There is no denying the importance of football. Without it, a good deal of the population of the U.S. would be without a symbol of autumn, would lose its alumni spirit and would feel even more painfully the gap between baseball seasons. I came to understand this in Saudi Arabia, oddly enough, where my husband and I spent three years with an oil company. In a place where the turn of the seasons is almost imperceptible, fall, without this annual phenomenon, had a kind of pointlessness. I had never known it to be this way before, but then I had never been in a place without football. We just kept on going to the beach every weekend, and then it was Christmas.
I haven't been to a football game in four years, and during this time I've done some mulling about what happened to me, as a female, during the seven years I spent sitting in the stands. I put it this way because I don't think I, or any other woman, can ever look at football in the detached and wholehearted way men can. The reason is, simply, that women are always taken to football games by men, and it is extremely doubtful whether they would go to them otherwise. Men would go, even without women. At any game there is an easily visible group of them, cheering and waving pennants, happy in themselves. They like it, from the bottom of their hearts. They like to watch the plays, they are interested in the strategy and they feel honestly jubilant when their team makes a touchdown.
For a girl it's a completely different story. She sees the game pleasantly diffused through the eyes of the man she is with, and since she sees it secondhand, it takes on an air of unreality. It merely provides a background for her main diversion, which is studying the phenomenon of the man beside her. Often this is unconscious. She really thinks she is cheering because she cares deeply what Yale does in the third quarter, and often she does her utmost to give that impression. But what she really cares about is whether her Yale date will slap her on the back afterwards and tell her she's a good sport. She's already sowing the seeds of Togetherness; she's following that basic rule of all eager girlhood: be interested in what he's interested in. Having listened breathlessly to talk about fraternity initiations, carburetors, how much beer one can consume in an evening without passing out and whether white shoes are the thing again this year, she is ready for the real test: remaining alert throughout the football season.
The first games I ever went to were at Phillips Academy in Andover, while I was going to Abbot in the same town. Every Saturday during the fall we went up the hill, en masse, to see the games. At Abbot we went everywhere in groups, on the theory, I suppose, that there is safety in numbers. During the first two quarters we thought of only one thing, which was whether or not we could bag a Phillips boy during the half to go and sit with. The unwritten rule was that we girls had to start out sitting together in a large and impenetrable group, but if we did see a Phillips Friend (this mild term has always struck me as a particularly inappropriate expression of our feelings about boys) we could go and chat with him during the half. I'm still not sure if it was actually allowed to go and sit with him during the remainder of the game, but some girls did and, as far as I can remember, nothing dire ever happened.
I was very unfortunate in this. For some reason I have always attracted extremely circumspect and law-abiding men, even at the age of 14, and when the half was over and our few minutes of conversation were up, my Phillips Friend would carefully deposit me back with the girls. I never dared to suggest that I might join him, for fear he would think me forward and grasping, and disappear forever. It's been a sad thing in my life. I've always been as willing as the next girl to be a rebel, but nine-tenths of the men I've known have been the type who look at their watches and say things aren't wise. Apparently I appear constantly on the verge of insanity and men feel they have to keep me in hand. At any rate, this early training in football started off my emotional approach to the whole thing. If I wasn't scanning the crowds for a Phillips Friend, or shooting over sidelong glances once I had found him, I was sulking because I was back with the girls again.
By the time I got to Smith I had gotten hold of myself somewhat. My mother's parting words, as she deposited me in Northampton were, "Don't forget, you'll never get anywhere if you don't drink beer and go to football games." Naturally, I replied that this was nonsense and I would do nicely on gin and intelligent conversation. Well, at Northampton I never really got a chance to try. The first man who phoned for a date asked me to a football game, and from then on in I was hooked. Gin? There wasn't any gin and I floated away, with everyone else, on a river of draught beer. I went to games at Amherst with the regularity with which I had gone to them at Andover. The whole time I was at Smith I had, I believe, one Harvard weekend and one Yale weekend, and none at Princeton; as a result, I saw Amherst play Wesleyan, Amherst play Bowdoin, or Amherst play Williams, but never did I see Yale play Harvard.
While this circumscribed my range of observation, it also somewhat deepened it. I feel I have a real understanding of Amherst men at football games. Amherst is a good college and, being small, it simply teems with good fellowship, campus spirit and eager participation in sports. Everyone knows everything that is going on around campus, and is passionately interested. Since Smith had almost none of this, being large and female, and since life made sense to us only when we viewed it through the eyes of men, we soon developed Amherst spirit, too. We grew indignant over fraternity politics and we became mellow sitting in front of fireplaces, singing Lord Jeffery Amherst.
There was great comfort in this; Amherst men are an exceptionally eager, bright-eyed, uncynical crew. As usual, I went out with earnest young men who did things about the campus and who took me to football games religiously. Under their guidance I grew healthy and wholesome. During my junior year I had a short romance with a gloomy, rebellious type at NYU, and since we spent our weekends in Greenwich Village bars, I missed a good deal of the football season. This was what I had always longed for: gin, decadence and soul-searching conversations that lasted until 3 a.m. But very soon it began to pall. I found I didn't really want to be decadent until I had my B.A., at least, and it was with real relief that I returned to the stands at Amherst. Here was the fresh fall air, here was my date enthusiastically telling me how he had hopped up his car, here was where I belonged during my college years.
But this is not to say that I arrived on this philosophical plane without some struggle. Back in the beginning, when I still believed in gin and intellect, football seemed my deadliest rival. My sensible Amherst men, when they phoned, never said, "How would you like to do something Saturday afternoon, like possibly going to the game?" Instead they said, "I'm going to the game Saturday—want to come along?" Clearly, I came second to this foul sport, and my presence in the stands would merely be a prestige symbol for my date. This was terribly hard on my tender young ego; how could any sane man prefer some nonsense going on on a field to my feelings? However, it soon became apparent that if I refused to go, this apparently sane man would go calmly off to the game anyway, leaving me in my room with a pile of books. The last thing that would ever enter his head was what I considered a divine substitute—an afternoon on the banks of the Connecticut with a bottle of wine and a book of poetry. If such madness ever even occurred to him, he simply wasn't "shoe," and not worth going out with at all. As it was football or nothing, I chose football.
Since I was by this time rather a case of arrested development as far as knowledge of the game was concerned (I had learned nothing whatsoever about it at Andover) I would, rather than embarrass everyone, maintain a trancelike silence for three hours every Saturday afternoon during the fall. If my date had a kind face, I would drop a question or two in an attempt to convey that I had forgotten a few of the minor points and would he mind clearing them up? He explained the minor ones but never bothered with the major ones, assuming (in his optimistic Amherst way) that I knew them anyway, so I never did learn what the hell was happening down on the field.