By David Hauser
The 2012 SEC Championship should go down as one of the greatest college football games ever. On College Football’s Conference Championship Weekend, for yet another year, it was the only championship game that mattered. The SEC reigns supreme for another season and Southerners could not be more proud to let the rest of the country know it.
You see, I am a temporary resident of Atlanta for the year, so I’ve gotten just a sip of the flavor and a whiff of the aroma of the college football culture down here. And I’ve quickly come to learn that Atlanta is the Capital City of College Football in this country. While the entire state of Ohio may gasp in horror at this statement and Austin, Texas and Eugene, Oregon may insist otherwise (as some of Nate Silver’s numbers might suggest), there is simply no other city where college football means more and where the population is more overrun with zealotry and pride than Atlanta on autumn Saturdays.
Atlanta is the melting pot of the SEC: an amalgamation of Crimson Tide intensity, Gator devotion, and Gamecock pride, reaching across ethnic and social status divisions as one region passionately engaged and tuned in on fall Saturdays. I’ve joked with my new co-workers here that it seems like it would be a sin to host a wedding on a Saturday during football season in the South and they responded with a straight-faced nod and a “yeah, sounds about right” (one colleague intentionally planned her wedding on a bye week of fiancé’s adopted team).
The people of the metropolitan area of Atlanta further revealed their passions for college football this year when it was announced that taxpayers would pony up $300 million in tax revenues to contribute to the construction of an entirely new retractable roofed Georgia Dome in order to continue to have a state of the art facility to host the SEC Championship (among other events), despite the fact that the current Georgia Dome is only 20 years old and received another $300 million of renovations just 5 years ago.
Adding to this town’s football enthusiasm, is the fact that taxpayers are willing to foot the bill for the construction and improvement of this celestial football monument while in the same year rejecting a one-cent sales tax to drastically improve the transportation grid in one of, if not the worst, trafficked and gridlocked cities in America. So if you are scoring at home, Atlantians (or ATLiens if you prefer the homegrown Outkast label) are willing to spend 90 to 180 minutes of every single working day sitting in traffic if it means they can remain America’s Capital of College Football. The ball is in your court Columbus, Ohio and Eugene, Oregon…but I don’t see you making this level of commitment to the cause.
My etic eye was first caught by this crazed collegiate football culture during my first day at work at lunch when I dined with two female colleagues and my male boss who claimed to be simply casual fans of the sport, but talked about the intensity and passionate following of college football in “these parts.” Yet, it was when one of the female “casual fans” (a South Carolina alum or USC alum as she likes to say discounting the existence of any other USC’s in the country) was able to reel off where Sidney Rice (former Univ. of South Carolina standout WR) went to highschool and highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the Gamecocks’ upcoming fall roster that my brow raised a bit.
And the data confirming the region’s intense relationship with amateur football kept rolling in throughout the season. Residents of Georgia are so fervent and loyal to their “Dawgs,” that three separate car companies beg the Georgia athletics department to accept their checks so they can mold their entire marketing and branding efforts around Georgia football in this state. Ford hired UGA Head Coach, Mark Richt, to pitch F-150’s as the only truck suitable for a true Dawg fan, while Chevy uses UGA VIII, the eighth generation English bulldog and official university mascot, as their advertising pitch(man?) for their new line of cars and trucks, whereas Hyundai has paid a small fortune to be “the official car” of Georgia football.
Atlanta is the de facto capital city of the South, the same way Chicago is the capital of the Midwest region. University of Iowa, Michigan State, and Wisconsin alums seem to flock to Chicago, the same way Ole Miss, Bama, and LSU graduates migrate to Atlanta upon acquiring their diplomas. It is simple economics; regional hubs tend to have the best jobs.
But Chicago also has the Bears (and the Blackhawks, Cubs, Bulls…), Detroit has the Red Wings, and Wisconsin has the Packers and so on. Sports remain ever the important cultural and communal unifier in the Midwest as any other region, but in the South there is only one season and one sport: fall and football.
The South still maintains its roots as an agrarian society spread across much land with few major densely populated cities, Atlanta being the notable exception. Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Kentucky and Arkansas, a combined land mass almost the size of Texas, all do not have a single professional sports team amongst them. Even in a state with professional sports teams, you see a whole lot more Volunteer orange and white if you drive around Tennessee than you do Titan navy and baby blue.
After Aaron Murray’s tipped pass fell short and the clock turned zero at the Georgia Dome last Saturday night, the running conversation on Facebook and Twitter promptly shifted from nervous tension about the game to anticipatory chatter about Bama’s inevitable destruction of Notre Dame in the BCS Championship, especially pronounced in posts from those from the South.
In the pre game lead up to the SEC Championship, Chris Fowler playfully stated that he’s been hearing a lot of fans in Atlanta referring to the SEC Championship as the real National Championship game, as the winner of the SEC would easily handle that “Yankee Football” that Notre Dame plays.
