A few riffs on the culture of Southern football

My favorite explanation of the appeal of college football in the South came from Clinton campaign guru James Carville several years ago, when he was asked by The Wall Street Journal to explain the legions of fans who never took a step inside a classroom at the schools they follow treat yet their teams with such religious devotion. He referenced his own alma mater:

“Half the people in that stadium can’t spell LSU. It doesn’t matter. They identify with it. It’s culturally such a big deal.”

On Saturday night in Baton Rouge, Tiger Stadium, aka Death Valley, will be swarming with nearly 100,000 souls, quite a few of them inebriated, when top-ranked Alabama plays No. 5 LSU. Last year’s 9-6 slugfest was a snoozer, but with the SEC flying as high as it ever has (seven teams in the national rankings), the rematch is one of the biggest games on the national calendar.

Picture 1These Southern cultural obsessions have prompted what LSU coach Les Miles, a former Michigan man, likes to refer to as “big boy football,” and that’s not just about the size of the players. It reflects the big-money, high-profile, winning-at-all-costs environment that exists in the South like nowhere else, and the SEC in particular.

Unless Alabama trips up along the way — and it could happen on Saturday — it looks like the SEC will be represented in the BCS national championship game for the seventh consecutive season. No other conference has won in the last six years, and it’s not just because of the closed system of the BCS.

My sportswriting friend Ray Glier has just published a book about all this, “How the SEC Became Goliath,” that details the recent developments in the sport (review here from Paste Magazine), including increasingly lucrative television contests and even more cutthroat recruiting battles.

While those beasts grow ever larger, and must constantly be fed to a possibly unsustainable degree, this is about more than commercialism and the desire to win. The Southern complex of wanting to be better than those damn Yankees at something doesn’t fully explain it, either, although it does contain the seeds of this cultural fervor.

The rest of the above-linked WSJ story from 2008 doesn’t stick with Carville’s point, delving into business and political angles instead. But in a season preview published in August in ESPN The Magazine, Southern journalist and author Rick Bragg boils down this phenomenon not only to the Southern identity that Carville mentioned, but also the notion of Southern memory:

“Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus of history at Auburn, says the South’s devotion to college football probably reaches that far, to a time before there even was any football, to defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, to a whole lot of times when we just got the hell beat out of us, as a culture.’

“Reconstruction starved us. Then, the Ku Klux Klan swept candidates into pretty much every elected office in the state of Alabama and burned crosses on the skyline across the South. The rest of the nation, not that it was without sin, looked down in disdain. Then, just after Christmas 1925, the Alabama football team boarded a train for California, for the 1926 Rose Bowl, and fought back against that derision, even if the players did not know they were doing so at the time. Those young men drew, Flynt explains, ‘on a long history of not being afraid,’ of the hottest days or endless rows of cotton or a million bales of hay. ‘It’s not like you’re unprepared for a little physical suffering,’ he says, and next to the pain of just living down here, football was, well, like playing games.

“Not knowing any of this, the rest of the nation gave Alabama no chance against its Rose Bowl opponent, the vaunted University of Washington, but Southerners knew there was too much at stake to lose. ‘Even the president of Auburn sent a telegram,’ says Flynt, ‘telling them, You are defending the honor of the South, and God’s not gonna let you lose this game.’ Halfback Johnny Mack Brown ran, as one writer described, like a ‘slippery eel,’ and the South won something of great value, at last.”

The dark years of Jim Crow laws and stubbornly segregated teams in the years to come, Bragg continues, proved that “college football was not a cure, not a tonic for what was wrong in the South, merely a balm.” Picture 2As ESPN’s Wright Thompson showed in this week’s “30 for 30” documentary about the “Ghosts of Ole Miss,” an improbable, undefeated college team in Oxford 50 years was overshadowed by segregationists furious with James Meredith. (Review here from PopMatters)

Nor is the game now any more of a salve, in spite of the prominence of the black players who have helped Southern teams to dominate today. It’s a bit facile to declare college football in the South to be “just as entrenched in our culture as Jesus, sweet tea and BBQ,” especially without a reference to the South’s lore with military culture that also stemmed from the Civil War.

The deepest, truest cultural roots, as Bragg notes, predate the sport, and will always be bound up with a constantly developing Southern identity that University of Georgia history professor James Cobb expertly examines in “Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity.”

The Sunbelt South in which I was raised, and that shaped my identity (I’m the hopelessly suburban daughter of a small-town Southern father and a mother from a mid-sized Midwestern blue-collar town) isn’t what most people think about when they think about the South and college football.

Although I grew up with relatives rooting for Auburn, Georgia, Alabama and Georgia Tech, and I covered college football at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the game has lost something of its appeal to me for reasons too numerous to name here.

Perhaps I’m just a creature of a metropolis, but I’ve always felt that if the Atlanta Falcons could permanently catch on around here — and at 7-0 it’s time to finish the drill, fellas — it might help this vast, sprawling place I call home, and that has been “too busy to hate” for nearly a half-century, develop a better sporting identity.

Cobb gives this “New South” its proper place in the region’s history, including the legacy of the civil rights movement and the emergence of white-collar cities like my Atlanta, Charlotte and Dallas. The Republican dominance of politics in what Democrats once counted on as the “solid South” might be the perfect example of how ancient definitions of Southern identity have mixed with a distinctly contemporary brand of cultural conservatism that has had a re-segregating effect, at least at the polls.

None of this reflects the current excellence of Southern college football. But it does reveal another layer of identity about an increasingly complicated, fascinating part of the country.

Perhaps no more so than on Saturdays in the fall.

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