Editor's Note: This article was originally published on July 4, 2018.
We Americans love a lot of things, but nothing more than ourselves. Simply slapping the word "American" in front of a title can win you an Academy Award or a best-selling album. As a nation, we have stood perpetually flexing our biceps and sucking in our gut for some 240 years now. The greatest compliment one can receive is to be called an "American original," and nothing is more American or original than football. Specifically, college football.
Like many of the best American entities American football isn't so much as an invention but a warping, a co-opting, an Americanizing of foreign products. We took rugby and international football and made them more brutal, more consumer friendly, more American. And then we took the name and slapped "American" on the front of it. Much like the imperial system, we took someone else's invention, made it our own and don't much care if the rest of the world doesn't use it. All the better, in fact.
If we're the only nation that subscribes to a particular line of thinking, well, that's all the evidence we need that we're right and everyone else is wrong. No other nation could replicate college football on our scale -- where working men and women donate their hard-earned money so teenagers they've never met but happen to wear colors they prefer can lift weights on Brazilian wormwood floors -- and even if they could no one else would try. And we like it all the better for that.
Baseball long ago claimed itself this nation's pastime, but no sport encapsulates this nation's conscious and character like football. It's violent, steeped in war imagery, pompous, violent, excessive, splendid, profitable, violent, consumer-friendly and violent. Football's pugilism and war metaphors aren't bugs, but features inherent into the DNA like a dash of extra baked cinnamon into the crust of grandma's apple pie. Perhaps you become desensitized to this point by the 11th consecutive hour of hearing color commentators explain how the men in the trenches stonewalled a blitz so the field general could launch a bomb to his wide receiver, leading the band to trumpets and drums to fire up their fight song.
It was Teddy Roosevelt, after all, who saved this game. The most American of 20th century presidents -- who led the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War and hunted big game in his spare time -- declared saving football from its self to be of the national interest. “Roosevelt thought that sports taught lessons that you couldn’t learn from the classroom and books,” John J. Miller, author of a book on how Roosevelt saved football, told Politico. “He thought that rough sports were good for boys, he talked about it that way.” In the post Civil War period, America's leaders explicitly encouraged football as a means of keeping the next generation of boys ready for the next war.
Football doesn't just satisfy our nation's need to replicate large-scale war, it also personifies the American tradition of taking a person who is exactly like you in every way except for the town they were born or the colors they wear and trying to erase their existence from the earth. Or perhaps you have a better explanation for the Alabama-Auburn rivalry. College football has Spartans, Trojans and Black Knights, and it has Rebels, Cowboys and Ragin' Cajuns. There are even multiple teams with guns on their helmets. In case the American tradition of co-opting someone else's identity as our own hasn't been covered enough, college football also has Utes, Illini and Seminoles.
Football's founders had the good sense to sparse it out once a week, doling the game out in consumer-friendly chunks, each game providing just enough dopamine to last to the next. Football was the Starks vs. the Lannisters, Walt and Jesse vs. Gus Fring and Don Draper vs. sobriety 50 years before the first American family sat down for a TV dinner.
But what, you ask, about pro football? The NFL can take you on a road trip through this nation, but you'll never leave the Interstate. College football is nothing but back roads.
College football is played in Los Angeles and New York City, and in Alpine, Texas and Plymouth, New Hampshire. College football stretches from Hawaii to Maine. What else beside a natural disaster can draw the nation's attention to Corvallis, Oregon; Stillwater, Oklahoma; or Iowa City, Iowa on a weekly basis?
This game is played in stadiums large enough to hold a small city and small enough to run out of capacity for a large family reunion. College football games are played in stadiums carved into a mountain and on fields of nearly every shade available to the human eye.
And while NFL captures more viewers every week, it will never grasp the character, the personality of this country the way the college game does. Only college football has live tigers and horses and buffaloes on its sidelines, Civil War replica weapons firing after every score, women barely old enough to vote cheering on its sidelines and sousaphones in its stands. College football teams play rivalry games to win buckets and shoes and axes and bells and kegs.
Like the country itself, college football is not above selling itself to corporate interests in pursuit of a buck; its teams play for themselves, but they also play for Nike, Adidas and Under Armour; its postseason is older than the NFL's, but only college football's is essentially owned by Mickey Mouse and Dr. Pepper; it sends two of its teams to the Bahamas every Christmas Eve to play an exhibition game that exists as a promotional tool to sell fried chicken.
College football has forever outsourced its postseason to groups of people other than itself. Who else would allow bowl directors to reap their profits and writers to decide their champion? Then, after more than a century under this system, the oligarchs that run the sport devised a system that by definition shuts at least one of their own kind out of the party they created. The only system for crowning a champion that incites more nation-wide outrage than college football's is the electoral college.
No other sport crams America's colors into every unoccupied inch quite like college football, either. College football teams carry the flag on the field with them and turn their fields into American flags. They plaster the stars and stripes on their own attire and their fans'. By this time next year the only piece of the game's real estate unbranded by Old Glory may be Nick Saban's face, and even then Nike may pressure him into some tasteful face paint just for Alabama's games on the Saturdays preceding or following 9/11 and Veterans' Day.
College football is pompous and vicious, polished and covered in mud, perfect and maddening, pure and corporatized, persecuted and celebrated. It's self-insistent. It's the good and bad kind of ridiculous. It's as American as Kate Upton eating a bomb pop in a red, white and blue bikini.
But don't take it from me. Experience the pure, uncut American-ness of college football through the eyes of a Brit taking it in for the first time.