A text I received after the game from an Atlanta native and Auburn graduate read, “Alabama and (Eddie) Lacy are just going to bulldoze those poor little Notre Dame players.” Mind you this is an Auburn alum, of a fan base that absolutely detests Roll Tide Nation (so much so that ESPN made a 30 for 30 documentary about their bitter rivalry after a Tide fan committed arborary terrorism on Auburn’s famed Toomer’s corner), yet she took an almost obnoxious pride in gleefully stating the destruction her fellow SEC brethren would impart on the helpless boys from abroad (or from one of those Northern states that starts with the letter “I”).
And it finally dawned on me, college football may be the single strongest export of the South (to the rest of the nation). The residents of the South take more pride in their football than any other product, industry, or even cultural characteristic of their region.
Economically, the South has done relatively well over the past 30 years especially following the boom in the “Sun Belt” population shift to the South and West from Northern states.
Charlotte, North Carolina has positioned itself as an extremely influential banking center with the extraordinary rise and growth of Bank of America. Once manufactured overseas in Asia, now places like West Point, Georgia and Smyrna, Tennessee export KIA’s and Nissans to dealerships around the country.
Tyler Perry has almost single handedly turned the city of Atlanta into a Top 5 entertainment production hub within the country, with a growing number of motion pictures filmed in Georgia, along with a burgeoning television industry (i.e. The Walking Dead), and a suddenly booming reality television production scene with many programs from VH1 and TLC now filmed in the Atlanta area. Not to mention the tremendous influence that Atlanta and Nashville have on the Hip-Hop and Country music industries.
But this region does not much focus on these cultural or economic exports. The only export anyone is talking about down here is the southern brand of football.
The cash crop of the South is certainly no longer cotton; amateur football is the 21st century cash crop of the South. Starting with the scouting of high-schoolers under the Friday night lights and on to the campuses of SEC schools, scouts drool over the athletic talent found on the Louisiana Bayou and South Georgia fields. NFL personnel directors could not be giddier consumers…along with ABC, CBS, ESPN, and any other media source with a homemade satellite dish or glued together antenna scrambling to get the rights (and billions of dollars) to broadcast this brand of football to the country at large.
And the rest of the country does their part and watches SEC football in masse, and in turn does their due diligence in providing a marketing forum that is able to prop up the entire mall jewelry business in this country (is anyone else a little worn down by the endless barrage of the roulette wheel of Kay, Zales, and Jared commercials beat into our heads as the football season trudges on and we march toward Christmas?). I’m aware that Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman has to earn a living now that her show is off the air, but after seeing this week’s 15th incarnation of the open heart collection necklaces during timeout breaks, my heart is no more open to making a purchase of one of Jane Seymour’s precious designs.
Beyond just the exported brand and advertising, the players themselves have proved to be the cream of the crop in amateur athletics. NFL General Manager’s like the Buffalo Bills’ Buddy Nix devote a majority of their team’s scouting resources to the South over other areas of the country. His reasoning was further expressed when he was prompted at a pre-NFL draft press conference to comment on why the SEC produces such dominant defensive players and stated:
“I don’t know that I can answer that except that football is a way of life down there. Where you get a guy, let’s just go back to high school quickly. In some areas you got four coaches in the high school that teach class all day and they don’t make a lot of money. Then you go down South and you’ll have 12 coaches. None of them teach and they make good money and get a good car once a year to drive. It’s whatever your priority is.”
Over 50% of ESPNU’s 2013 Top 150 High School Football Players were from the Southeast this year (despite the fact the Southeast only makes up about 25% of the population of the U.S.). For the past half-decade players coming from Southeastern Conference schools have overwhelmingly populated the first round of the NFL Draft over players from other conferences. Last year, the SEC had 10 first-rounders, where the Big Ten and Big 12 conferences had 8 first-rounders combined. In the 2011 draft, five of the first 6 players drafted came from the SEC.
An SEC team is poised to win its historic 7th straight football national championship for the conference this coming January, with Alabama being heavily favored over Notre Dame in the 2013 BCS National Championship game. So perhaps the southerners’ reverence for the SEC and insistence on broadcasting its greatness is justified.
But the larger theme than even just the success of southern football, and the provincial pride around it, is the incredible role that football plays in this particular society and for the country at large.
As writer Jason Whitlock starkly stated last week in the aftermath of the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide tragedy in Kansas City and in response to the “the game most must go on” mentality from the NFL, “Football is our god [in this country].”
And in no place is football (at least the college derivation) more worshipped than in the South.
It is easy to bear witness in the South, or any region for that matter, the transformative power of this game with the silly shaped ball and it’s ability to bridge ideological chasms, unite across racial divides, and heal personal differences within communities even if it’s just for 3 hour intervals at a time on any given autumn Saturday.
However, in a region that has fought hard to conserve traditions and Christian philosophy within the public domain, I am reminded of that commandment “thou shalt not bear false witness” and the corresponding message that “thou shalt not worship false idols.” Football maintains an important role in this culture, but its purpose and cultural meaning need always remain greater than the game itself.