And when Moses went up the mountain Columbians became impatient, because they could have been studying instead of waiting 40 days for his return. So they created their own idol: the Reddened Bull. When we heard someone was writing an ethnography about Homecoming, we had to get our hands on it. Read on as Bwog’s anonymous ethnographers analyze your school spirit..
An Ethnography of the Vomiting Multitude
All of this, I repeat, seems to me curious, obscene, terrifying, and unfathomably mysterious.” – Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist and author James Agee, on the Columbia Homecoming experience
Seagulls hang in the air and circle the stadium, their winged bodies barely distinguishable from the ominous skies above. They can sense the specter of death beneath them. The crowd stands in the bleachers, painted blue and drunk off cheap vodka, all wound up like rubber bands from cans emblazoned with a red ox—one of the favored deities of this tribe. All eyes are focused intently on the ritual before them, as bodies—the biggest and strongest Columbia has to offer—line up to get the shit beaten out of them. The QB gets sacked. The crowd boos. The team gains a few honest yards. The crowd claps politely. A touchdown is scored. The crowd is ecstatic, all whoops and war cries. The marching band bursts into Columbia’s theme song. People sing along almost in spite of themselves—unwitting members of a Dionysian chorus—unaware, perhaps that they even knew the words until now. Here is Columbia’s School Spirit, summoned by alcohol, expensive hot dogs, and the vicarious thrill of human sacrifice.
The spectacle—this ritualized performance and embodiment of School Spirit—takes so much effort, it’s no wonder that it’s more or less nonexistent every other day of the school year. It’s much easier, and probably much more satisfying, to exist within smaller communities on campus. There’s little need for ritual in groups organized around shared interests. Not that magic is not without its place within the smaller communities—fraternities and sororities still induct people in secret, after all. But to bring together such disparate interests, experiences, and aspirations under the guise of School Spirit? You’re gonna need some blood for that.
School Spirit is an incredibly arbitrary concept. It purports to build community and solidarity from a shared affiliation with an institution that is as multifaceted and as rife with contradictions as its student body. The school has a vested interest in producing a school spirit, and the seating provided for the alumni, who are conspicuously sober at Homecoming, is a testament to this. But if Columbia wants to build School Spirit, it is failing miserably. On any other day but homecoming, most students don’t care. It is only through the ritualized spectacle of violence that School Spirit is produced, and only within the space of that spectacle that it can sustain itself.
Football, like many sports (particularly contact sports), is marked by a calculated, arbitrated concession of violence. Big men tackle each other, wrestle for control over the field in what reads like a primal struggle for dominance, but it’s all mediated by precise timings and specific rules, and moreover, we create justification for it. There’s a sharp visible distinction between our players and Penn’s—we’re the Light Blue, they’re the Red and Blue. The delineation of a distinct Other against which the perpetration of violence is permitted is key to the creation of School Spirit. The whole enactment of violence itself is structured by the rules of the game and restricted in time and space by the play and the field. Authority in the space of the football game exists not to prevent violence, but to structure and discipline its possibilities of enactment.
The people in the stands put all their might into enforcing this ritual for the length of the game with performative behaviors that far eclipse their behaviors in any other context. Students and grown adults alike congregate in a riotous performance of hoots and hollers, air punches and back slaps. Meanwhile, as time progresses players delve deep into the game, and their plays become less play and more sacrificial rite. Tackles are vicious, animalistic attempts at domination. Zealous fist pumps follow successful maneuvers. The game becomes life or death. The crowd intuits the seriousness of all this and follows suit with an increasingly raucous choral performance to match.
The language with which the experience of the players is understood is telling. Pete Mangurian, the head coach, described the performance of first-year quarterback Kelly Hilinski in almost shamanistic terms: “He hit a deep ball early—a designed deep ball—and then he got enamored with the deep ball,” he said, as he, in all likelihood, adjusted his wizard hat, “he doesn’t have the luxury of sitting around and watching. He’s in the fire so he’s got to do it. But I think you see glimpses of what he can be.”
This soothsaying seems almost pointless. After all, Columbia has not won a homecoming game since 2000 and is currently in the midst of a winless season. For all the ritual spectacle of homecoming—the body paint, the alcohol, the impassioned yelling, and the visceral thrill of bodies being buried under each other—there doesn’t seem to be much to show for School Spirit. And yet every year this enthusiasm for school spirit reappears, however ephemerally, not as a machination of the institution but as an enactment of a romanticized desire to ___________.
Keeping with our fond love of Mad Libs, we leave you to fill in the blank.
Columbia woes via ShutterStock