Rooting Against Alabama Is a Family Thing
When I was in high school in Ithaca, N.Y., an entrepreneurial classmate used to publish a mimeographed newsletter called “The Anti-Yankee Dispatch.” The target audience was people who hated New York’s dominant baseball team. Back in those days, that was a lot of people. His subscribers ranged across the country. I was always impressed by his industry and determination, even if I didn’t share the underlying prejudice that made the newsletter possible.
Yet I do have one big bias in sports. It’s irrational and absurd and I know better. But I can’t help it. That’s why, during Monday night’s college football championship game, I will indulge my habit of 40-odd years and root against the University of Alabama Crimson Tide. Not for the Clemson University Tigers -- against Alabama.
I hold no actual grudge against the school, and my visits there have been lovely. (Although after this column I might never get invited back.) But the Crimson Tide make me grind my teeth. Rooting against Bama, I confess, is a prejudice in Voltaire’s sense: an opinion I hold so strongly that I refuse to submit it to even my own rational judgment, to say nothing of anyone else’s. My reasons for rooting against the Tide aren’t rational. But I’ll be doing it anyway.
This isn’t like the everybody-hates-Duke principle in college basketball. This isn’t like all the people out there who are sick of the New England Patriots because they always seem to win. It’s not like the visceral Yankee-exhaustion from the days when they won the World Series repeatedly, a nationally shared desperation that made my high school friend a few dollars and inspired a Broadway musical. It isn’t even my instinctive rooting for the underdog.
No. This prejudice is simpler and more atavistic. I’ve been rooting against Alabama for better than four decades because my father taught me to.
Dad and I used to watch a lot of sports together, and when he was in the mood he would use the occasion for what we nowadays might call a teachable moment. He was usually unflappable, distantly bemused by whatever game was on, but when the contest involved the Crimson Tide, he would growl and complain when calls or touchdowns went their way and applaud and hoot when they didn’t. He had been to Alabama frequently in the days of the civil-rights movement, and had even faced down the Ku Klux Klan. But that wasn’t why he cheered against Bama.
It was because of Bear Bryant.
Bryant was Alabama’s legendary football coach, and one of the greatest of all time. He ran the program from 1958 until 1982, when, in failing health, he stepped down. In his quarter century at the helm, the Bear won an astonishing six national championships. Half the buildings on the Alabama campus seem to bear his name.
But my father didn’t care about Bryant’s accomplishments. He cared about what we might call his non-accomplishments -- in particular, his attitude toward black players. Which, summed up, is that until 1970, the Bear didn’t have any.
I am not suggesting that Bryant was personally a racist. His defenders insist to this day that he was not. They also point out that his tenure at Alabama largely overlapped with George Wallace’s tenure as governor. The entire state was deeply segregated at the time, and there was little that Bryant could have done, whatever his private views.
The estimable David Halberstam disagreed. As a journalist Halberstam had covered the civil-rights movement in Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s, and in a controversial 2002 essay for ESPN he argued the contrary. So popular was Bryant, he wrote, that he “was the one man in all of Alabama” who had the ability if he chose to recruit black players in the teeth of popular disapproval “and stand up to George Wallace, and bring the culture along with him.” Added Halberstam: “His failure to stand apart from the worst of the region’s culture diminished him as a man on something profoundly important.”
Here there is a relevant myth about Bryant that also happens to be a truth. He started recruiting black players after the 1970 game against the University of Southern California, in which Sam Cunningham -- USC’s star black running back -- led the Trojans to a 21-point victory over the Crimson Tide. The next year, Alabama’s team was integrated. But even among his football peers, Bryant was a follower not a leader. Four other teams in the Southeastern Athletic Conference integrated before Alabama did.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. It’s ridiculous to hold this grudge after all this time. And you’re right. Bryant is better than three decades in the grave, and Alabama’s football team has long been, to be blunt, as black as anyone else in the college game. Moreover, the Crimson Tide under Coach Nick Saban are a joy to watch. They roll over opponents because they do nearly everything well. Not only is undefeated Alabama the best team in college football this year. It is one of the most admirable teams I have seen in a long time. Surely it’s time to put Bryant’s ghost to rest.
But I’m not anti-Tide because of Bear Bryant. That was my father’s motivation, not my own. Mine is simpler. It's just a prejudice, and like all our prejudices irrational, but I indulge it anyway. I cheer for whoever’s playing Alabama because Dad taught me to. Nothing more than that. Perhaps rooting for Clemson on Monday night is my small way of keeping him with me, seven years after his death. Utterly irrational, to be sure, but a lesson I hope I will never outgrow.
Yes, I am paraphrasing Roger Angell here.
Yes, I know that South Carolina in the 1950s and 1960s was perhaps the only state in the Union more segregated than Alabama. But did I mention that my prejudice is irrational?
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