Southern Pride in Football

I just read an interesting article that points out the fierce southern pride in college football that leads crowds to actually cheer for their conference at games.  Yes, “SEC, SEC, SEC” is apparently becoming a commonplace chant in football.  And it’s true.  Even I, as a sparing football consumer, swell with pride when I hear someone talk about how the SEC teams can best anyone.  Even my mother says that it is unfair that all the SEC teams should have to play each other so often because it makes their win-loss record look on par with teams who had much easier opponents.

English: Logo of the Southeastern Conference (...

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This article has some interesting history about how the South came to feel so much pride in football.  Apparently, it was not always this way:

It all starts with the Civil Wa… I know, I know, but, trust me, this story gets more interesting than that. After the final gun sounded on Reconstruction, northern schools had a jump start on their southern counterparts in football. (A typical score from 1890: Princeton 115, Virginia 0.) Religious critics in the South argued against the “football craze” because it was unsafe, immoral, and fundamentally a Yankee thing. To counter that, the South’s colleges began the “southernize” the game. The bands played “Dixie.” LSU’s Tigers were named after soldiers who fought in the Civil War.

The phenomenon of southern football swagger probably dates to the 1926 Rose Bowl, when Alabama faced off with Washington. This was an accident: Alabama was invited only after several teams declined. “I’ve never heard of Alabama as a football team,” historian Andrew Doyle quotes a Rose Bowl agent as saying. But after the Tide’s three third-quarter touchdowns won the game, they became symbolic champs for the whole South. Auburn students gathered on campus to follow the game — even though Auburn and Alabama had stopped playing each other due to mutual loathing. “Alabama,” Vanderbilt’s coach cheered, “was our representative in fighting for us against the world.”

That sounds a lot like the spirit behind the SEC chant. And as historian Michael Oriard has shown, every South-versus-North matchup thereafter became a fantasy football Civil War. “The Georgians might have been charging up the slope at Gettysburg again,” one sportswriter squealed after UGA upset Yale in 1929. When a southern team knocked off a northern foe, it was said to have exacted revenge on the Yankees. If the South lost, well, let Grantland Rice tell it: “It was a magnificent charge in a lost cause. It was Pickett at Gettysburg. It was an outclassed team, physically, giving everything it had.” That lede should have been burned along with Atlanta.

And of course, that means there is a dark past involved in Southern football:

For a long, terrible period, the South’s football pride manifested itself as racism. Football became a blocking scheme to protect Jim Crow. “The South stands at Armageddon,” Georgia’s governor declared in December 1955, when an integrated Pittsburgh Panthers team was set to play in the Sugar Bowl. (They played anyway.) Southern teams refused to play integrated squads even in the north; they segregated their home stadiums. When judges struck down the segregationist laws, many SEC schools kept their squads all-white anyway. It took Bear Bryant until 1970 to recruit a black scholarship player.

But the South didn’t burst with pride until after Jim Crow had come and gone:

What happened? First off, the SEC just got really, really amazing. SEC schools won the past five BCS titles, showing not only the conference’s quality, but its deep bench. The old “southern inferiority complex” became the rest of the nation’s. Now, college message boards whine that the media are hopelessly biased toward the SEC. ESPN and are accused of handing out Heisman hype, a boost in the recruiting rankings, and a mandatory slot in the BCS title game.

Structural factors nurture SEC fandom. CBS broadcasts nationally televised SEC games every Saturday rather than regional games, giving the conference a gather-’round-the-flat screen experience. Moreover, the SEC maintained its geographic identity as other conferences have lost theirs. Before next year’s likely addition of Texas A&M, the SEC’s last two invitees were Arkansas and South Carolina.

The hosannas once heaped on southern warriors are now heaped on southern football players. They’re faster than anybody else, or so we hear. Last January, after Nick Fairley pushed over Oregon linemen with his pinkie, they became physically stronger, too. “The difference in this league and all the other leagues is defensive linemen,” Florida’s Will Muschamp told an Alabama paper this summer. After finally beating an SEC team in a bowl game this year, Ohio State fans — told for years their guys were slow, wussy, etc. — mounted a mock SEC chant. . .

And then our author ties the whole thing to the nature of Southern identity as a whole:

As the New South gets newer, there’s an urge to embrace old things. Blue-collar comedy. “Real” country music. A unified Dixie that beats its chest and does the moonwalk. Yet society has evolved to the point (thank goodness) where this urge can no longer manifest itself as a Lost Cause, a segregated Sugar Bowl, or a mascot named Colonel Reb.

When the SEC started winning national titles, it rebranded southern pride for the 21st century. “For southerners that like to have solidarity,” says Jackson, “football gives us a place where we can do it and can’t really be criticized for it.” The SEC chant is galling not only because it’s right on the merits, but because, for once, it’s politically correct.

I find the comments on the idea of Southern Exceptionalism, Southern inferiority complex, and the like interesting.

Article quoted can be found here.


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