Reading Game Day: Uniform(ity) and the Semiotics of Nebraska Football Fans
Photo Credit: "Fans" by Craig Chandler, University Communications Photography
Imagine a pleasant fall Saturday in Lincoln, Nebraska: the air is cool but the sun is still warm enough to heat up in the afternoon, birds chirp, bees buzz, and from somewhere in the distance you can hear the rhythmic thump of bass. It’s college Gameday and despite the feeling of freshness this morning, there is a raging party down the street. Though the label “college Gameday” gives no explicit indication of what type of game, the culture of middle-America only pays homage on this level to the game of all games: Football. Not soccer. American. Football.
Along with college football comes college football fans. You can observe the entire circle of life walking in and around Memorial Stadium on home game Saturdays. From grandparents to grandchildren, everyone claims ties to the U. Inevitably, though, there is one demographic group that is most heavily represented: the students. This. Is. Their. Time. They are living the dream; as young people in college they are just spreading their wings, but have yet to fully take on all the weight of the “real world.” Sure, there is a football game on game day, but for these fans, there is also the game of life to win, too.
On game day, in the North Bottoms neighborhood just—you guessed it—north of the stadium, students partake in general merry-making all in the name of Big Red. These hoards of fans are called The Sea of Red for good reason. Everyone is wearing RED. Red shirts, red pants, red skirts, red flannel, red shoes, red hats, red sunglasses, red purses, red sweatshirts, red lipstick, red Red RED.
Stevie’s Take: Gameday Get-ups and Community Building
So, if every fan, in fact, is wearing red, what sets the students apart? This question is born out of over two seasons worth of casual data collection—me sitting on my front porch watching the world go by, musing on the meaning of these game day get-ups. Over two and a half football seasons, I’ve come to notice the uncanny uniformity of the clothing that the college student fans wear on game day. Without fail, there will be heavy representation of (and this is divided up by gender): the boat-shoe-polo-khaki combo, and the jean-cut-offs-crop-top-flannel-shirt-tied-around-the-waist combo. On a certain level I get it, all of these clothing items are fairly functional. Early on in the football season the days are warm enough to warrant bare skin, a flannel for later if the temp drops along with the sun, and since the party goes ALL DAY LONG, I’m sure some choices are based on comfort.
In his essay, “Lumbar Thought,” Umberto Eco philosophically considers the “everyday experience” of wearing clothing and how “clothes are semiotic devices, machines for communicating” (195). If I’m picking up what Eco is putting down, then I can see that this sea of red is an act of communication, or an ongoing conversation. Broadly speaking, wearing the Gameday attire can simply be read as, “Hello, I am a Husker fan.” But I think that there is far more than just that surface level reading—especially when considering the gendered differentiation of clothing. Merely wearing red signifies one’s participatory affiliation with UNL football; wearing red lipstick, revealing crop tops and/or cut-offs, and other feminine-coded fashion items signifies one’s participatory affiliation with something more complex than merely Husker Nation.
The difference in characteristics for women’s clothing aren’t lost on Eco either; he notes, women’s “garments are conceived to impose a demeanor—high heels, girdles, brassieres, pantyhose, tight sweaters” (192). Though the items may have changed (or not) since Eco wrote his essay in the 1970s, the effect is still comparable. Baring skin becomes sexually suggestive, small pieces of cloth stretched thin keep the wearer’s mind occupied with constant readjustment, bright makeup needs touching up throughout the day—who has time or the attention for football when the get-up is the primary investment for the day? And, no, I don’t mean that in a snarky or critical way; why should women prioritize football over anything at all? Why do women feel compelled to take part in the revelry that celebrates a sport only played by, officiated by, coached by men?
On a really basic level, rallying around a football team is an easy bid for community building. Though demographic data often proves overwhelming racial and ethnic similarities among the UNL student body, this view flattens some real diversity within our campus population. The ways in which we are alike can be dramatically outnumbered by our differences. Yet, when it comes to maintaining a smooth-running institution of higher education, celebrating difference is far more complex and challenging than, say, using the football team to bring everyone together in a common experience. With this I’d like to pull from Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Clearly Husker Nation is quite separate from the political and sovereign bodies that Anderson deals with; however, it is worth noting how nationalism feels a lot like school spirit.
