The Homecoming Queen
September 22, 2014 11:10 AM   Subscribe

When I won, as a high school junior, a state-wide essay writing competition, I was invited with sundry other academic winners to a celebration at the capitol. Rick Perry was to preside. All of us — champions in debate, calculus, physics, music, literary criticism, and more — gathered on the floor of the Texas state senate to accept Governor Perry’s congratulations. Perry took the podium as he does, with all folksy gravitas, gripping its edges in each hand. But when he addressed us he didn’t talk about academic achievement. He talked about football.
The Homecoming Queen: Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes about Texas, football dreams, and homecoming mums.

Homecoming mums, previously.
posted by (14 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Homecoming mums were such a big deal in high school, and even junior high. They were a way of confirming social status and popularity. The pretty, popular girls had the biggest mums with the most and longest ribbons. They got them from the cutest, jockiest boys. Some girls got them from their parents if they didn't have boyfriends, and everyone knew, and it was kind of a "bless your heart" thing.

This is reason #138 why I hated ages 12-18 with a passion.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:34 AM on September 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

As a native Texan, and from north Texas (same region as Arlington, the one mentioned in the article), this really strikes a chord. I know that most people don't feel like they "fit in" during high school, but man, if you weren't a Christian and/or an athletics person, you really stuck out like a sore thumb. It wasn't just my high school, either; several people I know from this area describe the same thing, whether they're from Denton or Mansfield or Plano. I hated that feeling, the one of not being part of the group or of the group just not getting what I wanted to be a part of. That sense of "you're not like us" contributes strongly to why I am not a religious person today. "My" church's youth group did not like me, mostly because my family was so different and because I had little interest in joining football or being in ROTC. Even my sports choice was "wrong," since I followed and enjoyed the local baseball team (Go Rangers) during their long era of suck.

It doesn't surprise me that Perry talked about his six-man football history nor does it surprise me that this "awards ceremony" played out the way that it did. An anecdote from my high school time has, as its punch line, my school district being more than happy to pony up for the entire football team to go to a state game as "runners-up" from the regional bracket, but they just didn't have the money to send myself and a peer to a computer competition three hours away.

It seems to me that we Texans elected the last two governors on the basis of what we* want the popular perception of Texas to be: manly men who do manly things while manly working on the manly farm and manly beating the crap out of other manly men on the field while looking dapper off of it. I don't know why or how Governor Ann Richards spooked the bejeezus out of people voting for the intellectual firebrand but she sure did something. At least when I was in high school, not all that long ago, she would have been the outsider and someone like Perry would have fit right in.

* "We" being defined as the majority of voters.
posted by fireoyster at 11:48 AM on September 22, 2014 [13 favorites]

Perry said football made him the man he was, that it taught him what he needed to know to become the governor of Texas. It was our express privilege to be compared to football players.

That anecdote about Perry is so effective in the piece, I think, because Brueing uses it to subvert expectations in a really clever way. (Of course, he's still Rick Perry.) The piece is a lot more nuanced and interesting than "football culture is bad, here's why," to its great credit.

So, with the anecdote, on one hand here's Rick Perry prattling on about himself and football when it's not about him or about football, and even better, here he is telling the winners--the winners!--exactly what they are not. They are not, of course, football heroes.

But on the other hand, what seems to be a story where Bruenig and the others are individualized--that is, one where the arc seems to be I learned that I wasn't like the others, and it made me feel alone--is actually the normal operation of the system. As she details in the rest of the piece.

How is this any different, though? It's not the sorting into pro-football and non-football, but rather that all of the social practices around football that seem to make it about sorting: High school coaches getting paid twice what teachers make; the pressure not to be the "spoilspot" teacher who fails Johnny Football or the assault victim who "ruins" a year by going public with a rape; even Homecoming, set up around a football game as much as a dance.

The seeming contradiction is that participation is voluntary and open. You don't have to be a player; you can just come to the games and watch.

Those social practices around football are the thing. That is, football isn't separating people, it's ordering a social landscape. In-groups and out-groups are created through football, not by football. The industry of football creates all sorts of waste in its business model--injured players--who are simply discarded in the pursuit of, eventually, profits. (That almost no one along the way makes a profit until the NFL is, again, the social regulation of the system.)

