Friday, December 11, 2009

Southern College Football Fans Are the Biggest Bandwagoners in American Sports

Is there any entertainment outside of southern college football where spending $20,000-$120,000 poses an insufficient demonstration of loyalty? No other phenomenon involves racking up enough debt to go toward the down-payment on anything from 1-12 small houses yet still getting called "fairweather" for failing to smother the ass-end of your car in logos, slogans and other ugly crap.

I ask myself this question during NCAA football season because I've lived in the south for quite a while and still cannot understand the intensity with which otherwise amiable neighbors will denounce each other one day a week for liking one pair of ugly colors over another. Florida exemplifies this perfectly: "What's that? You don't like royal blue and puke orange? That's a far better pairing than maroon and jaundice or green and also puke orange." The only two groups of people in this world who should care this much about orange are the Dutch and the Northern Irish.

(It's not as if I ask out of ignorance. I love football. One of the finest football weekends I ever spent involved 11 hours of college football with a buddy who decided to serve only food that he cooked in his deep fryer, while everyone there drank enough to make the Budweiser Clydesdales nicker and want to roll our asses to an emergency room. It was amazing. I wish I could kickoff every college football season this way.)

My opening question wasn't rhetorical flourish: I actually know someone who went to undergraduate and law school at the University of Florida — seven straight years in Gainesville, seven straight years of going to home games — who had a beer thrown on him for not having any blue+puke totems on the back of his busted-ass Hyundai. Evidently the tens of thousands of dollars in brand-loyalty tuition debt didn't persuade anybody. Maybe they thought his colors ran. Who knows?

Every year I struggle to find fandom analogs. About the best one that springs to mind is The Grateful Dead. Serious Dead fans tended to look down their noses on fans who didn't follow the band for a little bit, just to get the experience, but only the truly nutty insisted that you had to spend a year or more of your life doing it. The point in following the band was to meet new people, go to different places, rely on the communal generosity of strangers and experience something the albums couldn't give you: after all, a lot of people will tell you that the Dead in concert were a far superior band than the Dead in the studio. (They were.)

There's not that much of an experiential difference with southern college football. Sure, you can go to different stadiums, but you're going to start going to the same ones after a year. You can meet new people, but if you have season tickets, you'll often wind up with the same group over and over. Ditto if you like to stakeout a tailgate spot. And even if the games are always different, it's tough to argue that you can't experience them with better clarity, immediacy and comprehensiveness of knowledge on the TV. That last bit is no credit to announcing: it's just the fact that you'll get a much higher degree of detail on every play because most of them won't be inky smudges at the other end of the field. (To say nothing of the benefits of the DVR.)

I just don't get it. Every year, I walk away slightly startled by the same sets of observations about the feverish adoration that is the southern college football experience. And, when I try to factor in disparate elements of fandom, I still cannot avoid the thought that southern college football fans are little more than the front-runningest assholes in sports and can't stop congratulating themselves for being so.

1. There is almost no way to exceed in displaying an excess of devotion, because this makes you and your team better because you are there.
A couple months back, I found myself sitting in my backyard hearing a large drunk party about four houses away screaming at a game they DVR'd that was by then over eight hours old. I could hear the play calls; I knew it was the UF-Tennessee game; it was that loud. But this really wasn't that exceptional. Back when I used to travel the state for work, I'd encounter upper-middle-class professionals planning on driving 500 miles round-trip on a Saturday to catch a game at the ol' college. It doesn't sound like much, but when you consider how counterintuitive it is to commute to drink — to spend 12 hours bleached by the sun and eating barbecue and sucking down beers before driving nearly four hours home — then it's a little odd. Sometimes I'd ask these guys, flat-out, "You're billing $200 an hour for this. If you work ten hours today, you can buy a TV bigger than God. If you did half that yesterday, you could buy a surround system that sounds like God. Why leave the house?" Then these totally normal-looking people wearing off-the-rack Armani and carrying around $1,000-worth of Coach briefcase would look me dead in the eye and say, "We need to get out there and represent." It sounded like they were in a fucking gang.

These guys would balk immediately at that last word, and the connections never seemed to get through. I mean, what else do you call getting a couple thousand of your boys together to show "the colors" and whup up on those coming into your territory? (Even when I toned down the definition of gang, they objected to my asking if they liked to walk to the stadium in formation and snapping their fingers on the beat.) They'd even drive to the thing like Hell's Angels, sans bikes — colors on their SUVs, lights on, flicking the brights, honking, forming a caravan with people they didn't even know.

