Reading James Joyce and Watching the Gators in 2020 (October 19, 2020)

How long is Haines going to stay in this tower?

James Joyce, Ulysses

There is a scene early in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) that resonates in perhaps unexpected ways with the contemporary nightmare from which we are trying to awake. The scene concerns the early schooling of Joyce’s semi-autobiographical would-be artist Stephen Dedalus, in the moment of his short-lived attendance at the elite Irish Catholic boarding school, Clongowes Woods College in County Kildare. (Joyce, born in 1882, attended the school from ages 6-9 but was forced to leave due to the rapidly declining fortunes of his once middle-class Irish Catholic family.) Joyce writes:

It was the hour for sums. Father Arnall wrote a hard sum on the board and then said:
—Now then, who will win? Go ahead, York! Go ahead, Lancaster!
Stephen tried his best but the sum was too hard and he felt confused. The little silk badge with the white rose on it that was pinned on the breast of his jacket began to flutter. He was no good at sums but he tried his best so that York might not lose. Father Arnall’s face looked very black but he was not in a wax: he was laughing. Then Jack Lawton cracked his fingers and Father Arnall looked at his copybook and said:
—Right. Bravo Lancaster! The red rose wins. Come on now, York! Forge ahead!

This leads Stephen to meditate on the color of roses:

White roses and red roses: those were beautiful colours to think of. And the cards for first place and third place were beautiful colours too: pink and cream and lavender. Lavender and cream and pink roses were beautiful to think of. Perhaps a wild rose might be like those colours and he remembered the song about the wild rose blossoms on the little green place. But you could not have a green rose. But perhaps somewhere in the world you could.

The two parties Father Arnall refers to here, the Yorks and the Lancasters, were competing factions of the fifteen-century English Plantagenet royal house who engaged in a 32-year-long conflict that would come to be known as the Wars of the Roses, after the white and red rose heraldic emblems of the two sides. As in Stephen’s classroom “game,” the Lancasters proved victorious. Their leader, Henry Tudor, assumed the English throne as Henry VII and established a dynasty that would rule the country for more than a century. During the Wars, Ireland sided with the Yorks and as a result Henry VII and even more so his two successors, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, would increasingly consolidate and formalize English imperial rule over Ireland, which would continue until 1922.

Although neither young Stephen nor the reader yet realize it, this short scene brilliantly encapsulates two dimensions of what it means to live in an occupied land. First, Joyce shows the ways that even small gestures such as the choice of names for a children’s game remind the Irish people of both their past defeats and the impossibility of anything like the autonomous Irish history figured by the green rose of which the young Stephen dreams. Secondly, Joyce subtly demonstrates the myriad ways that in any situation of occupation, all aspects of everyday life are politicized. This becomes more and more evident as the novel progresses: in the next section of the first chapter, the family’s Christmas dinner explodes into passionate argument over the sad fate of the recently deceased Irish leader, Charles Stewart Parnell; and the chapter comes to its climax in a Irish landscape whose smells, sights, and sounds—the fields surrounding the elite Anglo-Irish Barton family’s Straffan House and “the sound of the cricket bats: pick, pack, pock, puck: like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl”—all “mythologize,” as Roland Barthes puts it, the British imperial presence. The “very principle of myth,” Barthes points out, is to “transform history into nature,” in this case making British rule appear to its subjects as an immutable fact of the world, a reign upon which the sun will never set.

Even in the novel’s final chapter, the few careers available to Stephen’s classmates at Dublin’s Jesuit-administered University College —“Did you hear the results of the exams? He asked. Griffin was plucked, Halpin and O’Flynn are through the home civil. Moonan got fifth place in the Indian. O’Shaughnessy got fourteenth”—involve participating in British imperial rule both at home and abroad. It is this situation that Stephen finds intolerable—“My ancestors threw off their language and took another, Stephen said. They allowed a handful of foreigners to subject them. Do you fancy I am going to pay in my own life and person debts they made?”—and in the end he decides to leave Ireland to develop his art (although as we learn in the novel’s “sequel” Ulysses (1922), Stephen’s initial self-imposed exile proves to be short-lived).

