the tribe. I’m accused of disloyalty for putting FSU’s shit in the street (as it were), but criticism of the game is not the same as rejection of the game. Americans struggle with that concept: If you criticize the country, you’re told to “love it or leave it.” If you suggest that, say, France has a better healthcare system than the US or that Canadians have better manners or that theatre in London is more daring than it is on Broadway, people react like you’ve just burned the flag, roasted a bald eagle for dinner, and spat on the grave of Ronald Reagan.
Besides, you’d be surprised at the overeducated people who adore football. At the University of Alabama, I used to go to games with a medievalist who also had a law degree, a poet, a novelist, and a scholar of sexuality at the Court of Charles II.
You write, “…but the truth is, baseball represents how America wants to see itself; football, especially college football, represents America as it really is: not a Field of Dreams but a consecrated battleground where we celebrate violence and hyper masculinity, usually in the name of Jesus.” Is this emblematic of today’s American society at large, beyond the game?
Yikes, I could write another book on this! (Somebody please stop me.) The US doesn’t quite know what to do with itself these days. Gay people can get married, women can become Army Rangers, and African Americans can become president. Clearly, the End Times are upon us. Football still remains a bastion of traditionalism: The men play it, women cheer for the men. Young black men play the game, but old white men remain in charge. Might makes Right and violence is, in fact, the answer. Yet football is changing as America is changing. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, a corrupt cartel, is scrambling to deal with the court cases coming which may well define players as employees, not students, of the university and give them the right to be paid for their labor. Traditionalists hate this, but hey, they hate Barack Obama, too.
I was really interested in the chapter about muscular Christianity. How did that take shape? Did you have very concrete ideas about how the chapters in the book would play out?
I’m lousy at structure. I started with the idea of four quarters, plus a halftime as chapters. Cute, huh? I tend to write in big old hunks of material; my transitions are really cunning, too—I hit the space bar four times. Look! A new section! Seriously, I had a list of things I wanted to cover, and I worked from that. The bit about Muscular Christianity came from my interest in why college football is so Jesus-y. It’s not really like that in other sports. So I began reading about the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and worked my way back to Victorian England and ideas of masculinity that got all knotted up in rugby, cricket, and Empire.
In the book you mention how college athletes don’t have money to go for a movie or buy necessities, yet how everyone makes money off of their skills but them. You talk about the idea of the amateur and how that needs to change, but you also bring up this refrain of, “not yet or not today.” Discuss that a little.
The people who run college sports are inordinately attached to the old model of the gentleman amateur or, as the NCAA calls it, the “student-athlete.” They pretend that these boys play for the love of the game, to get an education, to be true to their school. In fact, sports is sold to poor kids—especially poor minority kids—as a golden road to money and fame. All you have to do, if you’re good enough, is survive three years as an indentured servant at some college, wearing what they tell you, going to class when they tell you, practicing when they tell you, eating what they tell you—some coaches restrict their players’ use of social media. The university and the licensing people can make millions off a 20-year-old, but that 20-year-old can’t sell his autograph to a fan. Like his labor, he gives it away. Yes, the players get tuition, room and board, but not a penny extra and often not enough to pay for books and food outside the athletic dining hall. The NCAA makes incremental changes as they are forced to (or shamed into) all the while resisting an overhaul of the system. But there are various lawsuits making their stately way through the courts which may force colleges to pay their players, or at least cut them in on the profits. And one day a concussion lawsuit could bring down the whole game.
As an academic, a lefty (can I call you that?), and a journalist, did you feel pressure to simply report what you were seeing as you wrote this book? Or did you also feel pressure to push for change within college and professional football? I think there are shades of both these styles present in the book, but to what extent did you think it was your responsibility or not your responsibility to push for a battle cry to bring about all the changes necessary to make this game a game that is a little fairer?