All to experience being hot-as-fuck on old bleachers, watching a game they could have been seeing in larger proportions on their own Italian leather sofa. Which doesn't even begin to address the fact that, at home, their food and beer could be better and in larger proportions: no need to worry about using the WC or overclocking the BAC when you've got a TV set that Big Brother would want to beam in on, DVR you can pause before sitting on your own toilet with a small library, and a backyard where you could wander around naked if you wanted to.

The funny thing is that these guys are tame compared to other fan excess you can experience; they're the aristocrats of being boozed boosters. The rest of the gallery would be worth mentioning if the ESPN College Gameday preview didn't show you a lot of it already. The thing to remember is that these people are fervent, often in ways bizarrely incomparable with their day-to-day lives. They access these emotions and carry them like they're bearing the team's fortunes with them. This tends to spill over on the internet in a really strange way:

2. I have a gatling gun of stones firing out regionalistic ugliness from my crystal palace.
Detroit is a firebombed wasteland. Florida isn't the "True South." Georgia got burned by Sherman. Maryland might call itself southern, but it was a Yankee state in the last war that mattered. Alabamans might not have many teeth, but you should see the teeth on those Mississippians (none!). LSU only wins because of all the black people in Louisiana. Texas should have more national titles because it should still be its own nation.

And on and on.

The thing is, in almost any instance of a fan of one region busting on another, he'll wind up describing himself and his area with the same words with which he supposedly destroys his opponent. The Michigan fan who nails the Alabama fan to the wall on the subject of hillbilly racism ignores the fact that northern Michigan is a wasteland of white flight and is pure as the driven snow in more ways than one. The southerner who mocks Detroit for being bombed-out post-industrial crap never notices that he lives in a place of never-industry, where productivity was never built because low-income workers fled north and west in WWII and in the first two post-war decades. The southerners who mock northern union wage-slaves by citing their larger salaries never note that they work service jobs where those salaries disappear paying for the benefits that union wage-slaves already get. The northerners who can't stop making fun of southern accents benefit from the fact that it's a lot harder to type out flattened midwestern vowels, New York agita and New England ahhhh sounds. Basically, everyone is and sounds like an idiot.

That doesn't matter, though, because "our" idiots are always better than "their" idiots. There are always enough particular and unique nuggets of mockery to latch onto to give a pretense of difference. South Floridians can comfort themselves mentioning that the further north you go in Florida, the more Deliverance it gets; while FSU fans in Tallahassee can shoot back at Miami residents: "At least our town isn't filled with Jews." Both can turn and mock the Alabaman for living in the state 49th from the top in education, as the Alabaman mocks the Ohioan for having rivers that catch on fire, while the Ohioan looks down on the Mississippian for living in a state where black people could only get into college with the help of the fucking army.

And so on.

Lost in these battles is the fact that it's like watching the slaves beat the shit out of each other to make the overseer's job less of a hassle. Look, it's a tired observation to describe hot wings and football as the modern analogue to the Roman bread and circuses created to sate an agitated population with token gifts and gaudy distractions. Fuck it: football rules; hot wings rule. I don't think I can truly understand anyone who doesn't believe that. When talking only about tastes and enthusiasms, the bread-and-circuses comment is really little more than an ivory-tower drone, unoriginal and unwelcome.

But the funny thing about college football is that the absence of a playoff system makes it impossible to honestly evaluate the best teams in the country. Fans often will never see them play each other; if the teams do, it's usually years later, as a response to those previous elite seasons, long after key players have graduated, rendering the contest meaningless. Without any helpful metrics for comparison, the argument inevitably collapses into an American internecine squabble, teams deprecated via region, history, ethnicity, wealth, what have you. And at that point, fans themselves tap into the nut of the bread-and-circuses observation, because they wind up whaling on each other on the basis of economic prosperity.

Because football dominance is so subjective, the discussion refers back to the fanbase itself, where the ultimate rubric of who's more pathetic usually involves the degree to which they're getting buttfucked by the erosion of the middle class and a post-industrial society increasingly drawn into binary opposition of those who service debt and those who serve us at fucking Wal-Mart. The reward is bragging rights for a championship that garners nothing. It's like watching It's a Wonderful Life, only George Bailey and his supporters all have pellagra and massive debt, and they're going to war with the rest of the townsfolk, who all have rickets and the same amount of debt. Their prize is first rights to draw water from a well Mr. Potter lined with lead and strychnine. Everyone's so busy trying to tell jokes at the other fans' expense, and the tools they use to do that are ones that have gotten them a hair's breadth from realizing that the bigger joke is on all of them.