I have taught Joyce’s A Portrait numerous times over the course of the last 26 years and every time I do so I learn new things from this magnificent novel. What struck me especially forcefully this fall is how much the situation of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Ireland resembles that of the United States in 2020. Although we are not ruled by another nation—or at least, not explicitly— in both situations nearly every aspect of daily life has been politicized to an extraordinary degree. 

Even in the most equitable of democratic societies, all our actions are ultimately political in that they involve the reproduction of or challenge to a certain way of life. However, in a situation of occupation and direct domination, all the mediations, nuances, and complexities dissolve away, so that every act, every gesture—the games we play, the entertainments we enjoy, the careers we choose—becomes understood as immediately involved in supporting or challenging the ruling powers. And there are only two choices available. These leaders endlessly remind the ruled: you are either with us or you are our enemy. 

Those who deny this reality and pretend there still exists some distance between seemingly inconsequential everyday activities and political life often prove themselves to be among the most complicit. This is very much the case for Joyce’s earlier great character, from his story “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy (who is also something of a glimpse of an alternate future for Joyce himself had he decided to forgo his vocation as a writer and remained in Ireland). After Gabriel is confronted for producing a literary column for a conservative British-supporting newspaper, he responds in this way: “He continued blinking his eyes and trying to smile and murmured lamely that he saw nothing political in writing reviews of books.”

Such a politicization of everyday life has become more and more the case in the four years of the undemocratic and increasingly explicit authoritarian regime of Donald Trump. Numerous commentators have pointed out the ways that Trump, along with his supporters on the national and state levels, castigates everyone from career government officials to research scientists—from those in the state department to agriculture, from climate scientists to epidemiologists—as always already politically partisan. The result is that any statement they make or position they take is understood as either supporting or, as is far more often the case, challenging Trump’s rule. Others note that even gestures such as holiday greetings or displays of the nation’s flag have been transformed into statements of support for the Trump regime. And of course, over the past eight months we have all witnessed how practices recommended by the overwhelming majority of the medical community, such as mask wearing and adequate social distancing, similarly have been transformed into political statements. In such an untenable situation, today as much as in Joyce’s Ireland, the politicization of everyday life both increases stress and anxiety and raises the likelihood of violent clashes. (An even more explicit, quantitatively but not qualitatively different, example of the politicization of everyday life is on display in Glenway Wescott’s superb novel set in Nazi-occupied Greece, Apartment in Athens [1945].)

            This fall, this has also become true in the case of one of my favorite pastimes, NCAA football (or “hand-egg” as my soccer playing son calls it). While I have been since my teenage years a dedicated follower of the game and was even a decent football player at my small California parochial high school, the University of Florida is the first institution I have been involved with that houses a major football program. Cal State Northridge was a Division II program while I was an undergraduate there, and while Duke was fun to watch during my first three years in graduate school—when the head coach was the Florida Gator’s former quarterback and first Heisman Trophy winner, Steve Spurrier—football always remained a very distant second to men’s basketball. (Duke played in the Final Four each of the five years I resided in Durham and won National Championships in my final two years there). 

I arrived in Gainesville in the fall of 1994, four years after Spurrier left Duke to assume head coaching duties at his alma mater and launch what was until that time the most successful run in Florida football history, culminating in a victory over state rival Florida State in the 1996 National Championship game. This was the first of what would turn out to be three national championships in my years here (the Gators would win the National Championship again in 2006 and 2008 under Coach Urban Myer). I quickly became a passionate follower of the team, something that spread to my brothers residing in the Midwest and California: they would come down to Florida for big games and would even participate in UF alumni gatherings in their home towns.


