Latest Tech: The myth of the college football family has nothing to do with love

Only a few days after the 2024 College Football Playoff National Championship game, head coach Nick Saban announced his retirement from his post at the University of Alabama. Saban’s successor was announced the next day when the public learned University of Washington’s Kalen DeBoer, fresh off a loss in the national title game, would lead the Crimson Tide.

As someone who follows college football, I was shocked by the announcement. After almost two decades and six national championships in Tuscaloosa, Saban seemed a rock-solid fixture. But as an anthropologist and ethnographer who specializes in the intersection of race and sport, I was more concerned with what the news meant for the players, given how the timing of and secrecy surrounding these hires highlight a striking disconnect in football’s focus on family.

I’ve spent the last decade learning how Black college football players navigate the exploitation, racism, and anti-Blackness that are foundational to the college sport system. In this time, it has become clear to me just how much football programs depend upon the narrative of a ‘football family’ to unite teammates.

Coaches and administrators theorize the team in this way to invoke the tonality of care and solidarity amongst individual players they want to trust each other in practice and fight for one another on the field. Head coaches are the main drivers of this message, especially during recruiting and in-season play, because they need players to sign up for a four-year dream.

This tactic has infiltrated football. Coaches will applaud the ways their players overcome struggles and “come together as a team, despite our differences”, as a position coach told me during an interview. When high school players commit to college programs, they often note the family-like atmosphere they encounter during their visits. Social media posts boast mottos that infuse the team with the language and morality of family, like University of Illinois’ #famILLy, Northwestern University’s @NUFBFamily, and University of Hawaii’s #BRADDAHHOOD. Universities where I conducted research printed these slogans on T-shirts and wristbands for players to wear.

So much energy is put into convincing teammates they belong to the college’s football family and on some level, the attempt is nearly always successful. The team is the most recognized representation of community and family in sport.

But the rhetoric is ultimately fake.

Coaches ditch this narrative of family when it no longer suits them. Of course, head coaches should be able to leave their posts for other jobs, or retire as Saban did. But when they do, these decisions are often made quickly and without players’ knowledge. Coaches move from one alleged family to another, leaving behind confused and blindsided players, and it happens with very little regard for how those young men will manage in their absence. Coaches take advantage of the family narrative and players are particularly affected because they are promised a certain experience that can no longer be executed.

An exiting football coach resembles the proverbial absentee father.

This is a phenomenon I’ve witnessed up close. I was a professor at the University of Notre Dame in 2021 when players only learned of Brian Kelly’s move to Louisiana State University from news reports. This year at Duke University, where I now teach, Mike Elko made a late-night move to Texas A&M after initially denying rumors of the hire.

Each time this happened, football players enrolled in my fall classes expressed their struggle and disappointment with the handling of these decisions. When it comes to the players, these head coach transfers and hires matter because of how they belie the football family discourse coaches try so hard to maintain.

These head coach shifts are just one example of how the exploitative narrative of a caring football family crumbles under pressure. Rapper and rhetorician AD Carson references the dangers of uncritically buying into this football family based on the ways Clemson University has attempted to whitewash its history. Sports Illustrated highlighted a group of 2020 players who were expected to prioritize their college football families during pandemic play over any concern for personal health, well-being and future prospects. In 2023, the Northwestern University football coaching staff was embroiled in a hazing scandal that finally brought attention to physically violent, morally demeaning and racially charged practices targeting members of their football family.

Sociologist Erin Hatton writes that the commodification of college athletes is magnified by this constant emphasis on care and family, given players’ uncompensated labor powers the whole system. Insights from my own research help to explain why.

“With two years of production left, I’m just an X in their playbook,” a player told me after explaining his frustration with the way his coaches treated him. He’d been so objectified by his coaches that he believed they saw him only as a body to be used, a mere figure integral to the team’s successful execution of its playbook.

Players have continuously reiterated to me an apathetic treatment from coaches that prioritize playing ability over well-being. This intense focus on players’ ability to produce on the field occurs because football programs primarily want to win games, garner revenue and secure prestige, rather than concentrate on what is best for the athletes. Gridiron successes translate to financial wins. This is a billion-dollar industry, after all and the language of a football family serves to create buy-in from players. Coaches repeat the narrative as much as they need to in order to convince players of its truth, but it is discarded when they are offered a better opportunity with another college. The best the coaches will do is offer a few sorry platitudes about the people they’re leaving behind.

The 2023 season saw several major coaching vacancies and opportunities for pitiful goodbyes. Head football coaches leave their positions every year to pursue better opportunities, higher salaries and the potential for more success: Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, Jim Harbaugh, who coached the University of Michigan to last year’s national title, and UCLA’s Chip Kelly are just a few notable examples.

Whether they retired, were fired, or left for different coaching positions, these head coaches cost their universities a substantial amount of money through new contracts, buyouts and settlements. A recent report estimates that football coach and staff changes during the 2023 season will cost athletics departments at least $200m. There is plenty of money to pay these coaches, even though players cannot earn a paycheck for participating in this allegedly amateur system.

For these reasons, I agree with historian Robin DG Kelley: the football family metaphors are disingenuous. It has nothing to do with real love and care.

Stories to disprove the authenticity of the football family are contextualized within a landscape that is undergoing dramatic changes. With the introduction of name, image, likeness rules and changes made to the transfer portal in 2021, college athletes can now benefit from their identifying characteristics and are not penalized for changing schools and teams before they graduate. Additionally, the White House, the US supreme court, and the National Labor Relations Board have all been involved in conversations to discuss athlete rights, reconsider the employment status of athletes on college campuses, and challenge the “student-athlete” moniker.

These changes are slowly attempting to even the scales to benefit athletes, thereby redistributing the power held by coaches and institutions. Early conversations about the 72-year-old Saban’s retirement suggest these changes led to the seemingly sudden move and might encourage other, more traditional coaches to do the same soon. But players are far from equal with coaches in this equation. Even though their athletic labor drives the whole system, college athletes don’t have access to the same unrestricted mobility, opportunities to negotiate, status as employees and multimillion-dollar salaries that are offered to coaches.

With DeBoer at Alabama, the vacancy left at Washington was filled by another well-known head coach who left his own position vacant. It’s impossible to predict just how long this game of musical chairs will continue, but as coaches continue to shuffle, the young people who come under their care are abandoned. With about a hundred players on each team, thousands are affected annually by a kind of labor mobility they can’t participate in themselves. Despite their best attempts to portray themselves as the benign patriarchs of a happy family, head coaches are often the prime cause of its demise, as they compete to sit at the head of a different family table.

  • Tracie Canada is an assistant professor of cultural anthropology and affiliated with the Sports & Race Project at Duke University. Her research uses sport to theorize race, kinship, care, and gender, and she is currently finishing a book project about the experiences of Black college football players.

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