Dianne Roberts loves college football. She can tell you all the reasons why you shouldn’t, but she cannot get away from it. It’s in her blood. She says she can’t resolve the paradoxes between Southern tradition and social justice, so instead she writes about them.
“I was born in Tallahassee, where you are in football no matter what you do,” Roberts said. “You went because you went. It was like church. Football was Saturday, church was Sunday.”
In her book Tribal: College Football and the Secret Life of America Roberts addresses the social problems that go largely unspoken in discussions of the sport, as well as the issues that any thinking fan should wrestle with. In a small upstairs classroom on a Friday afternoon, Roberts addressed the student staff of the Trillium, Piedmont’s fine arts and literature journal.
“One of the jobs of the nonfiction writer is to take the familiar and make it strange,” Roberts said. “What I was trying to do writing about football was to look at it as if I’d never seen it before, while simultaneously being in the middle of it.”
What she saw was the fierce tribalism of the teams, reinforcement of outdated gender stereotypes, denial of massive health risks, and the exploitation of young unpaid players, mostly young men of color, to build fortunes for old rich white men.
“’My boy can beat your boy,’ we still almost say that!” Roberts said. “The number of college players making it to the pros is less than two percent. We are exploiting them.”
And yet Roberts, who taught at the University of Alabama and now teaches at Florida State University, said it was important to her that she teach in a place that had high-quality college football.
“I am implicated,” Roberts said. “I have to think about that. How destructive is my love of this thing that is problematic, to me, to society, and to the people who participate?”
Roberts said as a writer, she struggles with the problems, but she doesn’t try to solve them.
“Paradox is your friend,” she said. “You are going to get something out of the contradictions you see. Don’t run off from them, don’t even try to resolve them. Just write about it.”
Trillium adviser Timothy O’Keefe voiced his unease with Roberts’ philosophy of living with such unresolved paradox. If she doesn’t reconcile the tension between her beliefs and her actions, how can her readers be expected to do so?
“It’s a troubling response,” O’Keefe said. “That could be a very dangerous position to take, especially when we are not talking about football.”
And yet, as a Southern football lover, a member of the tribe, Roberts may be in an ideal position to raise these issues. Her personal struggles of conscience may effectively inspire her readers to wrestle with the darker aspects of their own entrenched traditions.
“A trick of writing is actually telling people a whole bunch of stuff that they kind of knew but they didn’t put together,” Roberts said. “And then it makes perfect sense. They’re like, ‘Why didn’t I see that?’ It’s your job to tell the story. Make them see it.”
Piedmont’s own social justice heroine, Lillian Smith, wrote about the ugly truths of the American South in a way that the white people of her day couldn’t ignore. She lived the change that she wanted to see and inspired others around her to rethink the “the way things were,” empowering them to enact change for themselves.
“You can point out paradoxes that people didn’t even realize they were operating under,” O’Keefe said. “I think it is dangerous to give yourself an out, and say, ‘The world is full of contradictions.’ Not all contradictions are equally dangerous. I’m very wary of falling back on heritage and culture as a reason not to fight too hard against a thing. Huge swaths of people accept it as just part of their culture, something that is in their blood. The idea is personal ethics and where you draw lines… depending on how much it hurts others.”
The students on the Trillium staff took away the idea that the struggle should be spoken, even if it is not yet resolved, and even if our culture takes it for granted.
“I really liked that we were talking about things that most people choose to ignore,” said senior athletic training major Katelyn Woodward. “Football is such a strange activity. It’s something that a lot of people like yet can’t explain the exact reasons, it’s almost natural and many people do it just because the rest of their ‘tribe’ does it.”