"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Why College Football In The South Is The Best In The US–Lessons In Culture

I am not a huge college football fan, but every time I head to the Deep South, I cannot avoid it.  It is a big deal. Towns within 100 miles of a major team like Alabama, Mississippi,or Mississippi State are all fired up before game day.  There are pep rallies, parades, barbecues; hats, jerseys, car flags, banners, and coffee cups.  The discussion on the radio, at the gym, or on the street is college football.  “Our” team.

Many regions of the US are as supportive and rabid about their teams as the South and huge Big Ten stadiums are filled to the rafters on Saturdays; but do these intense Southern allegiances have something to do with winning? Allen Barra writing in the Atlantic (12.2.12) thinks so.

The reasons for this unequalled dominance aren't clear. In his 1954 memoir, This Was Football, my favorite football historian, W.W. "Pudge" Heffelfinger, Walter Camp's first ever All-America selection back in the 1890s, wrote, "Southern football players play with a reckless abandon, a wild fanaticism that's rarely found in players from other parts of the nation." That's a generalization, of course. But why does it seem true?

Tradition and rivalry are the reason, suggests Barra.  And the South seems to have an overabundance of both:

The enthusiasm generated by match-ups like Georgia vs. Florida or LSU vs. Tennessee or Alabama vs. Auburn is the lifeblood of SEC football, a manifestation of Whitman's "barbaric yawp" that has survived into the 21st century. This year, SEC stadiums have been jammed to nearly 95 percent capacity, tops in the country. According to a Sports Business Journal study in 2009, six Southern football programs—Alabama, LSU, Florida, Georgia, Auburn, and South Carolina—were among the top 11 producers in football revenue in the nation.

This still doesn’t answer the question why traditions and rivalries are so much more pronounced in the South.  Some have suggested cultural reasons – the South has always been and still is one of the most traditional and conservative areas of the United States.  Mississippi, for example, is the most religious and the most politically conservative of any state in the Union.  Conservatism at its most fundamental means preserving and protecting traditional ways of life, honoring the past, if not glorifying it.  The phrase ‘Our Way of Life’ never has more meaning than in the South. No other region of the country is so evocative of the past than the South; no region has fought so hard for ‘States Rights’; no other has fought so hard to retain a distinctive regional identity.

Sports in America are never just games, but emblems.  I have written before on fandom, that universal phenomenon of fan allegiance to specific teams regardless of turnovers in players, coaching staff, head office personnel, or ownership.  A passionate Mets fan (heard any late night on WFAN in New York where the truly rabid come out to howl) will love his beloved team even though the one he roots for today has no resemblance to the one he supported ten years ago.  The uprooting of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants to the West Coast were considered unholy travesties.  They upset the moral order of the universe.  The Baltimore Colts owners were so worried about this same kind of fan reaction that they moved the team to Indianapolis under cover of darkness.

If you take the visceral, emblematic nature of sports fandom and add to it the South’s particular reverence for tradition, you have a heady mix of potent, permanent allegiance; and, as Pudge Heffelfinger suggested above, this fiery emotion is picked up and shared by the players. They are not just fighting to win a ballgame, they are fighting to uphold the tradition of the team and the State and perhaps even the South. 

Barra adds one more element to the mix– rivalry. The same Southern colleges have battled each other for decades.  The SEC was formed in 1932 with 13 teams and ten have remained.  Two more teams were added in 1990, and additional expansion is contemplated.  However, the rivalries of the ten original teams has continued for seventy years.  Other conferences, such as the Big Ten, started at the turn of the 20th Century, are bigger with a longer history, but when this long history of SEC rivalries is added to tradition, the mix becomes even more potent.

All well and good up to this point; but purely cultural explanations do not seem quite enough.  Barra adds another:

While rivalries are important everywhere, in the North, Northeast, Midwest and West Coast, college football competes with major league baseball, pro football, the NBA, and even hockey for a fan's attention. In the South, people celebrate Bear Bryant's birthday even though it falls on September 11. Generations who were unborn when LSU's Billy Cannon made his great 69-yard punt return against Ole Miss in 1959 regularly relive the glory of the run on YouTube.

There isn’t really that much to do in the South, Barra suggests, at least by way of sports.  You may already have a passionate commitment to Ole Miss, but if that’s the only game in town, it is likely that your interest in the team, its players, trades, management, finances, and fortune will be even greater.

Another reason may be that SEC games are played near each other, fueling the rivalries:

Thompson feels that the SEC's gaudy record in the BCS is due in part "because SEC teams usually play in bowls at or near home stadiums, which often results in more favorable matchups for SEC teams."

Perhaps the real reason SEC teams are so successful today is because they are winners. Because of its perennially successful record, the SEC will attract the best athletes, thus further consolidating the supremacy of the conference.  The fiery play on the field may have nothing at all to do with the South, tradition, or rivalries, but highly motivated players who see Auburn, Ole Miss, or Alabama as their meal tickets to the NFL.  The fans filling the huge stadiums of the South may be white, conservative traditionalists, but the players on the field are mostly black and poor, and the main thought in their minds is making it to the promised land of professional football.

According to the National Football League, over the last 20 years 576 players from the conference have been drafted into the pros. That's more than the next two leagues—the PAC 12 (250) and the Big 12 (224)—combined.

In conclusion, the current success of the SEC is most probably due to the great players on the field, the coaching and recruiting staff, the front office, and the owners – the basic elements of any successful franchise; but no one in the conference can ignore the complex roles of Southern tradition and rivalries, a passionate fan base and a storied football history which got it to where it is today.

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