That southern fans lustily join in this mockery and scramble for social superiority despite living in states whose citizens tend to have poorer education/literacy rates, lower life-spans, lower economic mobility/opportunity and very likely higher incidents of pellagra and rickets induces something almost like despair at the futility, until you get to:

3. If you think I feel strongly about the team now, just imagine if I had a connection to it in any way.
Part of the almost compulsive regionalistic chest-beating stems from the fact that so many southern college football fans have absolutely no reason to root for any college football team. Take any person fanatical about LSU, Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, FSU, Miami or UF and you probably have only a 50% chance of their either attending the schools or having a parent who attended them. The one-upmanship argument immediately switches to geography from academics or school quality because, really, how would they know? Granted, it's a lot easier to write a funny burn about a city's water catching on fire than it is to make fun of a poli-sci department being filled with Leo Strauss-quoting Bush Doctrine mongoloids, but comments about academic standards are rare enough to be worth mentioning. When you pick a team because you're geographically close to it, the team represents your region, not its alumni.

Suddenly, the need to "represent" for the team irrespective of whether you actually went to that school explains itself. Fuck your tuition, and fuck dropping a hundred-thousand dollars on the school. You have no ties to [X School] Football unless you publicly root for it. No one can see the checks you write every month for student loans, and anyway, that connection is immaterial. The school as a Football Program has nothing to do with people accepted to the school and attached enough to it to throw wage slave's lifetime's earnings at it: the school is the people maybe/sort of/kinda proximate to it who root for the team really fucking noticeably. Within the frame of sports, the schools themselves are divorced from their actual purpose and transform into football-delivery devices. Thus you get situations like the one I encountered when I moved to Florida a while back:
SOME GUY: So who do you root for?
ME: What?
SOME GUY: You know, UF? FSU, Miami?
ME: Huh? None of 'em.
SOME GUY: Oh, Alabama? Auburn?
ME: No, man.
SOME GUY: You have to root for one of them.
ME: No I don't. I'm not even from here.
SOME GUY: Well, you have to pick one, though.
ME: What? No I don't. Why?
SOME GUY: Well, then if you're not gonna root for them, who are you gonna root for?
ME: I just want the game to be cool. Nobody in my family ever went to a school with a real football program, so I never picked one. I just root against the assholes mainly, or for players I think are cool.
SOME GUY: Well, you're gonna have to pick one eventually. That's what we do here.
ME: In Florida?
ME: I gotta pick a team that's from Florida or maybe Alabama, even though they're not from Florida?
SOME GUY: Yeah, they're good teams.
ME: If I'm just picking good teams, why don't I just pick Michigan or USC?
SOME GUY: Oh, you can't do that.
For the record, this dude was huge and buff as hell, but soft-spoken and patient, and he later turned out to be one of the nicest guys I've ever met. I was happy to know him. But what he wound up telling me wasn't uncommon, frowned upon that much or even really weird.

No one in his family had gone to any of those schools, but he'd felt obliged to make a choice. A lot of people I knew had similar stories. You were just expected to pick one, and it didn't even matter if you wound up going to that school either (although some people did make their college choices based on rooting interests, which would have been hilariously wretched if they hadn't become business-school clones or personal-injury attorneys). The decision boiled down to selecting a team that had a chance to win. Civic identity dimmed in comparison to the importance of just choosing a contender: even in Florida, if you wanted to pick an Alabama team, so what, especially if you lived in the north or west? It's a neighbor. Close enough to count. The important thing was that you were in the game. Now that you'd made your choice, it was time to represent, fly the colors, approach people new in town and determine where their loyalties lay so you could start busting on wherever the fuck they came from.

Of course, the last thing you could do was swear off this process entirely and pick an NFL team, because:

4. Professional football is not as fun and not as pure.
The argument should be fatuous by now to anyone paying attention. The "college" addition to "football" is at this point a meaningless adjective signifying that it's not professional. You could call it "Football" or "Not High School Football," and everyone would know what you meant. Any pretense to differentiating this game on the basis of academics is at best exceptional and at worst stupid. True, some kids are great students who embrace everything that their situation has to offer, which is why you will hear about them on big-game broadcasts ad nauseam to maintain the pretense that NCAA Football is not an athletic industry fundamentally disconnected from any conception of education. But aside from them, you're watching the minor-league version of the real deal.

