There’s been a series of documentaries on an ESPN channel chronicling the history of college football to mark the sport’s sesquicentennial. It’s tempting to compare it to Ken Burns’ recent PBS country music epic, but whereas Burns’ eight-night series was more or less in chronological order, the college football initiative usually concentrates on one particular subject per episode and the chronology of the subject usually figures into the mix.
A definitive example is the presentation regarding integration, which appropriately includes Grambling’s Eddie Robinson near the beginning as a keystone figure for HBCU teams. There’s also the memorable Alabama versus USC game of 1970.
One episode focused on innovations, including the addition of the forward pass to the evolution of helmets to the advent of overtime and instant replays.
And an extended comment by an interviewee in that segment is telling: “There are things in college football that not only have altered the way the game is played, (the) culture of the game, coaching changes, the entire fan experience. And while the competition is always paramount, there is one thing that everyone should always remember — yo, it’s entertainment.”
Whereupon the documentary cuts to the image of fireworks erupting at an outdoor stadium on a bright, sunny day.
There are/were many “innovations” in (the marketing of) sports that have become “traditions” with fans in recent times — tailgating is a handy and egalitarian example, as well as players traversing through throngs of fans outside a venue prior to a game, like the “Tiger Walk” at nearby Auburn University.
One facet that seems to working itself from “innovation” status to a possible “tradition” is the aforementioned fireworks display, seen at both college and professional levels. When and why pyrotechnic presentations at sporting events evolved is somewhat dubious, because such displays (and their necessity) seem to be as pretentious as an instructional DVD about country and western line dancing. To wit: Most of the games where fireworks are detonated usually have crowds numbering in the tens of thousands. Most of those events are probably sold out, which infers the fans are going to be revved up anyway.
And the idea of mega-fireworks being set off during daylight is also specious. I love a large display of explosions of colored flames as much as anyone, but I want to watch when the panorama is much more visible — at night.
I don’t see how a football team being compelled to run through a smoke-drenched entrance to a stadium is going to improve that team’s chances (and one wonders how many times a player or coach has gotten disoriented during such an entry, to the point that they fell).
I’ve even seen “smaller” displays indoors. At a college basketball game I attended, flames burst from firecracker-like devices placed around the edge of the backboard when the home team was introduced.
The bottom line for fireworks and smoke displays at sporting events is that they’re examples of how spectator sports has become (optional) show business, but it’s worth noting that the National Football League (temporarily) banned on-field pyrotechnics and what it termed as “flame effects” after some gizmo caught fire last month at a Titans game in Nashville.
Now contrast that relatively new phenomenon with two “old-fashioned” traditions that still ought to be of interest to many football fans:
One hasn’t heard too much in recent times about prayers being offered over the P.A. systems at high school football games. This harmless and meaningful tradition was banned almost universally some years back, but schools have been finding ways to do an “end run” (pun intended) around such a sanctimonious restriction.
Then there’s the display of Old Glory and other flags by an honor guard (often comprised of ROTC students) that marches around the perimeter of the football field before the kickoff. In previous times, folks in the stands would respectfully rise for a moment as the honor guard passed.
Some newfangled gimmicks at games may ultimately endure, but sometimes the old-fashioned traditions are missed. That’s especially true in these parts.