Whatever else it might be, the United States is not one nation indivisible. As for liberty and justice, we can’t even agree on a working definition for those words. We are a country of psychic fiefdoms—Democrat or Republican, secular or churched, city or country, grilled or fried, boxers or briefs, Marvel or DC, MSNBC or Fox, PBR or Peroni, Deen or Bourdain, pro-choice or anti-abortion, cat or dog. And out in those storied hinterlands sometimes called “the real America,” we are Volunteers or Razorbacks, Wolverines or Fighting Irish, Rattlers or Wildcats.
Football, not diplomacy, is the continuation of war by other means. Or, as a character in William Faulkner’s The Hamlet, bewildered by the popularity of the game up there at the ’varsity, says: “I hear it ain’t much different from actual fighting.” During a 1960 road trip, John Steinbeck observed: “Sectional football games have the glory and the despair of war, and when a Texas team takes the field against a foreign state, it is an army with banners.” By “foreign state,” Steinbeck means Arkansas. Or Louisiana. But it could as easily be a team from a couple of counties away. When Georgia and Georgia Tech played for the first time, in 1893, it was like the Orange Order marching down the Garvaghy Road or the Kosovars versus the Serbs: Georgia fans hurled rocks from a newly plowed field at Yellowjacket players. During the 1894 Harvard-Yale match (also known as “the Hampden Park bloodbath”), a Yale player slugged a Harvard man during an officials’ conference, breaking his nose. Two players were thrown out for unnecessary violence; five went to the hospital; riots erupted after Yale won 12-4. Disposed for more than a century to despise each other anyway, the two universities broke off relations for three years. In 1902, South Carolina beat Clemson 12-6. That was bad enough for the chippy cow-college lads, but then a gaggle of SC students commenced to parade through Columbia with a poster of a Gamecock cock-a-doodle-dooing over an abject Tiger. Amour propre affronted, Clemson cadets marched to the enemy campus, armed with swords and bayonets. Carolina students hunkered down behind a wall, sticks and cocked pistols at the ready. Coaches, cops, and faculty finally negotiated a peace.
And lest you think sectarian violence a relic of the leather helmet era, in 2006 the Florida International University Golden Panthers, overrun and outscored by the Miami Hurricanes, resorted to punching and kicking the Miami holder after a successful extra-point kick. Miami defenders, including the man-mountainous (6’8”) Calais Campbell, charged in; an FIU player hit Campbell, then both benches cleared. A’mod Ned, an injured FIU running back, hobbled off the sidelines and started whacking Hurricanes with his crutch.
Americans from San Diego to Bangor like to identify with the redemptive violence, the heroism, of the eleven clean-limbed young warriors fighting for us on the gridiron. Everyone craves pageant and ceremony, and college football abounds with pageant and ceremony: rock-slapping, toast-throwing, pig-calling, baton-twirling, fight song-singing, heraldic color-wearing, icon-bearing—surely those toilet paper rolls affixed to the tops of Tide detergent boxes are like the holy images carried before an army. In the South, where it is natural to belong to the “Auburn Family,” the “Wolfpack,” the “Gator Nation,” the cultural undertow of college football is especially strong. Professional football has fans: Packers fans, Ravens fans, Bucs fans; in the college game you are a Tiger or a Golden Eagle, the fierce mammal or soaring bird of prey; or, in the case of those collective noun teams (Crimson Tide, Green Wave, Thundering Herd), the essence of the relevant force of nature inhabits you in some shamanistic fashion. This can lead to biologically unlikely assertions: Daddy and them—they’re all Bulldogs. I’m a Wildcat, but I married a Tar Heel. What with us living here in Fort Worth, I wouldn’t be surprised if the young’uns turn out to be Horned Frogs.
It’s not that Michigan or Minnesota or Arizona or Oregon isn’t just as crazy for college ball as the next ESPN-U subscriber, it’s just that the South, the land of the Hatfields and the McCoys, has this highly developed vocabulary for “us” versus “them.” Who the hell are we? If you tailgate in the Grove, the answer is, of course, flim-flam, bim-bam, Ole Miss, by damn! At Georgia Tech, you’re a helluva helluva hell of an engineer! even if you majored in economics. In Gainesville, when the Pride of the Sunshine marching band plays the theme from Jaws, you extend your arms, one on top of the other, palms facing, and slowly move your hands together and apart, affirming your Gatordom. This is your tribe; these are your people; you belong to a nation with invisible borders. You do not need to have graduated from the relevant university. In Alabama, two thirds of the working-age population lack a college degree, but more than two thirds identify themselves as 110 percent devoted to either the Auburn University Tigers or the University of Alabama Crimson Tide. Many—probably most—in the stands or watching on TV don’t approve of what they get up to in universities anyway. Evolutionary biology. Queer theory. Nobody cares if the roof of the psychology building leaks, if the professors’ last raise was in 1998, and the provost, faced with another budget cut, has to shut down philosophy, art history, and French—as long as nobody messes with football.
We are who we are because we are not those assholes who support Notre Dame or Tennessee: we are better-looking, smarter, stronger, and way cooler. Our team is virtuous, brave, strong; their team is full of crazy people and criminals. If their team wins, bad things will happen. The moral order will disintegrate. Chaos will ensue. If our team wins, the universe vibrates with joy.
Which brings me to “Al from Dadeville.” That was his nom de guerre, the one he used when he confessed live on radio to poisoning the two most important oak trees in the state of Alabama. His real name is Harvey Updyke, and he’s a former Texas highway patrolman. In January 2011, he decided to call Paul Finebaum’s sports show and brag about committing silvicide. Finebaum seemed unsure of just how seriously to take the guy and inquired if it was against the law to poison a tree.