College football fans vociferously deny this. They ignore that coaches now receive millions of dollars in salaries, like their NFL counterparts. They ignore that students routinely reach starting positions on college squads without the verbal wherewithal to plausibly sound like they escaped junior high with a passing grade. Moreover, even my kicking around the outskirts of a southern legal system allowed me to bump into former ADAs and senior partners in defense firms all too happy to crow about having been (or being) the first number dialed by city/county police in college towns whenever a recognized player was arrested (if not by the players themselves). Naturally, neither they nor I can prove anything — and the absence of anything shouldn't constitute proof that shady dealings occur — but the seemingly common knowledge and satisfaction that southern NCAA fans take in things that evidently never existed is enough to give one pause. (It's one thing if it's a conspiracy whose existence you think you can "prove" because everyone denies it; it's another thing if everyone who supposedly knows about it takes pride in winking about it at you.) For every person who claimed that while they worked in X County they either knew or were the person assigned to disappear criminal issues related to [College's] players, I can count handfuls of fans who are proud to attest that they not only knew of it but considered it fair play because of what Y and Z Counties did for Y and Z Colleges' players.

College football isn't pure. It's funded like the NFL, teeming with determined boosters willing to "donate" new Town Cars; it's maintained by a system that works hard to get kids on rosters irrespective of academic distinction and pressures teachers who actually grade them; it does little to regulate their academic performance once locked into the program; and it's tainted time and again by disclosed backroom deals, prosecutorial dismissals, player rewards, player plunder of local businesses' and boosters' largesse all out of whack with anything plausible.

It's a machine, oiled and goosed to be everything like the NFL, only within the boundaries of "passing grades." Anyone in the south who possesses a shred of honesty should acknowledge that their schools operate on the mandate of being as much like the NFL as possible, while adhering to the plastic strictures of limited numbers of years playing and minimum contemptible GPAs. In this sense, it's really only the NFL's minor league.

That last bit requires coming to grips with the idea that southern college football sucks on an overall talent level — beyond the college it pretends to be and against the NFL machine it has grown ineluctably to try to ape. If you're watching NFL Junior, it's junior. It's not as good. Dressing it up as something better represents a compensatory and defensive gesture. Only the dimmest mind can pretend that, say, SEC Football is as good as an NFL team, but you'll see that argument trundled out every year as some NFL team struggles against professional talent and an SEC team whups holy hell on a bunch of no-lose token opponents, other powerhouse schools that might be having transitional years and a few other good teams suffering bad breaks. The argument has less to do with the teams themselves but the fans of them. They need these teams to be just as good as the NFL, because they care so much about them.

For one thing, again, college football lacks a playoff system. One random loss, and a fan's team is potentially out of the championship hunt. Caring and arguing makes up for the lack of a contest amongst teams. If you can point to a single horrible loss and still assert that you're a better team than one in the NFL, well, naturally you're a better team than whichever team won the BCS Championship. They're not NFL-caliber, like you. The apples-and-oranges comparison between the NCAA and the NFL really isn't much of a reach when you already care enough about college football to make apples-and-oranges comparisons amongst the SEC, the Pac-10, the Big-10, the MAC, the ACC and the three or four other conferences that keep producing awesome teams that NCAA Football is too chickenshit to give a real opportunity.

All you have to do is lose perspective hard enough and care hard enough, and everything is repaired in your favor. Even facts. The Florida Gators are actually better than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. SEC football is actually more refined and "truer" (meaning: things exempted from examination or statistical detail) football than NFL football. Anyone who doesn't like southern college football is Hitler. All you have to do is care hard enough. Care for your team. And mercilessly ridicule other teams. Southern college football is the touchstone. It's what any true football fan would believe in. Because:

5. It's the only football where southern fans regularly win, a universal self-congratulatory bandwagoning.
When it comes to college football, southern fans will bark at your ear until you hope it will just melt and dissolve into the hole in your head that hears things. They will do this again and again to prove that their fandom is unique and not at all fueled by the probability of winning things. They are liars. Bad liars.