Consider that the community fixation on football is arbitrary—the sea of red could literally rally around any sport or competitive event as a way to establish community pride in skill, accomplishment and winning. Consider also that the men that make up the football team are generic heroes, bodies that are largely nonspecific so as to maintain the ritual even after particular players have left the program, graduated from the university (and as media outlets have covered the recent backlash to football player Michael Rose-Ivey’s silent protest during the national anthem, it is clear that many Huskers feel as though our star athletes shouldn’t display individual identity on the field). Even the color red could very well be blue, or green, or any other hue on the spectrum.
Despite the arbitrary nature of these circumstances, community identity is legitimated during gameday, including through clothing worn to signal membership. I’m particularly concerned with reading the self-expression of female fans during gameday antics given their insider/outsider status in the institution/sport. Eco observes that oft taken for granted clothing choices can, in reality, influence “behavior and, in consequence, exterior morality” (193). Extend this to gameday get-ups and you can see the performance of wearing red to the nth degree as an act of alliance and dedication to a community identity. Yes, these young women are displaying their allegiance to their academic institution, and the football team is folded into that establishment. But they are also identifying themselves with femininity. This is not necessarily a power move in our society.
When I ask my classes of first-year UNL undergraduates what it means to be a Husker fan, many are at a loss to clearly articulate what probably amounts to a lifetime of indoctrination and nostalgia. They’ve been born into a legacy, or they’ve joined with the hopes of riding the communal wave of enjoyment. I don’t want to paint myself into a corner here. Rather than risk giving the impression that I have crafted a critique pointed at the clothes that women wear, or their makeup, or the young women themselves, I’d like to take this in a different direction. I’ll put it like this: Maybe feminine expression on a day that celebrates masculinity—valorizes a violent display of male dominance—is a radical act in need of further elaboration. Quite possibly, it would behoove us to see the football game as incidental to the students who are young women, even all students. Also, no, I don’t hate football, or school spirit, either.
Porch-Watching Participants and Cultural Critics in Action.
Katie’s Take: Porch-Watching as Participatory Phenomenon
It would be easy to write off our gameday viewing parties as an excuse to drink beer, smoke cigars, and poke fun at football culture. But I think there’s something epistemologically deeper and more complex happening here: an interest in watching others watching, reading others’ readings of college football as phenomenon, experiencing others’ experiences through filters we’ve imposed on the event. I’ve thought about this for a while, about why I--a complete sports ignoramus--find the ritual of gameday so compelling and enjoyable, and I think it’s serving a couple larger purposes.
First, porch-watchers are participating in a communal spectacle.*
Many academics have explored the notion of sports as spectacle, from games in the ancient world (Kyle) to today’s globally-adored World Cup (Tomlinson and Young). Professional sports have become synonymous with what Douglas Kellner calls “media spectacles”: “those phenomena of media culture that embody contemporary society’s basic values, serve to initiate individuals into its ways of life, and dramatize its controversies and struggles” (2). And what embodies our societal penchant for competition and individualism, our struggles with identity politics, and our obsession with disciplined bodies more perfectly than college football?!?
Most texts trace the media-sports-spectacle connection back to Guy Debord’s widely-cited 1967 treatise The Society of the Spectacle. I don’t have room to do justice to the nuances of his work here, but I do want to zoom in on one important definitional distinction. Debord writes that “spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” (emphasis added). This is the part I find most interesting--that through Debord’s lens, the spectacle of Gameday is fundamentally relational, mediated but not constituted by the images associated with Gameday: the striped overalls, the red “N” plastered everywhere, the corncob hats. With Front Porch Bingo (fig. 2), we have quite literally gamified images of Husker football, using them to mediate our social relation to fans and to one another.
*(HUGE thanks to Marcus Meade for letting me steal his awesome ideas about this!!!!)