And removing ourselves is lonely, to the extent that it is possible. We often give up some possibilities for change, in not watching, even as we enable others. But there is a human cost even for those not injured by the sport: loneliness, awkwardness, those feelings of worthlessness. There are lots of social systems in the world, and sometimes we still long for the (terrible) ones that make, or enact, the place that is home.

tldr: really nice piece, really well done.
posted by migrantology at 12:00 PM on September 22, 2014 [16 favorites]

Davy Jones was at first reluctant to sing "Daydream Believer," because he thought the phrase "homecoming queen" was stupid and made no sense.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:30 PM on September 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

Same planet, different worlds.

Also, I thought "Homecoming mums" were going to be girls that got knocked up at homecoming. I'm only slightly less mortified I was wrong.
posted by cjorgensen at 12:33 PM on September 22, 2014 [22 favorites]

I think it was Governor John Connolly who said about the University of Texas, "What we need is a school the football team can be proud of."
posted by 724A at 12:35 PM on September 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Random thoughts...

How in 2014 can the craven transparent doofus Perry even be a thing, politically speaking?

A long-time rabid football fan, I can no longer overlook the insanity of the violent head injuries that, at a minimum, lead players I once thought so highly of to suicide by gunshot to the heart (Junior Seau). Not to mention the proliferation of sex assaults, violence ahainst women and children, and general thuggery of a far-too-large segment of the participants in the sport.

I once could not have imagined fall weekends without foitball. I now cannot fathom them with football.

To tell a group of upcoming scholars that football is the real prize is so offensive, and plain stupid, as to nearly defy belief.
posted by riverlife at 1:11 PM on September 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Ha, she's from my hometown, maybe she went to my high school.

This is an excellent essay and dead-on about the costs of football.

Relatedly, this year my tiny, academically oriented TX university decided to jump in and get itself a football team, at the same time as they keep asking me to donate to the scholarship fund and keep raising tuition. I did not actually tell them to go fuck themselves, but I sure didn't send them any money. Part of the reason I enjoyed going there so much was the absence of football.
posted by emjaybee at 1:17 PM on September 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Christ, what an asshole.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 1:32 PM on September 22, 2014

emjaybee: "Part of the reason I enjoyed going there so much was the absence of football."

I feel the same way about my alma mater. I went to Texas Woman's University and let's just say that I'm definitely (still) in the minority on that campus, even though it has been fully co-ed for almost 20 years. A small-but-not-irrelevantly-so reason why I went there was because it lacked a football team and because athletics definitely took a secondary role to academics. (Another reason is because UNT can go fuck itself. Y'all forgot that Denton made you, not the campus in Dallas.) I've told people that, for me and the people who grew up around me, the film Friday Night Lights wasn't a drama, it was a documentary and the subsequent TV show was like watching VHS tapes of your hometown.

riverlife: "How in 2014 can the craven transparent doofus Perry even be a thing, politically speaking?"

He's hanging on by a thread. I sincerely think that he decided to not run for re-election again because the predictions told his campaign people that he genuinely would lose to Wendy Davis. She'd have such an advantage that it would turn into an anybody-but-Perry election, like 2008 was on the presidential level. To a lot of people (like Texas Monthly), he seems to be running for Vice President at this point. He'd be the conservative, un-funny, dim-witted version of Biden, and that's almost a base libel against Biden.
posted by fireoyster at 3:15 PM on September 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

The piece she links to about getting rid of football in Premont, Texas is also a great read:
Meanwhile, communities throughout Texas, alarmed by the cancellation of football, raised $400,000 for Premont via fund-raisers and donations—money that Singleton put toward renovating the science labs.
posted by clawsoon at 3:24 PM on September 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

emjaybee: Relatedly, this year my tiny, academically oriented TX university decided to jump in and get itself a football team, at the same time as they keep asking me to donate to the scholarship fund and keep raising tuition. I did not actually tell them to go fuck themselves...

You should tell them to go fuck themselves, and why it is that you're not sending them any money. As an alum who's the target of fundraising, you have the power to make a difference, or at least give them pause.
posted by clawsoon at 3:32 PM on September 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just want to savor this wicked Hitchensian line from her takedown of the book Distortion! How The Christian Left Is Twisting The Gospel: "If you gave this text an enema, you could publish it inside a fortune cookie."
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 12:26 AM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hey, another TWU alum here! I live in a teeny little Texas town. My son had science books that talked about how some day we would go to the moon...but our high school has an espn ready football stadium. Football is religion here. I hate football.
posted by dejah420 at 4:49 AM on September 23, 2014

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