Many on the right are quick to deride universities as bastions of liberalism, ivory towers where leftist professors coddle students in protective safe spaces. And yet the most high-profile and powerful institution on campus — college football — has long been a vehicle to promote ideas central to American conservatism.
Since the 1950s, football has transformed from a national pastime to a political tool. The college gridiron has helped turn states red not simply by amusing the Silent Majority on game days, but by promoting economic growth and spreading the values of hierarchy, order and masculinity that have been central to the right’s political ascendancy. Over the past half-century, football has preserved these principles, which conservatives view as under siege by the left. The game and its pageantry, steeped in tradition, have hammered home the tie between the culture of the past and American greatness, and have imbued men with the perceived competitiveness and toughness required to thrive in an unforgiving free-market economy.
In short, for the right, college football is a safe space of their own.
It was Theodore Roosevelt who first recognized that college football could serve political purposes. In several of his speeches, including “The Strenuous Life” in 1899 and “Citizenship in a Republic” in 1910, he stressed the importance of sport. To critics who worried about football’s violence, Roosevelt argued that it taught discipline, toughness and perseverance, values that reflected the loyalty and industriousness of citizens and workers.
Roosevelt was not the only politician to pay attention to college football or to see its utility in shaping the American landscape. Huey Long, who served as both governor and U.S. senator from Louisiana during the 1930s, saw it as a central component of his state’s identity. Long viewed the Louisiana State team, and the university more broadly, as an engine of economic development and a symbol of modernizing Louisiana, which could now compete with its Southern rivals academically as well as on the gridiron.
But Bud Wilkinson, the head coach of the University of Oklahoma, took the political uses of college football one step further. Wilkinson helped to usher in an era when college football did not simply entertain — it propelled the political and economic interests of its boosters. His teams won three national championships and compiled winning streaks of 31 and 47 games during the late 1940s and 1950s. While those streaks ended, the political and economic transformation of Oklahoma, and of college football, endured.
Well before the Wilkinson era in Oklahoma football, state and civic leaders were laying the groundwork for his success. After World War II, they made college football a central part of their plan for rebuilding the state. Sport became a publicity tool that established new narratives about the state and its people to help facilitate political and economic progress.
Unlike in Long’s Louisiana, however, Oklahoma’s efforts incorporated a cadre of businessmen, who funded the program alongside other economic development projects. Their systematic approach included a booster club for the football team, industrial recruitment tours sponsored by Chambers of Commerce and the State Department of Commerce and Industry, and new foundations and trusts created to induce new corporations to the state.
Football brought Sens. Robert S. Kerr and A.S. “Mike” Monroney together with the Oklahoma business elite, including publisher E.K. Gaylord and oil executive Dean A. McGee. They harnessed college football and its values to support their faith in free enterprise.
Wins on the football field soon translated into public relations victories for a state eager to attract public and private industries in the postwar era. During the Great Depression, the pejorative “Okie” stereotype leveled in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” limited the state’s development. But the qualities associated with gridiron success provided political capital for investment into the state. Soon the image of the reliable and hard-working athlete replaced that of Steinbeck’s listless and starving vagabond. The Sooners football team figured prominently in industrial recruitment efforts, both as a conversation starter and form of entertainment for visiting business leaders.
Between 1947 — when Wilkinson took over as head coach — and 1961, the state added 37,934 manufacturing jobs and $314.6 million in wages. Winning, when it intersected with Cold War spending, had a material impact on the state. Pigskin and pork barrel projects tied to civil defense industries transformed the state. These achievements demonstrated the political saliency of college football and prompted political leaders to use the sport in other ways.
For example, Republican leaders quickly seized on Wilkinson’s success to recruit him to run for the Senate in 1964. While Wilkinson lost the election, in time the Republican Party won the ideological war. The values Wilkinson promoted on the football field resonated with the national conservative message of order, family values and clearly defined gender roles.
By 1969, when Merle Haggard wrote “Okie From Muskogee,” the political transformation of both football and Oklahoma was complete. Haggard juxtaposed football players with San Francisco hippies, lending the sport’s political capital to the Silent Majority situated firmly in the very Sun Belt that political and economic leaders in Oklahoma worked to develop. The right not only politicized the values associated with college football — they weaponized them as a covert tool in the culture wars.
Today, college football continues to operate as a bastion of conservatism on campuses. College football allows coaches to speak hard truths about American youth and nostalgic alumni to reflect on a time when their team was great — calling back to a period when race, sexuality, safety and myriad other social and political issues were not debated on the sports page.
But as it celebrates an authoritarian masculinity rooted in toughness, the culture of football also dismisses thoughtful reflection on larger social issues as effeminate or distracting. Instead, fans demand that athletes and coaches “stick to sports” and perceive football stadiums as apolitical spaces divorced from the alleged liberal politics of classrooms. But in fact, these very pressures to discourage athletes — who are paid with free education — from speaking their minds give conservatives a victory in the culture wars each Saturday afternoon, when millions of Americans watch teams take to the field.