The Army-Navy game, 2015.
We are a house divided.
More and more each day we hyper-focus on those things that separate us rather than those things that we have in common. Red or Blue. Hawk or Dove. Pro-this or anti-that. This divisiveness has carried over into college football. The fields of friendly strife are now surrounded by the stadiums of vitriol and the blogs of bully journalism. Death threats on Twitter and articles condemning coaches, players and other fan bases are now the norm rather than the exception. Message boards are replete with malice. Rivalries have turned into reasons to hate rather than reasons to compete.
We’ve lost our way.
The Army-Navy Game or: How I Learned to Stop Hating and Love College Football
But this weekend’s Army-Navy game gives us our chance at sports redemption. This game gives us a chance to be better, to remember why we love college football.
Many of us love college football because we grew up with fathers and mothers who passed along this love just as they passed along a religion or a favorite recipe. In our natural youthful yearn for independence, we spent more time nurturing our own love for college football than we spent learning about our father’s and grandfather’s love for college football. Many of us know why we love college football, but few of us understand why our fathers and grandfathers love college football. Army-Navy gives us a chance to connect to college football of our fathers and grandfathers.
For most of our elders, football was a regional sport. If you grew up in Ohio, you were an Ohio State fan. If you grew up in Michigan, you were either a Michigan fan or a Michigan State fan. Alabama? Well, you were either a Crimson Tide or an Auburn Tiger. Nebraska? Well, we know what team you followed. Before conference networks and multi-million dollar television contracts, there were very few national brands. Army, Navy, Notre Dame, and in the early years the Ivy League schools were the only national brands. That’s because they were the only schools that had a broadly geographically diverse student body. Army isn’t a New York school, it’s an American school. Navy isn’t a Maryland school, it’s an American school. Notre Dame isn’t an Indiana school, it’s America’s Catholic school.
It’s impossible to be a Buckeye and a Wolverine. It’s impossible to be a Crimson Tide and a Tiger. It’s impossible to be a Longhorn and a Sooner.
But it’s real easy to be a fan of Army or Navy (or both) no matter where you’re from or what team you grew up supporting. And it’s been that way since the early days of college football.
Only since higher education – and the athletic departments that they enable – turned into lucrative businesses did universities seek to become national brands. One of the reasons college presidents (the people that make up the NCAA) allow college football to continue to become unmoored from the roots of the sport is because national exposure leads to a more diverse student body, which helps both academic reputations and the financials. Out-of-state students pay significantly more to attend public institutions. Army, Navy, and to a more limited extent Notre Dame, have been national brands for over one hundred years.
So when our fathers grew up, they related to their regional school – whether it was Oklahoma or Georgia or Texas, but they also related to Army and Navy because they were national brands. As schools have increasingly become concerned with increased branding to better business, Army and Navy have lost their unique positions as national brands.
While they related to the teams, they related to the game as well. The Army-Navy game is the most sincere spectacle of sport that you will ever witness. It’s not about the money. It’s not about the social media posts or the viral memes. And it’s not about the big names, pro prospects or elaborate touchdown celebrations. It’s about the pageantry; two whole student bodies in the stands, the march-on, the uniforms, the exchange-cadet swap at mid-field. It’s about the athleticism. Let’s be clear, this is more than an exhibition. While there aren’t as many pro prospects on the field as there are in the Sugar Bowl, Navy is a legitimate Top 25 team and Army is still a competitive (albeit struggling) FBS team. It helps to know that those cadets and midshipmen are closer to you and I in size and speed, but closer to professional athletes in heart, ability and athleticism. It’s about America’s teams playing on a national stage to remind us about what college football was – and still can be. This is a trite and well worn narrative, but that’s because there is much truth in the story of Army-Navy.
And there’s more. Everyone knows what lies ahead for these players after the games are over. Except that they don’t. There’s another reason why the Army-Navy game is appreciated by an older demographic. It’s appreciated by grandfathers and grandmothers who served in World War II or had friends or family that served in World War II. It’s appreciated by nieces and nephews who had uncles and aunts serve in Vietnam. It’s not about service; it’s about connection to our Army and to our Navy. As each year marches on, less and less of our population has some sort of strong connection to our military and so Army-Navy becomes less visceral, less of a connection to friends and family of service, and more of just another football game. And that’s the greatest travesty of the modernization of college football.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Every year we have a chance at college football fan redemption.
Army-Navy gives us a chance to be wholesome fan of our forefather’s eras. We get a chance to watch and cheer for two American teams in what is truly “America’s Game.” We get a chance to turn malice into respect, hate into appreciation, and vitriol into understanding. We get a chance to connect to both our father’s and grandfather’s college football and also our friends and family of service through a simple football game.
Army-Navy gives us a chance to focus on what unites us rather than what separates us. And what better to unite us than sports and a college football game.
We have a chance to find our way back, even if just for a game.