Sports crowds are living, breathing, palpable beings: tens of thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of people crammed into an area that you would otherwise never even attempt to cram tens of thousands of people into. It can take on personalities of its own, and it can shift and morph based on a variety of factors and circumstances, from the scoreboard to the weather to how much time everybody had to drink beforehand. I’ve seen Crowd start a game cheering for one team and end it rooting for the other one. I’ve seen Crowd scream continuously for four straight hours. In one particularly memorable instance, I’ve seen Crowd stand up as one and wordlessly walk out of the stadium in disgust, as if controlled by some sort of cosmic puppeteer.
But I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Crowd make sounds like I heard Monday night at the Superdome in New Orleans. The College Football Playoff National Championship Game may have been the perfect storm of crazy crowds, a powder keg of combustible elements that threatened to blow the roof off the Superdome all night. First off, it was in New Orleans, with most of the 75,000 fans indulging in all the creature comforts of the Big Easy from the minute they woke up until the 7:15 local kickoff. (I saw a man Monday morning with his face painted orange, wearing a Clemson Tiger tail and a Guy Fieri visor, carry a daiquiri into a Starbucks while actively vaping. That was a first.) It also featured fans from LSU, the hometown team having a dream season behind its Heisman Trophy–winning quarterback — and from Clemson, whose team had won two of the last three titles and which boasts a notoriously intense fan base — screaming back and forth at each other like Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. And the Superdome holds sounds like a crowded subway car holds heat, or odor.
But the real spark Monday was the same one that has led just about everything in American life to get louder, wilder, and more flammable over the last five years. For the second time in three years — he skipped the one in California, predictably — President Trump made an appearance on the field before a national championship college football game. It is undeniable that the sound that resulted was as united as LSU and Clemson fans were all night.
Trump, as has been widely documented, has long sought out friendly crowds to make sure he receives the applause he so obviously desperately needs, and, after a few missteps, he has consistently found them at college football games in the South. He was widely cheered in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in November, and thus came to the Superdome expecting the same. He was not disappointed: I’m not sure how it sounded on television, but inside the stadium, the roars of approval were nearly as loud as the ones for LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. (Nearly.) They loved him.
It is worth noting just how different this title-game appearance was for Trump than the one he made two years ago in Atlanta. At that one, he was, for Trump, almost modest: He walked out onto the field, put his hand over his heart for the national anthem, and then walked back off. In many ways, it wasn’t different from any other, normal presidential appearance at a football game. He was cheered by some and booed by (fewer) others, but on the whole, it really wasn’t much of a production. Monday night, by contrast, was specifically engineered to put the spotlight entirely on Trump. He came out with Melania, who skipped the game two years ago, and walked slowly, methodically to midfield, making sure to soak up every ounce of the ovation. Then, just to squeeze every last drop out, the soldiers accompanying him stopped and let Trump and Melania walk out ahead of them in an absurdly drawn-out fashion, as Crowd chanted, “USA! USA! USA!” Hey, it is an election year. This abnormal spectacle, so different from Trump’s appearance in 2018, felt totally normal in the moment, just the way things work now. We are all the boiling frogs, barely noticing how regular things are slowly changing. But at least Vince Vaughn was happy.
Trump, by elongating the usual pomp and circumstance, brought out another unique feature of Crowd. If you’ve ever attended a sporting event with a clearly partial home crowd, but with a loud minority of fans of the visiting team, you may be familiar with the phenomenon of those visiting fans, after their team has scored and the stadium is quiet, attempting to start their own cheer. It’s a way to show fan dominance, the road fans “taking over” a home stadium. It almost never works because the second the visiting fans start making noise, the home fans, defending their own turf, start screaming louder than ever before, establishing that this is their stadium and their team. You saw that briefly Monday night as well. As the initial cheers for Trump began to die down —they’d gone on for a while — you started to hear a slight murmur of boos from a vocal minority of fans at the Superdome. This, as it would for any set of hometown fans, led to a resurgence in the cheers, along with those “USA! USA!” chants and a few stray “Four more years.” In the year 2019, everything is a political rally, and everybody’s trying to drown out the other guy.
It set the tone for a raucous, deafening evening at the Superdome, with LSU fans shaking the building to its foundations with every touchdown and an outnumbered-but-still-vibrating Clemson fan base more than holding its own in response. It was the opposite of last year’s sleepy Crowd for Clemson’s beatdown of Alabama in Santa Clara because that was in California: Why the heck would Trump ever show up there? As LSU, a truly transcendent team finishing off a truly glorious season, began to pull away down the stretch, Crowd began to transform into something shaky, almost unhinged, a rabid Cajun fan base working itself into increasingly agitated and euphoric madness. When Burrow, after throwing for his fifth touchdown to clinch the title, began to cheer along with the notoriously vulgar (and infectious) LSU fan chant “Neck,” it hit its final crescendo. The sound was overwhelming and all-encompassing. In the end, as with everything else in 2020, it was all noise.