Embroiled as we are in the midst of football season – political and otherwise – a seemingly trivial college gridiron spat has unwittingly tapped a rich analysis of American history.
Here’s the deal: ESPN college football pundit Kirk Herbstreit criticized the SEC (the Southeastern Conference) for unduly celebrating the fact that teams from its conference have won the past seven college football national championships. Not surprisingly, SEC fans gleefully revel in these laurels, often chanting S-E-C!, S-E-C-! whether their home team was the ultimate victor or not. Mr. Herbstreit would like the proud SEC partisans to be equally possessive of the conferences’ losses, particularly a recent 59-14 drubbing of SEC stalwart Tennessee at the hands of PAC-12 powerhouse Oregon. Opined Mr. Herbstreit:
“The SEC, it’s unique about their fanbase. There are 14 schools. When one of them wins a national championship, all 14 carry the flag for the national championship. They all claim it. They all claim the national championship like they won it together. So when Tennessee gets ambushed by Oregon, they need to all get their flag out together and accept that loss to Oregon.”
On the sports website Mr. SEC, writer John Pennington not only took on Mr. Herbstreit’s criticisms, he dug way deeper into Southern culture, history and, indeed, an entire way of looking at life. To wit:
Life’s short. Much of it is miserable. What’s wrong with taking a little pleasure in knowing that your conference is the toughest in the land? …The general gist — as far as we can guess — is that people outside of Dixie don’t want to see other people happy. Think about it. Isn’t that really what they’re saying. “We don’t want you to have any more fun than us!”…
What folks across the country don’t realize is that until the 1960s, there were no professional teams in the Deep South. There were only college football and basketball teams to fall in love with and to worship. Someone from Columbus or New York or Chicago might grow up equally loving their college team, their pro football team, their pro hoops team, their pro baseball team and their pro hockey team. Down South, folks had their college team. End of story. No other love came close. For that reason, Southerners are still more invested in the successes and failures of their favorite school and their favorite conference.
The South is the only region of the country that lost a war. It’s a region that had a much harder time than most when it came to civil rights. The South’s economy lagged behind other regions for decades after the Civil War. To put it simply, the South has known a lot of woes (though many were admittedly self-inflicted). So if the people of the South want to rally around their beloved football conference and enjoy claiming crown after crown, so what? Does someone else’s joy somehow take pleasure away from people like Herbstreit? SEC fans are proud of their league. Big deal.
Sociologists, historians, philosophers, sports writers, citizens of the United States of America? Have at it.