Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Southern College Football Fans Are the Biggest Bandwagoners in American Sports (BCS Game Edition)

A short while ago, I wrote about how southern college football fans are the frontrunning-est fans in the country. Beyond insulting other parts of the country in the name of southern pride and other regionalistic ugliness, beyond silly displays of tribalism, they basically want to root for winners, and rooting for teams from the south tends to provide that for them. Just as I was starting to wonder if I'd been a little too critical, the BCS Championship game happened.

Before, during and immediately following it, most of the people I know on Facebook and many of the people I know on Twitter updated their thoughts about the two teams and who deserved to win, and reading it was like experiencing a live-action commentary on and performance of the earlier college football piece I'd written. Screenshots or copied-and-pasted text from tweets or Facebook updates will get dull fast, so rather than bore you, I'll just summarize:

Let's go, One Part of the South! Because it's the south and the other part of the south isn't really the south, or something.
I know a lot of people from the south, very few of whom are from Texas, and very few of whom root for Alabama. In spite of that, all but one of them interested in the game posted something in support of Alabama, from mere rooting interest to rabid cheering and shit-talking. And almost all of them posted an explanation why: "GO SEC."

Here's where we could get bogged down into definitions of the "True South," but for the sake of argument, let's go with what these people themselves were working with, Dixie. The SEC (Southeastern Conference) comprises teams from the core states of Dixie, with one exception: Kentucky, which was hatefully occupied by the yankees during the war. Texas, on the other hand, belongs to the Big 12, a collection of midwestern, Rockies and plains states, which includes even the toxically historically liberal Iowa. There's hardly anything southern in it, unless you want to include Texas (which many of these people didn't, whether for sports reasons or historical ones) and that inspiration for slave-compromise argument, Missouri. And obviously many people would prefer not to include them. There are too many Mexicans in Texas, not to mention Austin, which might as well be San Francisco with all its indie bands and homos. Meanwhile, there are too many black people in Missouri, treated too well for their barbecued ribs. Dick Vermeil cried there, and no one seemed to care. And everyone there voted for a dead guy instead of John Ashcroft, even though all he wanted to do was sing.

Now, I'd be uncharitable to my friends if I claimed these were their primary thoughts. Though they surely account for the thought processes of millions of southerners, I think many of my friends went for knee-jerk regional reasons stemming mainly from competitive football pride. After all, there was a poll of college football fans a while back — I wish I could find it or remember when it happened — that asked fans across the country to name the best conference in the game. Almost too perfectly, the majority of SEC fans said it was the SEC; the majority of Big 12 fans claimed it was the Big 12; and Pac-10 fans voted overwhelmingly for the Pac-10, and so forth.

As soon as you take rooting away from the specificity of one team toward an abstraction of football as a collective, most people just pick whichever collective their team happens to be in. There's nothing more complex going on here besides self-interest. After all, if their favorite team plays in a substandard conference, that means it's harder for them to convince others of their team's greatness, especially in the absence of a playoff system. The default appreciation for anyone's regional conference must be that it's the best, otherwise their team's domination of it doesn't automatically make that team the best in college football.

But there's a practical reason for this sort of rooting interest as well, one that my friends might have been thinking of:

A team from my conference that wins a championship brings accolades to the conference as a whole and thus to MY team.
Simply put: when the SEC wins a championship, the best high-school players in the country will want to play for SEC teams. This benefits all SEC teams, because the recruiting pool will be drawn to the conference by a winning team and then diffuse somehow across all other SEC teams without being enticed to other conferences. Or something.

This itself is pretty stupid. Vanderbilt plays in the SEC, and nobody alive can remember the last time some talented hell-on-earth linebacker said, "I just pray to God that I can become a Commodore." Ole Miss and Mississippi State both play in the SEC, and they rarely set the world on fire. A few family traditions aside — Eli Manning followed his dad Archie to Ole Miss, though that itself wasn't totally voluntary — most players settle for those schools after aspiring to play for those in the SEC already considered powerhouses and getting rejected.

Those schools are considered powerhouses because they win, not because some school in their conference wins. No high-school kid declared his intention to play for Florida because Alabama won this BCS game: they declared for Florida because Florida won last year, two years before that and came within a game of playing for another title this year. They don't declare for the University of South Carolina because coach Nick Saban's great in Alabama; they do so because coach Steve Spurrier won a championship with Florida in the 1990s and has a chance to do so again with the Gamecocks. They declare for Tennessee because it won a title in 1998 and contends at the start of nearly every year. LSU won in 2003 and 2007, and is never really out of the championship picture. Arkansas is a perennial contender that produces Heisman winners. Auburn should have won in 2004. Georgia always seems close to winning again. And so on. Nothing about these teams is attractive because of the company they keep but because of the titles they win or seem very capable of winning.

The whole college football mutual-prosperity concept defies logic. Sure, at some level, there's probably a point where an absence of titles from any member of a conference can stigmatize the conference as a whole, but the SEC is nowhere near that, making Alabama's win an unnecessary gloss on the championship pedigree. Try taking money out of the equation and applying this kind of thinking to pro sports, and you'd get laughed out of a bar for suggesting it. What sane fan of the Baltimore Orioles would ever say, "Gosh, I hope the Yankees win another championship, since we're out of the playoffs. That'll make high-schoolers want to sign with other teams in the American League East, like ours... to... um... be near the Yankees and get their asses whaled on by them a dozen times a year"?

