I’ve written here on a couple of other occasions about the culture of sports and athletics that has arisen, nourished (or malnourished) by the sports culture that permeates so much of North American society: stressed or at least occasionally oppressed kids, some bizarro moral warpiture around institutional and personal values, endless blurtations of fatuosities and pomposities about the relationship of sport and character, and a continuing and cleansing procession of truly beautiful moments in which kids and sometimes coaches transcend the mediocrity of the hype around sports to accomplish spectacular, glorious, and honorable things on behalf of themselves, their teams, and their schools. It’s hard to be a full-time grump in the face of the obvious: that sport can build character, the way the TVA built dams.
It came to pass, serendipitously, that I was able to spend yesterday wandering freely about the Harvard football stadium with a press pass to The Game (Harvard versus Yale, of course). I spent time sitting in the student stands of both sides, gazed down upon the half-time shows from the very roof of the stadium, walked upon the actual turf, and even rubbed shoulders, more or less, with a cabinet officer’s burly Secret Service agent, whose curlicue earpiece wire I recognized from an encounter with George H. W. Bush in a restaurant last summer. I was everywhere, saw everything.
Harvard won, of course, as has been usual in recent years, although a Yale team for whom the word “hapless” has been appropriate for much of the season gave them a pretty good game until some lovely break-out runs in the fourth quarter sealed the expected victory. Not much of a football fan, I spent most of my time observing the crowd, an interesting combination of the rather predictably attired older alums from a more genteel time and the academic alphas who make up the current student bodies of both schools—a third or more of a stadium’s-worth of students culled from applicant pools in single-digit percentages.
I imagine that part of what I was seeing was several thousand young adults trying very hard to have some of the fun that they had denied themselves in high school: some pregame tailgating and just plain “pre-gaming,” shouts and roars of a semi-obscene and rather unpleasant nature (the Yalies doing a bit more of this, I regret to say; perhaps the grim state of their football program made them a little more defensive, a little more desperate), and lots of genuine enthusiasm—possibly coming as a surprise even to the enthusiasts—when the play on the field was especially worthy of it. I know at least one freshman for whom this was the first actual, live football game ever, and I would imagine that some of the crowd was learning the mores of football fandom more or less from scratch—from “up for the kickoff” through the rush onto the field after the game and the respective bands’ post-game renditions of “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard” and “Bright College Years” (complete with waving handkerchiefs).
Did I see character being built? On the field, I think I did, as the Yale players rose above their previous efforts to take the lead several times with play that was decidedly both competent and spirited. Yale gave Harvard a pretty good Game, far better than the utter rout that most expected. The Harvard team, too, seemed to have galvanized itself into action after three quarters of nervous play; to earn victory they really had to pull their socks up.
In the stands, perhaps less so. The Yale students’ endless chorus of “Harvard S—s!” was tiresome and silly, and occasional references to Harvard’s sad “cheating scandal” of the early fall were pointless and offensive to me as an educator. The students involved had been caught, and most have withdrawn—something like justice apparently done. Arguably Yale students do not always behave perfectly, either, and the taunting seemed like tempting fate as well as irrelevant to a football game.
But all in all, the kids were, as they, “all right.” They generally behaved themselves and made the occasional shows of organized assertiveness by the neon-jacketed security team nugatory at best and just a little over the top. While the occasional beer bottle and can could be found amid the litter in the stands, the kinds of drunken displays that keep me home from most professional sports events were entirely absent.
Off now to watch the boys from my own school contend for the New England soccer championship; I like the sport better than football and want dearly for our kids to prevail, but I know that I will find myself watching as much as a cultural observer as a fan. Close-up, I know I can see real character in the faces and body language of the players, and I hope I can see as much from the others who are watching and rooting. NOTE: Alas, it was not in the stars today. But it’s a very young team—only one senior starter—so there is indeed always next year.