College football is insanely popular in the south for one reason only: the south fucking sucks in the NFL. Consider:
NCAA Football Titles Won by Southern Teams, Last 30 Seasons:
1978 — Alabama/USC
1979 — Alabama
1980 — Georgia
1981 — Clemson
1983 — Miami
1987 — Miami
1989 — Miami
1991 — Miami
1992 — Alabama
1993 — Florida State
1996 — Florida
1998 — Tennessee
1999 — Florida State
2001 — Miami
2003 — LSU/USC
2005 — Texas
2006 — Florida
2007 — LSU

60% chance of winning

I specifically categorized southern teams as any team from a state that was part of the Confederate States of America. I felt reassured in this distinction, which obliged me to not count Oklahoma teams (2) because I've met too many Okahomans who consider themselves from a plains state, rather than a southern state, if only to distinguish themselves from hated Texans.
Southern Teams That Have Won or Appeared in a Super Bowl, Last 30 Seasons (winners in bold):
1978 — Cowboys
1979 — Cowboys
1983 — Dolphins
1985 — Dolphins
1993 — Cowboys
1994 — Cowboys
1996 — Cowboys
1999 — Falcons
2000 — Titans
2003 — Buccaneers
2004 — Panthers

37% appearance rate
17% chance of winning

I did not count Washington as being a southern team, because they are nominally the team of the Federal District, which, climate aside, hasn't been southern since at least 1861. Additionally, I didn't include the Baltimore Ravens, since Maryland was a Union state in the Civil War—aaiiigh!!! Yankees!!! black people!!!!—and fits more in that Baltimore-DC-New York corridor of industrial northern cities, even if all the industries that made it so have been subsumed by the last 30 years of creating an economy that only provides debts, services, debt services and the creation of new debts to service
Look at that breakdown. A 17% chance of winning in the NFL versus a 60% chance of winning in college football. Even the regional chance of appearing in the championship game in the NFL is 23% less than the chance of winning a championship in the NCAA. If you were transplanted to the south right now and had no football affiliations at all, no preference for professional or college ball, what would you be more invested in? You'd pick the medium that had the highest chance of reward, every time. Unless you cared about ability and professionalism, which aren't true football anyway.

The Dallas Cowboys started playing football in 1960 and enjoyed only a handful of years where they were the only southern NFL team for the region to get behind. Since then, the NFL has expanded to include the Atlanta Falcons (1966), Miami Dolphins (1966), New Orleans Saints (1967), Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans (1970), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1976), Carolina Panthers (1995), Jacksonville Jaguars (1995) and Houston Texans (2002). The Dolphins have won two Super Bowls and appeared in four. The Titans appeared in one. The Buccaneers won one. The Panthers appeared in one. Yet the Dallas Cowboys routinely lead the league — and have routinely led the league, for years — in team jersey sales, despite coming from a state that is not the most-populous and despite coming from a state with multiple teams. New York might have three teams, but those enthusiasms are spread across multiple close states and a far denser population. California has three teams, but the Raiders garner nationwide interest — there's still a huge hardcore metal and hip-hop cred to them — and the Chargers have a lot of Mexican fans. Even so, the Cowboys routinely beat them, from a state with a smaller population, from a state reviled in college football by fans of other programs, from a state reviled by all the southern sports rivalries you expect. And still they out-sell damn near everybody.

They do so because they're The Colors, because they represent regional pride, because nobody ever expects you to get a graduate degree in being On the Cowboys, because you can't qualify. But mostly because they win. The Dallas Cowboys are — and ever have been, and ever will be — the #1 team of The South because they're the NFL investment that pays the most dividends. When December rolls around and all those college teams can't compete for a championship anymore, there's always the Cowboys, that one glimmering regional hope of a trite rebel yell against the forces of valid, normal rest-of-the-Western-World-prosperity shit.

They're still the second chance, the fall-back. Sure, they won five Super Bowls — why else would you care about them — but they're not the sure-thing that is southern college football. They don't have a regionalistic chance of victory 60% of the time in the last generation, nor a petty hobby-fact like that, that you can hump at strangers. They don't appear in the championship games so many fucking times that calculating it is ridiculous. You only need to make excuses for why you're rooting for the Cowboys ("AHM A SUTHERN MAIHN!") in December, if all else is lost.

That's the nut of southern college football fandom. It's immediately accessible, because neither the fan nor anyone he knows has to be able to get into the college in question for him to be an obnoxious dick about it. It's a galvanizing subject for ugly and magnificently oblivious regionalism. It's the perfect rally for angry or insecure white people to roll around together in mobile fortresses and feel a part of something. It's a Saturday gang, ready to hate on those star athletes that don't want to keep the colors (usually those stupid blacks who can get drafted early) and anyone who wants to step to them with the wrong kinda shirt.

And everyone needs to buy into the lie that they are, as fans, worshipping at the top of the Talent Hill. There is nothing better than football in The South, including Texas. No one can compete. Because the alternative to rooting for a bunch of kids from different parts of the country playing for southern teams is rooting for a bunch of kids from different parts of the country playing for an NFL team.

And the winning percentages for that aren't anywhere near two-thirds.