Here's what happens when your rivals win championships: it makes people who are really fucking great at the sport want to play for your rivals. This tends to make their teams much better. This tends to make your team lose.

So maybe my friends didn't think it through. Maybe they really believed in this whole "improvement by proximity to people much better than you are" idea. For some of them, that might be true, but for many who I know to be serious fans, I think that argument is something of a whitewash. The only remaining explanation operating there is one of regionalistic chest-beating, even a totally benign Dixie pride learned from family or perhaps resentment at being the butt of culture jokes nationwide. That reasoning might seem plausible and might flow, until you run up against one last obstacle:

The regional/divisional pride argument almost never manifests itself anywhere else.
From hardcore east coast sports fans, you'll sometimes hear statements like, "The AL East is the toughest division in baseball," or, "The NFC East is the best division in football." Both have a grain of truth to them. It's hard for anyone to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox in the same division; their combined payrolls and potential to win championships harnesses so much talent as to make the rest of the division a run for the Wild Card slot, at best. And while the NFC East has had its off years, its hard to argue with Philly's five trips to the NFC Championship Game in the last decade and the Giants' winning the Super Bowl — not to mention Dallas' five championship trophies in the last 35 years, Washington's three and the Giants' three. But really, outside of that, the regionalistic argument doesn't get much play. You'll hear some from NL East fans, as well as the NL Central, but most other baseball and football divisions never attract the same level of fervent devotion or argument as to being The Best.

It doesn't matter, anyway, because those divisions that are so competitive and elite as to attract those sorts of boasting comments are also so riddled with rivalries and internecine loathing as to preclude any sort of "division support." Most Yankees and Red Sox fans would rather blow their brains out than root for the other team to win the division or a World Series. They will tell you that the AL East is the most challenging division in baseball only because it makes it that much sweeter to win the division and destroy their enemies. Ditto the NFC East, where fans invoke divisional pride to have something bigger to crow about when they trample the opposition. If Philly fans were rooting for the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, it was only because the Patriots had beaten Philly in Super Bowl XXXIX. Any Philly fan worth his salt was actually rooting for a meteor to destroy both teams and consume their fans and rich Super Bowl ticketholders in a glorious inferno cast down by a just god.

Yet the southern college football fan, when presented with the option of saying, "I hope to God both teams suffer in an interminable orgy of fire," instead says and — in the case of my friends — said, "GO SEC." In short, "Go us. Go our generalized association." Ask them where else they employ this thinking, and the vast majority of the time they'll be stumped. These people have never said, "Go NL East! I really hope the Phillies win this year so the Braves can get some pitching prospects." Or, "Thank goodness the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl in 2002. That meant that the Falcons could draft a bunch of great players." (It actually wouldn't, because that's not how reality works.) Again, that's because that kind of thinking is objectively stupid.

Extrapolate to larger associations, and this thinking gets even more comically nonsensical. Americans never give a fuck about anything other than their specific interests, because generalizing about our ambitions is just some kind of collectivization, like what you got under Stalin (who I'm told is Obama). We don't root for the AFC in the Super Bowl, because why would that matter more than a local team or a rival or something related to our specific fandoms?

Here are some quotes that will never happen:
Guy from Savannah, GA: I just hope our fellow North Americans, the Canadians, can win a speed skating medal for all of us!"

Some guy from Charleston, SC: "America's been knocked out of the World Cup. GO MEXICO!!! GO NAFTA!!!!!!"
Nobody will ever say these things — ever — but that "Go SEC" logic applies to them. After all, those are associations of which groups we support are voluntary members.

Outside of my group of friends, a lot of time this regional gesture can be chalked up to something political, a sublimated geographic and ideological "fuck you" against a century-and-a-half-old Federal inevitability, a map-clutching without mastermind or external consistency. At best it's an unpleasant regionalistic socio-political hangover, an attempt at preserving an anomalous uniqueness in defiant acts of illogic, some baseline atavism that's embraced and maintained with an unconscious collectivism as insidious as any fanciful bugaboo of leftist politics.

But insofar as football is concerned — football divorced from politics and cultural legacy — it probably comes down to the same reason expressed in my initial post: front-running. When you can't win it all as the BCS Champion, you can claim some superiority by being in the same conference as the BCS Champion. Kids will (in your mind) flock to join your schools—why?—because you come from the conference that makes champions. This automatically makes all non-champion schools in your conference better than any non-champion school in any other conference. After all, those losers didn't regularly lose to the best, like you. You are the best loser. Only southerners know how to lose with such grace, dignity, honor and a fresh recruiting class, then smell a fucking magnolia and comfort themselves with that.

That seems the most reasonable explanation, with the least malice. For whatever reason, the south loves football with an intensity not matched by a lot of places in the United States, and the people who live there want to feel like winners. Transitioning from specific self-interest to collective self-interest as soon as your more personal stake — your team — gets knocked out provides a means of grasping something like achievement and feeling proud while delaying the unpleasant realization that you didn't get what you wanted. It's a motivation that spreads to NFL teams as soon as the college season ends, pursuing regionalistic self-interest there with just as much vehemence.

Speaking of which, by Saturday the overwhelming majority of those Facebook friends who just days before had been intensely rooting against the team from Texas had all switched their support over to an NFL team:

The Dallas Cowboys.

But for that to be even funnier than it sounds, you'll have to read the original piece.