Figure 2: Front Porch Bingo Card, custom-made by James Desjarlais
Second, porch-watchers are deliberately reading Gameday through terministic screens.
I can’t seem to write a Watershed post without bringing Kenneth Burke into it, but he has heavily influenced my thinking about the rhetorical significance of artifacts like the bingo card. According to Kenny B, a terministic screen is “a screen composed of terms through which humans perceive the world, and that direct attention away from some interpretations and toward others.” Again, I really want to zero in on the second half of the definition here: as a rhetorical filter, a terministic screen directs attention away from some interpretations and toward others. So when porch-watchers observe a tow truck rumbling down the street, we don’t express empathy for people who make poor parking choices; instead, we feel the callous thrill of crossing another square off our bingo card. When it starts raining, we worry about the decrease in parking dollars and increase in inebriated wipeouts--rather than the impact on game outcome. Self-imposed terministic screens color our every rhetorical observation, leading us to reinterpret the significance of events like touchdowns and timeouts within a newly constituted framework.
Finally, porch-watchers are performing the tropes of ethnography.
Last spring I took an ethnographic methods course centered around Spradley’s The Ethnographic Interview (1979) and Agar’s The Professional Stranger (1980). Ever since then, I’ve noticed an ethnographic bent to all my thinking: posing questions (“Under what conditions do Husker fans get the drunkest?”), analyzing language (“What is the semantic relationship between ‘turned up’ and ‘lit?’”), and even my solicitation of informants (“Will you guys move your beer pong table out to the front yard so we can watch?”).
Perhaps ethnography is another terministic screen we apply to porch-watching. Whether consciously or unconsciously, I’ve noticed how often we invoke its conventions:
We say we are studying football fans “in their natural habitat.”
We are “going out into the field” to observe and catalog social behaviors.
We label our interactions with ethnographic notations: “front porch approach--new friend,” “a gaggle of bros.”
We refer to subjects by their designated semantic domain: “Flannel shirt,” “opposing team jersey,” “couple arguing.”
Again, this ethnographic orientation allows us to participate in the spectacle while also critiquing it from a comfortable distance. We are both part of and separate from the phenomenon of Husker football, reading the gendered semiotics of game day apparel while also joining in the touchdown cheers. We are critics, but we are also contributors.
So in the spirit of making Husker Gameday a truly participatory experience, we want to end by sharing with you some of the data we painstakingly collected during our recent foray into the field. As always, GO BIG RED!
Figure 3: Ethnographic video data recorded on October 1, 2016
Our sincerest thanks go out to:
James Desjarlais, for his tireless dedication to creating and revising Bingo cards, parking cars in the pouring rain, serving as head documentary cameraman, and supplying essential research accoutrements.
Marcus Meade, for his inspirational thinking about sport and spectacle and his unwavering dedication to the intersection of athletics and critical theory.
Dillon Rockrohr, for contributing his powerful rendition of “When the Levee Breaks” as an uplifting commentary on the gush of alcohol consumption after a Husker win.
Agar, Michael. The Professional Stranger: An Informal Introduction to Ethnography. 2nd ed., Academic Press, 1996.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised ed. Verso, 2006.
Burke, Kenneth. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. California UP, 1968. Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Ken Knabb, Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014.
Eco, Umberto. “Lumbar Thought.” Travels in Hyperreality. Harcourt, 1986. 191-195.
Keller, Douglas. “Media Culture and the Triumph of the Spectacle.” The Spectacle of the Real: From Hollywood to “Reality” TV and Beyond, edited by Geoff King, Intellect, 2005.
Kyle, Donald G. Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World. Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.
Spradley, James P. The Ethnographic Interview. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979.
Tomlinson, Alan, and Christopher Young. “Culture, Politics, and Spectacle in the Global Sports Event--An Introduction.” National Identity and Global Sports Events: Culture, Politics, and Spectacle in the Olympics and the Football World Cup, edited by Alan Tomlinson and Christopher Young, SUNY UP, 2006, 1-14.