            I have always recognized the contradictions involved in being a fan of big-time college football. The transformation of intercollegiate athletics into an extraordinarily profitable big business enterprise has been central to the neoliberal restructuring of our nation’s once great public educational institutions—whose mission in the years following the Second World War, as the historian Alan Taylor observes, was to produce both economic goods and a capable democratic citizenry—into privatized entertainment and patent-generating research complexes, which are reliant on the exploitation of the cheap labor of student-athletes, graduate students, support staff, and a faculty increasingly made up of what Herb Childress terms “the adjunct underclass.”

This contradiction came home to me in the 2006 national championship season. That fall, I had the extraordinary opportunity to work as part of a sideline camera crew for home games. This gave me the chance to take on-the-field photos of the action (a handful of which I have posted here) and I even momentarily appear on camera during CBS’s post-game interview with defense end Jarvis Moss after he had blocked the game-winning field goal attempt by an upstart South Carolina team then being coached by Spurrier. Moss’s heroic efforts propelled the team to subsequent victories in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Championship and ultimately the National Championship games. 

However, my exuberance over the football team’s success that season was dampened by the fact that in the same fall semester our university’s upper administration used the pretext of an economic emergency to launch a devastating assault on the humanities at the University of Florida, beginning a series of cuts and restructurings that in the subsequent decade would half the number of faculty members in our department and greatly reduce graduate student admissions.

Nevertheless, in 2006 the links between the fortunes of the football program, both on the field and off, and the political interests behind the restructuring of higher education in our state and nation were indirect and not evident to most people. (For a powerful study of these changes, I recommend this essay by my colleague Kim Emery. In another early sign of the changing realities, UF’s President at that time, Bernie Machen, would in early 2008 take the “unusual” step of endorsing Senator John McCain in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency.) Moreover, there have been and continue to be real rewards for my fandom, as my support of the Gators has enabled me to establish deep and long-lasting friendships with some extraordinary people in our community that I otherwise may have never met.

 During the 2008 presidential elections and shortly before UF played Alabama for the SEC Championship, my then five-year-old son asked me, “Why don’t we hate Alabama fans like we hate Republicans?” His question took me aback and I replied that we didn’t hate either group—indeed, even some members of his extended family supported Republican candidates. But I also pointed out that I thought sports and political partisanship differed substantially, in that the former was for fun and should be forgotten as soon as the game was over, whereas the latter has significant and long-lasting consequences for the lives of many people. 

In 2020, thanks to the Trump administration and its disastrous response among so many other failures to the coronavirus pandemic, this has changed. Early in the summer, when the major college football conferences were weighing whether or not to hold the season, the Trump administration along with other political leaders and Trump-supporting governors, especially in southern states like Florida, put pressure on universities to continue on despite the recommendations of medical experts and the significant potential risks involved to players, fans, and the communities involved. These political leaders felt that big-time college sports were popular among their supporters and that by demanding that things go on as usual, they could distract from the realities of the pandemic, help turn around the economic collapse their failed efforts had produced, and thereby increase their chances of remaining in power.

A recent study by the Brookings Institute concludes that “Partisan affiliation is often the strongest single predictor of behavior and attitudes about COVID-19, even more powerful than local infection rates or demographic characteristics, such as age and health status.” The same is now the case for college football, as support for playing the game as usual has become a sign of support for Trump. Florida’s current governor Ron DeSantis is in his own words a “Pitbull Trump Defender,” and even ran a commercial during his 2018 campaign showing him prompting his young son to build Trump’s wall and glory in Trump’s reality TV slogan, “You’re fired!” (Ironically, last Friday, Trump told a crowd of his Florida supporters that if DeSantis fails to deliver the state to him in the upcoming election, “I’ll fire him somehow. I’m going to fire him. I will find a way.”) In the days leading up to the Gators’ season opener, DeSantis thus not unexpectedly began to rail against what he termed the state universities’ “draconian” public health policies and threatened to force through a student bill of rights “that would preclude state universities from taking actions against students who are enjoying themselves.” He followed up on this threat of a “Bill of Rights to Party” by issuing an executive order allowing bars and restaurants to open up at 100% capacity and limiting local municipalities ability to do anything to curb them. Furthermore, in an act of “executive grace,” he suspended all outstanding fines and penalties that had been applied against individuals who had violated pandemic-related mandates such as mask and social distancing requirements. DeSantis opined, “I think we need to get away from trying to penalize people for social distancing. All these fines we’re going to hold in abeyance and hope that we can move forward in a way that’s more collaborative.”

