Poisoning an oak tree over a football rivalry? Geez, what a bunch of morons inhabit my state. And it appears the idiocy is garnering national coverage. The Washington Post, New York Times, of course ESPN, and even the Wall Street Journal are running articles on it.
What’s next? Desecrating Bear Bryant’s grave? Not to worry, Alabama’s State Troopers have posted a guard.
The Alabama and Auburn football rivalry got so ridiculous back in 1907 that the schools quit playing for forty years. It was revived in 1947 by act of the Alabama legislature. They literally buried a hatchet in the ceremony restarting the series. Apparently some nut case dug it up, only his hatchet was tree-killing poison. It’s about time for another forty-year hiatus. This is utter insanity.
I remember returning to Alabama after two years in North Carolina (my dad was stationed there after he was drafted during the Vietnam War). I was eight years old and up to then, had never played football nor watched a game on TV. In trying to find a playmate in my new neighborhood, I tried to make friends with the kid next door. The first thing he asked me was, “Who ya fer”? I had no idea what he was talking about. When I didn’t respond, he explained, “Are you fer Alabama or fer Auburn?” I still didn’t know what he meant, but considering that I now lived in Alabama and had never even heard of Auburn, I responded, “I’m for Alabama”, but without the Southern accent. (Military posts, even ones in the South, don’t have an inordinate number of Southern speakers. My accent, absorbed as always from the surrounding dialect, was more eclectic. I was accused of being a Yankee when I returned to Alabama.) He groaned at my response, “Why ain’t ya fer Auburn?” I didn’t care who I was “fer”. I just wanted someone to play with. So I then and there decided I was fer Auburn. That was 1971. Had I known at the time that Auburn would spend the next decade in mediocrity while Alabama was winning championships, I might have been fer Alabama. I became a huge Auburn fan, an important but lesser part of the football identity I derived from playing the game for nine years, from fourth grade through high school.
But after high school, my football playing career was over. My heart broken, I rejected football. I was never as much a fan that liked watching as I was a player that loved playing. If I couldn’t play, neither would I watch.
So it was no big deal to me to go to Alabama to college. I didn’t go for the football team. I went to get an education–it was one of the closest and cheapest schools offering a degree in economics, which I had discovered during a freshman class at Birmingham-Southern was what I wished to study. I was beginning to get over my heartbreak of not being able to play by the time I transferred, and went to a few football games my first year, but after that stayed away. I hated sweating in the miserable Alabama sun wearing a coat and tie (yes, I did that nonsense for my game-day dates a couple of times), crammed in a stadium full of loud, obnoxious and clandestinely-intoxicated idiots.
In the meantime, I mostly, if very quietly, rooted for Auburn. I didn’t really see there was much connection between the school “Alabama” and the Alabama football team. I never once recognized a player in any of my classes, nor saw any strolling along campus. Football players were there for a different reason than was I, and so didn’t feel guilty about not supporting the Tide.
It was only after graduation that I became an Alabama fan. Commissioned an Army officer upon graduation with the military service that followed, I was around people from all over the country for the second time in my life. Having gone to Alabama to school, it would have taken too much explaining if I didn’t root for the Crimson Tide. So I did. Six years in the Army was followed by three years in law school with a year in between. It was fun rooting for the Tide outside of Alabama, where the chances of running into an obnoxious idiot like the fella that poisoned those trees was fairly slim (though he was supposedly from the Panhandle of Florida). When I finally returned to Alabama I thought that football fanaticism should have died down a bit, as I and my contemporaries were now older and presumably less childish about something as ultimately unimportant as a game.
I learned otherwise soon enough while at my first job back home, clerking at what passes for a white-shoe law firm in Birmingham. I and several other clerks and investigators were discussing football when I made the observation that people I’d met in my travels outside of the state of Alabama rarely even knew where Auburn was. It wasn’t so much a dig at Auburn as much as it was just relating my experiences through the years. And of course, at the time, Alabama’s football team was far better known nationally than was Auburn’s. One of the investigators, an Auburn fan that like so many of either stripe, had never attended the school, was so put off by my observation that he actually pushed at me, like he was ready to fight in the clerk’s cube bay right then and there. I was simply astounded. Was this guy for real? He got control of himself after a while, and apologized profusely, but still, I could not believe what had happened. So then I knew. Football mania, and particularly the Alabama-Auburn rivalry, was even more childish than it was before I left. Even the hushed atmosphere and tone of a law office wasn’t enough to keep the visceral emotions at bay.
The Alabama-Auburn rivalry is not a healthy, enjoyable one, like, e.g., the Oklahoma-Texas rivalry, with the football game held every year at the Texas State Fair. Alabama v. Auburn is bitter and nasty. Because both schools compete for players, resources and loyalties from the same, rather small, state, the rivalry is internecine, ruinous for both sides, notwithstanding the recent successes of the two programs. Since the realignment of the SEC into two divisions, with Auburn and Alabama in the same one (the West), the struggle is even more competitive.
In my view, the SEC should move Auburn to the Eastern division, along with its traditional rivals, Georgia and Florida, and Alabama and Auburn should quit the annual rivalry game. (The SEC could trade Tennessee in the East for Auburn in the West. Tennessee is historically Alabama’s biggest rival). Play the Alabama-Auburn game every few years after passions have had a time to cool, or meet in a neutral site like the Georgia Dome if both manage to win their divisions. But the annual madness that is football season in Alabama should not have as its crowning jewel a game that elicits something as stupid as poisoning a tree, or fisticuffs in a law office. Yet that will never happen. There’s too much money to be made whipping these fanatics into fanaticism. The tree-poisoning was first revealed on a local call-in radio show. The show’s host, Paul Finebaum, swears he won’t back down from fomenting controversies. Of course he won’t. He profits handsomely thereby.
Yet, to all those snobby Northeasterners, particularly New Yorkers, for whom this story of tree poisoning simply affirms their opinions of Alabamians as low-class morons, all I can say is I’m sorry for ever having doubted you. It appears you were right all along.