The Religion of Football: Fan or Fanatic

Fanatic (noun): marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion (Merriam-Webster).

 

Fan.

It’s a three-letter word, commonly thought to be derived from the above fanatic and meant to represent an individual who aligns themselves with an organization, band, cause or team. In the South, being a fan is as much a part of life as eating, drinking or going to Church.

College football has been, and continues to be, the single greatest uniter and divider of the Southern community year in and year out. Just ask anyone from Tuscaloosa about that other school in the state (Auburn), and see what reaction you get. It will be vastly different from the one you might receive if you walk into the local barber shop in a crimson shirt with the cursive “A” logo emblazoned on the chest. It isn’t just a hobby. It’s a way of life.

In the great state of Mississippi, there is a somewhat heated rivalry between two members of the SEC’s Western Division, Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Now, in case you were not aware, these two schools first played each other in football in 1901, and barring four years missed due to the two World Wars, the two programs have met annually on the gridiron since. The Egg Bowl, as it is commonly known today, is the final meeting of the year for MSU and Ole Miss, and has become one of the most bitter rivalries in sports both on and off the field. The origin of the Golden Egg, the trophy given to the winner of the annual football game, is marred in myth and grandiose, but can be traced back to 1926, when the Ole Miss fans stormed the MSU field after snapping a 13-year losing streak to their cross-state rivals. Of course the State fans took offense and stormed the field to defend their turf, and what took place was a fight of epic proportions as chairs, and goalposts, found their way into the scrum. The two administrations realized something had to be done to prevent such an occurrence repeating itself, and a trophy was born.

This is just one of countless examples of the fanatic nature of college football in the South, and it occurred almost 100 years ago. Since then, tensions have only increased as more and more money began to come out of college athletics. As Universities saw increased revenue, football moved away from an amateur hobby and into the multi-billion dollar industry it is today. As profitability rose, so did the pressure on the men in charge of running such a lucrative business. But the money and pressure wasn’t coming from the Universities themselves. It was from the fans.

Between radio and TV talk shows, blogs and fan-driven chat rooms, the attention and year-round coverage of college football has seen a meteoric rise over the past two decades. With the use of the internet, the ability to talk football became infinitely easier for the common fan, which is not always a good thing. What was once a rivalry confined to a five-month season is now at the forefront of the sports world in Mississippi 365 days a year. There are websites, like EliteDawgs and Red Cup Rebellion, completely devoted to their school’s athletics, predominantly football, and host forums where fans can share stories, gossip or just hate the opposing fan base with an unmitigated fervor. On Facebook, groups have been specifically designed for fans just to talk “smack” to the other fanbase whenever they like. But you won’t find much intelligent banter on these types of platforms, as in most cases, it devolves into a personal attack or blatant “trolling” of one fanbase or another. Whatever the end result, the point is still the same: college football is the epicenter of existence for most people in the South, and in Mississippi specifically.

Emile Durkheim, sociologist and religious theorist, said religion is “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unites into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” Now, I’m no theoretical scholar, but I did take an Intro to Psychology class once, and I feel as if I can make the following statement with relative certainty: Football in the South is a religion. Just take the examples I’ve already given to start. Do State and Ole Miss fans consider themselves a community? The answer is undeniably yes. Again, look at the Facebook groups, chat sites, or a more tangible example, tailgating. Thousands upon thousands of strangers gather every Saturday in the fall to spend hours getting drunk and talking football with anyone who happens to be wearing the right jersey that day. It doesn’t matter whether you grew up together or stumbled into each other on the way to the port-a-johns, an instant kinship is shared because of one simple fact: you both cheer for the same team. Individuals who would otherwise never associate themselves with the same crowd put everything aside for a brief time as a “greater cause” unites them.

Toomers-Corner-1.jpg

In the same way, that cause can divide individuals even quicker. Let’s jump back to the Alabama/Auburn example. Most of you know the name Harvey Updyke. If you are unfamiliar, here’s a brief synopsis: Updyke, an Alabama fan, poisoned a group of trees known as Toomer’s Corner on the Auburn campus for the sole reason that he hates Auburn with an unbridled passion. Now, the symbolism of this act is much greater than the act itself. If a simple man from rural Alabama is willing to commit a FELONY for the sole purpose of bragging about it on a national football radio show in order to prove himself to be a “true fan,” then what really is fandom? That’s a radical example, I understand, but it’s simply a microcosm of the real issue: we live and die with our teams in the South.

“I’m always amazed how much I live and die with our teams. I can try to not care so much, to tell myself it’s just sports, but that only works half the time. My dad, mom, uncles, sister, grandmother, grandfather are all the same way. sometimes it’s short term depression, anger, disappointment, anxiety… or elation, pride, joy or any other rollercoaster ride of emotion hoping we will pull it out.

It gets in your blood, that is for sure. other ppl can never understand it.” Boatsandhoes, SixPackSpeak user.

Fan. It’s such a simple word for such a complex concept. In a world in which there is famine, political unrest and countless social issues constantly spamming our news cycles, the attention of the majority is centered on a game. But that’s just it. It is no longer a game. It’s a way of life. A religion. And with any religion comes radicalism. The radicalism is what has truly defined the college football world, and more importantly the SEC fan bases, over the last twenty years. Weddings are scheduled around football schedules in the fall. Christmas vacations are closely tied into potential bowl game locations. Hell, children are named after favorite players. How many kids named “Jesus” do you know? Because I know a lot of Dak’s, Eli’s and Peyton’s.

Tradition in the South is a huge part of the culture and everyday lifestyle of its inhabitants. Church on Sunday, book club Thursday night, high school football on Friday. Any and all of these have a required devotion from those who participate, whether as a “player” or spectator. But college football takes this devotion to a whole other level. Tattoos are just a small example of the passion fans have invested in their school. Harvey Updyke went to jail for his fanaticism. In religious circles, his act would have been viewed as a form of radical terrorism, a Jihad of sorts. In football he’s just a crazy fan who took his passion just a bit too far.

At the end of the day, whether you define football in the South is a way of life, a religion or just a hobby, the truth of the matter is still the same. Being a “fan” is a definition of one’s self, as much a part of you as the genes passed down by your parents. And this radical sense of belonging, of being part of something far greater than any one individual, is the basis of religion. It’s the basis of fandom. And ultimately, the basis of everyday life in the SEC. As the commercials for the SEC Network will tell you, in the South “it just means more.”

Fan. A simple three-letter word that can be the difference in friendship or hatred, of acceptance or ostracization. Whether it stands for Maroon and White or Red and Blue, it stands for something much more than the team you cheer for or the University at which you received an education. It stands for who you are. It stands for who you associate with, and who you hate.

Fan.

It’s way more than a three-letter word.

It’s a religion.

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