Every Saturday, for the entirety of every college football season, various inexplicable things are presented as highly important exemplars of extremely significant traditions. To outsiders, these things will necessarily seem strange—a stadium full of 19-year-olds singing “Afternoon Delight” every time their team kicks a field goal for some reason; repeated cuts to a bunch of walleyed-drunk kids all wearing identical suspenders; a bunch of linebackers weeping sincere tears while passing around a soapstone carving of what is clearly a carp wearing a cowboy hat because said carving represents a rivalry that dates back to the Calvin Coolidge administration.
For the communities in which these rituals and symbols are both legible and meaningful, they mean a great deal. For everyone else, it is a wash of pure fervent incomprehensibility. The school’s media accounts will always post things like “There’s nothing on earth like Dork Bagwell Stadium in October,” generally with a video attached that looks a lot like videos from other college football stadiums, except maybe in this case all the kids are singing Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is A Highway.” But to the people for whom that statement is true, it is indisputably true.
And after a year in which college football was played both in the long, chilling shadow of a pandemic and in stadiums that were either spookily empty or ominously and idiotically too-full, and in which every week’s games were, as Lauren wrote last year, “reshuffled or canceled or played with limited rosters until every Saturday felt less coherent and less significant” the return of college football’s berserk and inscrutable ritual weirdnesses is identifiable as Something Normal, and so very welcome indeed. If Gus Johnson is maybe overselling it a little bit when he intones “House Of Pain” so grandly that it sounds like he’s introducing Everlast to a joint session of Congress, it was absolutely clear on Saturday that Wisconsin’s students seized the opportunity to jump up jump up and get down for the first time in 651 days with the appropriate level of both giddiness and seriousness.
Of course this would all be easier to feel good about if it were, more broadly, easier to feel good about things that involve large gatherings of people at this moment. The nation is in a different position relative to the COVID-19 pandemic than it was at this time last year, if not nearly different enough. The virus is much better understood, and the relative safety of large outdoor gatherings is part of that understanding. There are also some highly effective vaccines against the virus, and they become exponentially more effective with widespread adoption; if large outdoor gatherings are relatively safe, large outdoor gatherings of vaccinated people seem even more so. The University of Wisconsin does not have a vaccine mandate for students, but the school announced last week that 91 percent of its students had received at least one dose, and that 92 percent of campus employees and 99 percent of faculty were fully vaccinated.
What is most jarring about all this, more than the heavy respect that Gus Johnson put on Everlast’s name or the very concept of a “Jump Around Tradition,” finally has to do with the context—the fact that this is all happening, more or less as normal, after this last stupid, brutal, squashed-flat plague year and in this furious and infuriatingly stalled out present in which the pandemic has been permitted to persist. This state of affairs owes in various measures and to various degrees to some other otherwise incomprehensible American traditions—wild and self-wounding intransigence; the invasive bloom of an unreasoning and recursive spite in the wreckage left by a willed and willful collapse of civic faith; listless cringing state incapacity and abandonment; that sort of thing. But it is at this point in many ways a choice.
Another way of saying this is that the shared joy in Camp Randall Stadium, which may or may not be your personal thing, is now right there to win. If it looks strange, it is in large part because it feels a little strange to see tens of thousands of people celebrating together after so much time spent so warily apart. But there is also a sense in which the people in that stadium are celebrating something that they have earned—by taking care when that was all there was to do, and then by continuing to make (really pretty easy) decisions that do right by the other people who would eventually fill the stadium around them. Here, for instance, is a video of approximately 65,000 people absolutely losing their shit at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va. before Virginia Tech played North Carolina on Friday. Again, it is another tradition that’s pegged mostly on jumping around to a goofy-great song that’s 30 years old—in this case, “Enter Sandman,” Metallica’s anthemic tribute to how much it absolutely whips ass to go to bed.
This video wound up being the subject of a number of heated and damning quote-tweet amplifications—”This is why we can’t have nice things,” the news anchor Mehdi Hasan wrote, “or end this damn plague”; Debra Messing was scandalized—which is in the end finally just something that happens to random videos on Twitter, and also to Debra Messing. There is, as there always is, some meaningful context to consider that was not really considered—Virginia Tech does mandate vaccinations among its students, and went so far as to unenroll 134 students who declined to comply with those requirements; 95 percent of the student body and 88 percent of school employees are vaccinated. Again, though, this is just Twitter. And, again, in the broader context of this long and miserable pandemic, the image of all that jacked-up cheek-by-jowl humanity feels infinitely more worrying than it might in any other. The parts of it that make sense absolutely make sense, and the parts of it that are just Twitter shit are mostly just Twitter shit.
Back when it seemed like the pandemic was actually ending, there was a dumb little boomlet of stories about people Who Couldn’t Let It Go. These were invariably presented as liberal fussbudget types, people who had unlearned how to stop worrying and come to love their masks. This was mostly just minor Style Section bullshit, in the end, if also kind of vile and unaccountably smug in a number of subtle subtextual ways. At this point in the plague’s endless end, though, everyone knows better who really can and cannot let this thing go. The people who truly cannot and will not give up the pandemic are the same ones who cannot and will not let it end—demagogues and mini-demagogues with a vested interest in things not improving; people who are too angry or too gullible to consent to abide by the same rules as everyone else or just such helpless and treat-addled fatted calves that they have lost the ability to do anything that even briefly inconveniences or unsettles them, for any reason. All of them are incapable of conceiving of “everyone else” as anything but a legion of ruthless, tireless enemies. These people will stay, seething, in the battened-down spaces into which the pandemic first shoved and then held them, and there they will begrudge the rest of the world any and every other possible experience.
It is not the point, or anyway not the most interesting point, that a stadium full of overwhelmingly vaccinated twentysomethings wilding out to a Metallica song from 1991 is far from the reason Why We Can’t Have Nice Things. It might be more useful, I think, to understand all that strange and giddy closeness as something like the Nice Thing itself—an experience that could be had again, something strange but also safe and silly and shared, if only everyone loved it enough to fight for it.