Updyke said, “Do you think I care?”
“No,” said Finebaum.
Here’s what happened: Alabama lost 28-27 to Auburn in the 2010 Iron Bowl. The Tide had the Tigers down 24-0, then Auburn charged back, thanks to quarterback Cam Newton, who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy. On his way out of Bryant-Denny Stadium, Updyke saw that somebody had stuck an Auburn jersey—Cam Newton’s Number 2!—on the bronze statue of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. You might as well draw nipples on a painting of the Virgin Mary, or pee on the Stars and Stripes. See, Updyke loves University of Alabama football like Abelard loved Heloise, like Lassie loved Timmy. His son is named Bear Bryant Updyke; his daughter is Crimson Tyde. He owns forty-six Alabama hats. He told a writer for ESPN, “I think about Alabama football, I’m not exaggerating, eighteen hours a day. I have always been that way. . . . I mean, I know it’s not healthy.”
Well, to paraphrase Bugs Bunny, such an assault on the honor of the university means, of course, war. Updyke got hold of some Spike 80DF, a powerful herbicide, drove to Auburn under cover of darkness, and dosed Toomer’s Oaks, which were as sacred in Lee County as Zeus’s holy oaks at Dodona.
When Auburn wins, students, townsfolk, and “dirt road alumni” gather outside Toomer’s Drugs at the corner of College and Magnolia to hurl rolls of toilet paper at the branches of two 85-year-old live oaks. It is a tradition that dates back to antiquity, which is to say, the early Seventies. There the toilet paper would hang like a fat snowy fringe until the wind carried it off or the rain dissolved it or university maintenance guys with fire hoses blasted it off the branches. Despite the best efforts of dendrologists, horticulturalists, and boffins from Dow Chemical (who make Spike 80DF), the oaks died, and on April 23, they were cut down. Three concrete poles replace the trees, tall shafts with wires strung between them: something to hang that toilet paper on. The plan is to put in new oaks, scions of the old ones. Meanwhile, the wood harvested from Toomer’s originals is being worked into reliquaries like splinters of the True Cross. For $64.95, you can get a framed piece.
On June 9, Updyke was released from the Lee County Jail, where he served six months for “unlawful damage of a crop facility.” He’s on probation for the next five years and banned for life from Auburn; indeed, he’s forbidden to attend any collegiate sporting event anywhere ever until the end of time. Harvey Updyke called Paul Finebaum’s show again, a few months after his confession. He acknowledged that he’d hurt Auburn people: “If I was an Auburn fan, I would be upset too. I just want to tell them I’m not a bad person. I’m a Alabama fan. Tommy Lewis and the ’54 Cotton Bowl. He came off the bench and tackled the Rice player. They asked him why’d you do it? He said, ‘I just have too much Bama in me.’” Then he signed off: “Roll damn Tide.”
In his essay “On the Pleasure of Hating,” William Hazlitt writes: “Nature seems (the more we look into it) made up of antipathies: without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. . . . The white streak in our own fortunes is brightened (or just rendered visible) by making all around it as dark as possible; so the rainbow paints its form upon the cloud.” In other words, when the heavily recruited quarterback of the heavily favored University of Florida Gators throws an interception on the first play from scrimmage—as happened in the 2013 Sugar Bowl—and a cornerback for the unfancied Louisville Cardinals runs it in for a touchdown, the rainbow—given that my own FSU Seminoles lost to the Gators just a few weeks before—glitters like a neon fiesta, all happy shades of schadenfreude.
I’m a Democratic-voting, tree-hugging pinko. I have four degrees in English lit. I’m a feminist, for God’s sake, an academic. Instead of hollering from the stands, I should be writing a learned paper on the strange obsession with bathroom tissue displayed by Alabama’s two major universities. Yet I can’t quit college football. It’s like a bad boyfriend. His table manners are embarrassing, he’s a Republican, he’s never read a book, and you can’t imagine bringing him home to meet Mother and Daddy, but Jesus, he’s fine and makes you feel so good. Love, like hatred, is irrational, a chemical transaction over which you have only limited control. I love the game. But I don’t want to love the game. College football is nasty, brutish, and about as morally uplifting as a date with Donald Trump. College football reinforces extreme gender roles: those huge guys in their armor, beating the living shit out of each other on the field; those tiny pom-pom-brandishing girls in pleated skirts cheering them on. Football is flat-out misogynistic: every year there are players arrested for rape, for assault, for hitting their girlfriends.
The game is indefensible. Every year during August two-a-days, some poor kid dies of heat stroke. Every year, a handful of players—starters who should know better—get arrested, sometimes for dumb crap like possession of weed or shoplifting or public urination, other times for burglary or sexual assault. Every year coaches who are supposed to be molders of character and leaders of young men get caught doing all sorts of nefarious deeds. Penn State’s longtime defensive coach Jerry Sandusky molested children. His boss, the sainted Joe Paterno, didn’t call the cops on him. Marshall University’s Hall of Fame coach Jim Donnan has been charged with running an $80 million Ponzi scheme to defraud fellow coaches Barry Switzer of Oklahoma and Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech. Razorbacks head coach Bobby Petrino was out on his hog in the Ozarks one afternoon, his girlfriend riding pillion. They wiped out, then got found out. The university was not amused. Neither was Petrino’s wife.
And yet there is such joy in seeing your tribe, your people, your team win. You are validated. You are part of the family, the clan. You have a home. Yes, it’s retrograde, this world without troubling ambiguities, this world in which we are right and they are wrong. And yet a good hit is so goddamned gorgeous.
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