The consequences of these decisions were amply on display during UF’s October 3 home opener. Although there was enforcement of social distancing and mask-wearing rules on UF’s campus and in its stadium, in the neighborhoods surrounding the campus it was pretty much business as usual, with street-side tailgating, open-container drinking (something not even allowed in normal seasons), and inadequately socially distanced game-watching parties. There were reports of packed local bars, even though the kick-off was at noon. There was also a rash of thefts of yard signs supporting Joe Biden’s campaign. When I contacted local authorities to report violations in our own neighborhood—including an adult tailgater urinating on a neighbors’ fence—the official with whom I spoke said that while they were deeply sympathetic and supportive, the governor had effectively tied their hands when it came to efforts to protect our community.

The following week, DeSantis upped the ante by declaring that all sports stadiums statewide had the right to operate at full capacity. The consequences of this new directive came to a head in the aftermath of the Gators’ October 10 upset loss at Texas A&M. Following the game, head coach Dan Mullen declared that he hoped that for the next game, “the UF administration decides to let us pack the Swamp against LSU — 100%.” He went on, “The governor has passed a rule that we’re allowed to pack the Swamp and have 90,000 in the Swamp to give us the home-field advantage Texas A&M had today.” The Swamp is the nickname established by Spurrier in the early 1990s for Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the twelfth largest college football stadium by capacity in the nation and the eighteenth largest in the world. When it is full, as I can personally attest from my on-field game experiences, it is also one of the loudest, a definite advantage for the home team.


 I am confident that like Joyce’s Gabriel Conroy, Mullen thought there was “nothing political” in his call for a full stadium. His job is after all to create the best opportunity for his team to win and I am sure he would never have suggested such a course of action if he thought it would endanger the health of his players or coaching staff. However, as in the situation of the occupied Ireland so effectively portrayed by Joyce, there is no way that such statements could not be understood as political given our current realities. This fact was quickly acknowledged by a number of commentators: one of the first stated that whatever his reasons for so doing—including the patently evident fact that Texas A&M failed to adequately enforce safety precautions, allowing unmasked fans to sit close together in the lower levels of the stadium—it was “totally inexplicable and inexcusable that Mullen chose . . . to go all-in on his insistence that an institution of higher learning should follow the lead of politicians instead of public health and UF’s own medical experts when making decisions about safety precautions during a deadly pandemic.” 

            Fortunately, university officials quickly made it clear that at least in terms of practices on campus during home games they would not be following the lead of Trump and DeSantis. (However, sadly, this is not the case in terms of the university’s academic practices, as UF’s administration continues to hold firm in its commitment to meet the governor’s blackmail demand for dramatically increased face-to-face classroom instruction in the spring semester or face severe budget cuts. This has placed university leaders on a collision course with its own faculty.) Thankfully too, we in the community were spared the conflicts that very well might have erupted this past weekend, as in the week following Mullen’s statement the team announced that 21 players had tested positive for Covid and the next two home games would be rescheduled. Then over the weekend, we learned that Mullen himself had tested positive for Covid. (I hope that every person affected has a speedy and easy recovery.) All of this was seized upon by The Lincoln Project this past weekend, which released a short video that concludes, “So many voted for Trump because he promised to drain the swamp. And because of his failure, the Swamp is drained of not just fans, but of football itself.” Football is now definitely politicized.

As Joyce insistently reminds his readers, the troubling politicization of everyday life will continue on as long as the nation is controlled by those who put narrow interests above the well-being of the communities they command. To paraphrase Stephen Dedalus in the opening pages of Ulysses, we too thus need to ask, how long are they going to stay in our towers, their positions of expansive executive authority? And how will we respond if they refuse to leave?

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