Yes, you can call me a pinko egghead and a journalist. I never felt the need to try and be objective, though I hope I was fair. I have a position. But I hope that I haven’t written a hectoring, naggy sort of book. I like to describe what I see. The way I describe it lets you in on how I feel about it. Maybe that’s a battle cry, though in my case it’s probably more of a battle snark. Satirizing something is a great way to call for change in it. Humor is subversive.
Apart from research for the book, what else were you reading? What books inspired this book, whether through form, voice, narrative, or content? (I did look at the last few pages of the book, and I see you have a list of notes and selected sources, but I still wanted to ask especially if there were works that inspired you that had nothing to do with football).
Will Blythe’s To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever is about basketball, particularly about the enthusiastic loathing the North Carolina Tar Heel feels for anyone and anything associated with Duke. It’s brilliant and hilarious, sharp as a mountain of razor blades and crazy as a cut snake. Nate Jackson’s memoir Slow Getting Up is a football book, but more about how a guy who’s not a superstar comes to terms with who and what he is and writes with devastating honesty and humor about his injuries. Black Planet by David Shields, another book about basketball, is very smart about how white America views the black body. Otherwise, I slogged through a decent amount of Puritan theology, Victorian novels by Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes (sigh), histories of Mesoamerican ball games, and various hysterically funny tracts on the dangers of masturbation.
I’ve mentioned above how funny the book is—I mean that letter on bedshitting—but the book also has a mythic quality to it. I think it comes partly because of the voice you use to tell the stories surrounding the game, whether it is the craziness of the fans or just the history, and you write them in a way that allows them to expand (for lack of a better word) in the mind of the reader. How did you find that voice? What role does southern writing play in your work, that is, if it is a contributing factor?
I’m so glad you found it funny, though I can’t take credit for the bedshitting letter—the author of that jeremiad was a suffering Ole Miss fan contemplating a loss to Texas. I think he was channeling Faulkner, whose 1940 novel The Hamlet contains a character called Labove, a country boy with a football scholarship at the University of Mississippi. Labove loves classical learning, and sees football as a way to get it, but never figures out the point of taking a “trivial contemptible obloid across fleeing and meaningless white lines.” He does, however, dress his entire family in Ole Miss letter sweaters and cleats. Southern football people are the funniest because they have the most highly-developed sense of irony. Being poor and backward will do that for you. We’re used to ridicule, condescension, and mocking (often perfectly accurate) references to our paleolithic politics, our antique gender roles, our warped religiosity, and our obsession with the past—all of which come to play in college football. My voice is a product of my place. I’m a Southerner, and ten years at Oxford (not Faulkner’s, the other one) didn’t seem to knock that out of me.
What didn’t make it into the book? I look at this sprawling work, in terms of content and not quantity (pages), and feel with surety that there was more that could have made it in. So what do you regret not being able to put in if there is something you left out? Something historical or an anecdote?
Aw, man. Lots didn’t make it in. I had a whole disquisition on Puritan theology and physical pain and why suffering made you more righteous in the eyes of the Lord, not to mention your coach. I had stories of road trips to FSU games in Gainesville in the early 1970s (I remember everything I wore from Irish lace tights to a beautiful dress from May Cohen in Jacksonville that wasn’t quite garnet, but almost) with fried chicken and potato salad and barbecue and friends of my father’s, Gator friends, patronizing us because we were mere Seminoles. Luckily, I had a good editor—two editors, actually: Barry Harbaugh, who commissioned the book, and David Hirshey, who took over when Barry got a cool new job running the Little A imprint at Amazon—who helped me figure out what belonged and what was over-egging the pudding.
Misha Rai was born in Sonepat, Haryana and brought up in India. She holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University and is currently pursuing her PhD from Florida State University. Her prose has appeared in Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review and The Missouri Review blog. She has work forthcoming in Sonora Review, where she was a finalist for their 2015 essay prize, and Crab Orchard Review. She is also the recipient of the 2015 George M. Harper Award. She is currently at work on her debut novel.