Fandom, not politics

Writing under the handle “Bronxiniowa,” Ira Lacher, who actually hails from the Bronx, New York, is a longtime journalism, marketing, and public relations professional.

A band member gave me grief when I walked into a recent rehearsal wearing my University of Alabama baseball cap. “How can you root for that backward state!” exclaimed this arch-progressive. It was not a question.

Since college football will, within four or so weeks, once again commence across the U.S., here’s my answer:

I root for the Alabama Crimson Tide, a group of young men from all over the U.S.—including Kadyn Proctor, from Southeast Polk High School outside Des Moines—and three other countries, who were recruited to play a high-level caliber of football for an ostensibly not-for-profit organization that nets well over a hundred million dollars in revenue a year while maintaining a strong identification with the largest public university in its state. Only 58 of 139 players on this year’s Tide roster—41 percent—are from Alabama, mirroring the university’s overall student population demographics.

Being a fan of the Tide—which I have been since 1980—without having any relationship with or affinity for the state of Alabama is the same as any American supporting an English soccer team: You don’t have to live in north London to support Tottenham Hotspur, and you needn’t have hailed from a certain state or attended a school to root for the team that sports its name. Just ask the tens of thousands of “subway alumni” who root for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish every football Saturday but couldn’t find the university’s hometown, South Bend, Indiana, if you drew a big, fat circle around it on a map.

In fact, it was Notre Dame that introduced me to my Alabama fandom. In my rookie year as the Notre Dame football beat writer for The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne, Indiana, I spent a week in the Yellowhammer State previewing the first-ever regular-season meeting in Birmingham between the Irish and the Tide. (Notre Dame won, 7-0.) I immediately warmed to the university’s town, Tuscaloosa. And everyone in the Bama program, from the athletic department secretaries to iconic Bama Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, was gracious to a 25-year-old shavetail sportswriter from a third-tier newspaper. I became a fan.

Yes, I have reveled in the Tide’s 21st century’s unrivaled success of the Nick Saban era, but also endured through the lean years of the “Mike drops” (underachieving coaches Mike Price, Mike DuBose and Mike Shula), as well as NCAA sanctions. So a fair-weather fan I’m most certainly not.

Nor am I oblivious to the history of the state, from its immoral dependence on slavery to its denial of the rights of slavery’s descendants, to its present-day ultra-right politics. I am old enough to remember its viciously segregationist governor, George Wallace, as well as Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Birmingham police chief whose cops were filmed setting dogs and high-power fire hoses on black protesters. I didn’t need to view the film Selma because I joined other Americans viewing film, on the nightly news, of Alabama state troopers pummeling marchers, including rabbis, priests, and ministers, in 1965. 

Today, the state remains redder than the football team’s crimson helmets and jerseys. Senator Tommy Tuberville’s inane holding up of vital military promotions so he can fight the culture wars is only the latest in a series of embarrassments. Directly ignoring the United States Supreme Court, the legislature recently approved a Congressional map with only one majority-Black district. Alabama has enacted “don’t say gay” laws; excludes transgender youths from playing sports; allows discrimination when adopting or placing children in foster care; criminalizes HIV and AIDS; and prioritizes religion in several civil areas.

So I am no fan of that state’s politics. Just as I am no fan of many states’ politics, including the one I live in and pay taxes to. 

But if we all based our sports fandom on politics, every day would be the off-season. 

I know many progressives who are Chicago Cubs fans, even though that ballclub’s owner is Tom Ricketts—whose father, Joe, is not only a prime Republican Party donor but copped to sharing anti-Muslim and racist sentiments. Robert Kraft has been a pal of Donald Trump’s for years, but that hasn’t stopped progressives in the state of “Taxachusetts” from rooting for the NFL team he owns, the New England Patriots. There are far too many additional examples to bog you down with.

And no state is politically monolithic. In 2020, Joe Biden handily won Jefferson County (which contains the city of Birmingham), as well as a band of southern Alabama counties, including the state capital, Montgomery. Huntsville, just south of the Tennessee state line, is home to a major NASA scientific center and the progressive outlook that accompanies a community of highly educated people. In Homewood, south of Birmingham, the Magic City Acceptance Academy charter school “facilitates a community . . . in a brave, LGBTQ-affirming learning environment.” 

Plus, unlike many states, Alabama has tried to come to terms with its history. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a place for “truth-telling, hope, healing, and reconciliation,” in Montgomery, is the first of its kind to recognize the legacy of lynching. In Selma, the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, located at the foot of the Edmund Pettis Bridge, site of the 1965 police riot, documents the struggle to achieve voting rights for all. 

Finally, unlike Tuberville, who ascended to the U.S. Senate only because he coached the Tide’s in-state rival, Auburn, to a 7-3 record over Bama, Nick Saban is no MAGA-ite. In 2020, not long after Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd, Bama students marched in protest, led by Saban, as well as several well-known starting players. “This is something that the team decided to do together as a team,” Saban was quoted as saying, “so I’m very proud and supportive of what they are trying to say, and in a peaceful and intelligent way. I’m very pleased to be here today.”

Saban also reiterated how he believes that sports can propel society to a better place, even if the greater community does not. “Sports has always created a platform for social change,” Saban told a crowd after the march. “For each of us involved in sports, I think we have a responsibility and obligation to do that in a responsible way and use our platform in a positive way to try to create social change in positive ways.”

So, by all means, root against Alabama. Root against them because they win, because they command the elephant’s share of national attention, because the program is larger than life in a sport that obsesses tens of millions of Americans from August through January.

But if you call yourself a progressive and you root against Alabama because of politics, ask yourself if you’d like to trash that Hawkeye jersey as well. 

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