On my Saturday off during my crazy week of sorority recruitment UCLA had its first proper football game (American football, that is) of the year. I am told that there were others earlier in September, but none of them particularly important. For reasons that are still unknown to my flatmates and myself, this was also a ‘white out’ game, so we were told to wear all white for when we reached the Rose Bowl stadium.
Although I had never seen an American football game up until this point, I had already encountered the bizarre US college attitude towards student sports multiple times in the week before, so was already prepared to be slightly overwhelmed by the occasion. Student athletes at American colleges are quite literally treated like demi-gods on campus – particularly if they play a sport that garners a lot of attention, such as football or basketball. They all walk around in their ‘UCLA *sports team*’ t-shirts and crowds will genuinely part before them. Boy athletes can even actually get into frat parties – an exceptionally rare occurrence for the male species. The quarterback for the Bruins, Josh Rosen, is considered a proper celebrity by students and the Los Angelean population in general, and boasts almost 40,000 followers on Instagram. It’s weird. And that’s only what you see on the surface – student athletes are given subsidised tuition, lower pass thresholds, fewer roommates and get first pick of (again subsidised) UCLA housing. I was even told by one girl that USC (UCLA’s private college rival down the road) had got into trouble recently for buying cars for their football players and putting their families up in luxury apartments!
One of the key things that struck me about American college football culture is that the actual sport itself seems to be secondary to so many other aspects of the event – such as getting ready, ‘tailgating’ (shall explain later), the journey to the stadium, the burgers, the marching band and the cheerleaders – honestly, it seemed to me that the actual game was merely an excuse for a massive party.
My experience started with getting ready in the dorms. As I mentioned before, this was the ‘white out’ game, so I had to come prepared with an appropriately pale BRUINS shirt. We proceeded to deck our faces with excessive amounts of gold glitter and blue temporary tattoos – yellow and gold are UCLA’s colours.
We then piled onto the Rooter Bus, waggling our blue pompoms, and off we went on the 45 minute journey to Pasadena, where the Rose Bowl stadium is situated. Although game days are typically boozy occasions for the UCLA population at large, as we were all in the process of rushing sororities we were not allowed to be seen drinking or interacting with any fraternities. This meant that we could not participate in what is known as ‘tailgating’ before the Colorado game. (Tailgating – “Drinking lots of beer or making food in the parking lot before a sports or other large event, usually football or a concert.” – Urban Dictionary). I’m looking forward to experiencing that aspect of game day in the future, as rumour has it that this is the highlight of the whole event.
After queueing for a crazy long time, we were finally let into the stadium with just enough time to spare for an enormous burger (yum). We then found our places on the ‘bleachers’ (football stadium benches – how american!) and got ready to enjoy the show!
And it really was a show – the whole thing was some kind of theatrical performance. About 80 players from each side turned up on the field and did their warm ups in perfect synchronisation – it honestly looked like it had been choreographed. I was shocked by how many players there seemed to be on each team – “Surely they won’t all fit on the pitch?!” – but I was assured that, of the 80, only about 30 would actually touch the field at some point during the game. Still seems like a ridiculously excessive number to me!
While the players were filtering off back into their respective tunnels, the marching band entered the scene. I had already seen them at practice in the days leading up to the match, but never in full costume. They had proper furry things on their heads and everything! The girls I was with found it hilarious that we don’t have marching bands in the UK. I had to explain that yes we do have marching bands where I’m from, just not for university football matches!
Cheerleaders then popped out of nowhere, doing little routines here and there in front of sections of the crowd. I didn’t really understand the cheerleaders – while every other aspect of the event seemed to have been choreographed and timed down to a ‘T’, the cheerleaders seemed to spend most of their time hanging out by the side of the field, then spontaneously launching into acrobatics at any given moment with no obvious cue. I was very impressed with all of their somersaults, although they spent most of their time at the further possible point from where we were sitting. I should have brought my glasses!
And then the actual game began. It was so anticlimactic I actually missed the start – so much was happening around me, the events on the pitch seemed to be of secondary importance. The chants started up in the student supporter zone – lots of ‘U-C-LLLLL-A (clap clap clap) UCLA FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT!’s and pompom shaking. I was never entirely sure what I was shaking my pompom at – there were moments of positive pompom shaking and aggressive pompom jabbing in equal measure. I just went with the flow and did my best to yell indignant nonsense when it seemed appropriate. I tried very hard to be engaged and understand the sport I had made such an effort to watch, but American football honestly struck me as being a little silly. First of all, they’re all wearing so much protective gear, when really they’re not tackling each other much harder than rugby players do. Shoulder pads, shin pads, helmets, gum shields – the lot! Secondly, despite all this protective gear, they’re swapped on and off the field what feels like every 2 minutes. No wonder there are over 80 people on the team – it’s not football so much as musical chairs! Thirdly, all of this ridiculous swapping on and off means that play stops every other minute. It’ll look like they’re just getting into the rhythm of the game (not that I understand the rules at all) and then suddenly the clock pauses and they all break apart, with many running off/onto the field. Coaches can also call regular (supposedly limited) ‘Time-Outs’ which means pausing play once again to give the team coaching tips. I mean, really! Just get on with it! Or teach the players to think for themselves! They do go to one of the best colleges in the country – surely deciding what tactic to use next is not entirely beyond their collective cognitive ability?
The game is divided into quarters, which theoretically should only be 15 minutes each. However, realistically, due to all of this stopping and starting nonsense, quarters end up being closer to 30/40 minutes long, stretching the game out for a ridiculous 2-3 hour period. Now I know why the cheerleaders are there! We only ended up staying until half time (still a good hour and a half), as we knew we had to get up early the next day for the final round of sorority recruitment. I definitely felt like I’d had the full experience at this point anyway!
I’m really looking forward to my next football game – I know that this was a strange one because there was no tailgating at the start, and apparently that’s what makes the whole event so much fun. Not sure I’ll ever understand the hype surrounding the sport itself though – no wonder it never really caught onto the rest of the world.