Why We Root
There’s a thing that used to drive me mad. I’d walk into a supermarket wearing an Auburn t-shirt, often not having given my choice of attire any thought, and be told by a cashier, “That’s the ugliest shirt I’ve ever seen.”
I hardly ever found that could be true. The thing that the person actually wanted to say to me was, “I see that you enjoy rooting for Auburn. I enjoy rooting for Alabama. Would you care to discuss college football with me? I believe that my team will be victorious in our next contest.”
And it just pissed me off – this notion that a person totaling my groceries would have the audacity to tell me that my Alma mater wasn’t good enough.
But I realized something, and I think it was through a conversation with my friend Matt Scalici at AL.com. In that moment, when that person is totaling and bagging your groceries, they feel powerless. It’s an incredibly humbling experience, one that I’ve really never had. I’ve worked retail, but I was mostly in college at the time – at Auburn – where there wasn’t a lot of difference of football opinion in the checkout line. And therefore, in that moment, the only power this cashier has over you – the only way this person can regain stature is to rely on the superiority of their football team. It’s why this thing doesn’t really happen the other way around, and maybe that is a “little brother” thing – I can’t be sure. But the Auburn fan working as a cashier isn’t going to tell a customer in an Alabama shirt that they are “wearing the ugliest t-shirt they’ve ever seen” because it doesn’t immediately level the field.
We root because college football is the thing we’ll always be good at.
When I was young and in rural Alabama, there was nothing more important than the Iron Bowl. It was the measure of self worth, which was especially strange as the only people that I knew growing up that graduated from Auburn or Alabama were my parents. I knew why they rooted for Auburn, but I couldn’t understand why the other 85% rooted for Alabama.
Because they were the state team, the best – they were the team that gave these people, especially their parents and grandparents before them, a reason to boast. Yes, we were relegated to this rural corner of one of the nation’s poorest and least educated states and yes, it’s going to be a hard, uphill climb for any of us to ever see the world or afford a nice home, but by God, the football team with our state’s name on it can whip your Yankee ass.
There was a time that I was driven mad by college football – the actual brink of clinical insanity. The Cam Newton saga raged around me, while local media fanned the flame. Harvey Updyke poisoned the trees at Toomer’s Corner after Auburn defeated Alabama, punching its’ ticket to Glendale for all intents and purposes and many of those same media personalities encouraged the crazy of one – cut hilarious promos and laughed at a wacky fan’s sick stunt in the name of “moving those meters.” A witch hunt was on, and no Auburn fan that had waited 53 years was going to be allowed to enjoy their moment. And a few times, I completely lost my shit.
In 2010, I was one year removed from signing divorce papers ending my marriage with a then 27-year-old woman that had been having an affair with a then 44-year-old also married, father of three preteens that had been stealing money from the City of Guntersville to fund their rendezvous. She vanished with no forwarding address, abandoning me in a home that was struck by the tornadoes of April 27, 2011. And in the middle of all of that, I was laid off from my radio job while all media was forced to make huge cuts during the worst recession America had seen in 70 or so years. In 2010, at any given time, I was working 7-12 part-time jobs trying to stay afloat, not having a moment to catch my breath, not having a moment to properly grieve pain that most people could never handle, not having a moment to seek real escape from the spiral that my life had unwillingly and undeservedly become.
So in 2010, when my Alma mater – the school that both of my parents before me had graduated from and the team that I had rooted for my entire life – found itself in a position to win its’ first national championship in 53 years, without hyperbole, it was the greatest thing currently happening in my life. And I wasn’t allowed that joy. Because of people like Thayer Evans. Because of people like Brooks Melchoir. Because of people like Clay Travis. Because of people like Paul Finebaum. Every tiny ounce of joy that I should have been able to derive from my favorite sports team winning a national championship was sucked dry. And in 2010, when I was a broken and beaten man with little faith in the world that surrounded me, it meant a lot to me. A lot.
In 2010, my college football team was dominating, its’ quarterback was (and still is) more fun to watch than any other player in sports and at the same time, I had reached the lowest point in my life. That team was all that I had. It was all that I had that was better than the people that still had their dream job. It was all that I had that was better than the people that had not been abandoned without explanation.
My team was better than your team.
A lot of people get pretty mad about sports on the Internet. There’s a subculture of people that spend time detailing how much they hate other fanbases. There’s a subculture of people that wholly believe that only their opinion about sports is the correct one and that get violently angry when other people have a different, assuredly wrong opinion about sports. My favorite subculture of fan is the Alabama fan that obsessively watches Auburn so that they can mansplain your own team to you as a professional college football authority that is above the rivalry. That’s a special lot. There’s a lot of aggression, “saltiness.” There’s breaking down game film to a point that it no longer feels like fun. There’s a complete absorption in victory and defeat. There’s a reliance on success at sports to validate being. It’s excessive. But I understand because it was once the best thing that was happening in my life.
For the most part, Alabama and Auburn are better at college football than the rest of the country. And even when they aren’t, they’re competitive enough that a full emotional investment typically yields positive returns. And as I’ve seen how it heals, I’ll never begrudge the passion. I’ll never begrudge the irrationality. I’ll never begrudge the silliness. At its’ very least, it’s a positive distraction and at its’ very best, it heals. Remember that, harness that and enjoy that. We’re lucky that we have that – the way that Boston is lucky it has the Sox and the Pats, the way that New York is lucky it has the Yankees, the way that Los Angeles is lucky it has the Dodgers and Lakers.
Allow yourself to become attached, but don’t rely on the game to permanently replace. This is supposed to be fun.