Friday, August 12, 2005

College Football Countdown: Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer

While reading Warren St. John's Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, I came up with an unverifiable theory: sports, like lawsuits, prevent disputes and anxieties from blowing up into violence.

During the miserable days and weeks after the 2004 election, one of the few things that made life bearable was the prospect that my school had not yet played Ohio State in the college football season. All of my Ohio-directed rage would be channeled into a relatively benign three-and-a-half hour football game, after which things would return to normal.

True enough, about three weeks later, Ohio State beat my team, but given the dynamics of the Big 10 race, the loss didn't matter. Even if it had, the beating would have had its own cathartic quality.

The quest underlying St. John's book is to understand why people invest so much energy into following teams. My answer: Somewhere in our reptilian brains, the impulse to follow sports satisfies a need once fed when our clan killed the neighboring clan. The same protectiveness and aggression fueled by kin selection makes us loyal to the teams we grew up with, and prompts us to view those teams' losses as personal failings.

Have you tried to switch team loyalties since becoming an adult? I can't. I've sincerely tried. The teams I liked when I was nine are the teams I'll like until death. I'll renounce my citizenship more easily than I'll root for the Red Sox, Yankees or Mets instead of the Tigers. I was interested in the NBA just long enough to see Michael Jordan dethrone the Bad Boys-era Pistons, a Chicago coup d'etat that still makes me respond to Jordan with visceral dislike. (I guess he's done okay for himself otherwise.)

Now in my late twenties, I have dreams and nightmares about college football. Five years ago, bad dreams about a clock-manipulating play in East Lansing woke me twice the following week. Both times I was so upset that I didn't go back to sleep.

St. John understands all of this, even if he comes about it from a different angle. Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer is a meditation on sports and the individual quest for meaning -- written as a travelogue through the campuses of the S.E.C., as viewed through the boozy, smoky prisms of hardcore Alabama football fans. Hundreds of them travel together in unwieldy RV caravans. They arrive to campuses days ahead of the game, where they commandeer whole neighborhoods for their RVs. Most of them are middle-class and upper middle-class professionals who didn't attend Alabama, and whose jobs and incomes are such that they can afford to miss two days of work 12 weeks a year.

A few years ago I would have found this pathetic. Now, it sounds like a dream come true. As a fan and as an armchair sociologist, St. John finds himself seduced by this system. As the season progresses, he begins to disdain the fans who arrive just before kickoff and head home when it's over. If they really cared, they would be willing to sacrifice more to immerse themselves in the experience.

The S.E.C. is a different world. Fraternity boys and sorority girls arrive late to games, dressed in nicer clothes than the ones I wear to work. The games are more alcohol-intensive than what I'm used to. I view heavy pre-game drinkers as weaklings too nervous to withstand life's real pressures. And in the S.E.C. there is, undeniably, an undercurrent of regional resentment that fuels a lot of these teams. St. John points out that Bear Bryant's salad days were during an era when the state's institutional racism and poverty made Alabama a national disgrace. Bryant's success was a point of pride, as well as defiance.

Rammer Jammer is good with the personal anecdotes and the small details about its fans' lives. It doesn't have any grand insights to what fuels fandom en masse, and what makes the S.E.C. quite so intense and peculiar. He directly addresses issues of race (specifically, fans who are comfortable rooting for a guy and then condemning him with the n-word) but doesn't dig too deep into the complexities of what it means.

Happily, though, we're left with a series of scenes that fall somewhere between anecdotal and existential. One of the most telling passages involves a married couple who attended an Alabama-Tennessee game instead of going to their daughter's wedding. When St. John chronicles the reactions, most of the fans express vulgar hostility about the daughter's decision to marry on a football Saturday.

I'll be attending such a wedding this November. It will be on a day that means as much as Christmas and New Year's combined. I've been told that the bride and groom (fans of the same team) were shocked when they realized the scheduling conflict.

The solution? Rent a hotel ballroom and arrange for large television sets. The wedding will be that night. They won't move the wedding date, but none of us will have to miss the game.

That's what I call love.


brian the pinup said...

Just stopping by the big ol' blog, and can't resist mentioning. I also enjoyed said SEC football book (it got a common friend of ours to look up UM RVs online for the hell of it), but I felt totally ripped off that UM is only mentioned in one sentance at the end! C'mon that was a great game! I felt ripped off for Tom Brady et al.

In other news, since this is crimenotes I'm responging to, The Daily Show had a fabulous bit last night about John Roberts being opposed by both the far-right and far-left. Likened that ad that made it seem he was pro-abortion-clinic-violence to: "If you, in 1982, bought 'Thriller' support child molestation." Brilliant parody. Thought you'd enjoy, see ya back here sometime soon.

CrimeNotes said...

It would have been great if St. John ended the book with a detailed account of that Orange Bowl. I think he just ran out of steam.

Anonymous said...

Interesting -- I'd like to read the St. John book (Chronicle of Higher Education called it, "the greatest book ever written about college sports," or something like that). The thing is, though, I generally find SEC fans -- and Alabamans in particular -- contemptible, moderately frightening, and, at best, poorly behaved. I suspect this book would only reinforce those feelings. What's missing is the purer, more elemental love, which tends not to be fueled by Jack Daniels and chew. I sound incredibly self-righteous, I know. But I firmly believe that the difference between college football fans is proof positive that evolution is real. Fuck intelligent design. Who's going to argue that Tennessee fans are anything other than loathsome brutes?

We all better hope the bride and groom witness a victory that day -- you'd hate to see the lovely bride, resplendent in silk and tulle, go red-faced and hurl expletives at a T.V.

CrimeNotes said...

There's a lot of pure, elemental love displayed by the fans in the book, and by St. John himself. I ended up with more respect for the Alabama fans than I had when I went in. Plus, they hate Tennessee more than anything, which works for me. Tennessee is squarely in my top three most hated programs.

Flop said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Flop said...

I also wanted to add something about my colleague's unverifiable theory. I tend to agree that sports serve as a harmless outlet for all of our baser instincts. Hatred certainly being high on that list. I think what made me realize this was my freshman year in college, when I became a hockey fan. First by attending games at Yost, but also by sort of harmlessly (so I thought) joined my Detroit-based friends in rooting on the Red Wings. When I saw Claude Lemieux assault Kris Draper, and the Avalanche go on to beat the Wings ... well, I knew. Any team that can, on the cusp of the championship, lose to a team from Denver and leave me feeling like I've had the wind knocked out of me, well, that's MY team. It's pathological, I konw. And yet, that was what made me a Red Wings fan. Of course, it seems all too wrong that my fandom was rewarded shortly after, which is why I can't take them too seriously anymore.

Flop said...

Actually, watching that game with a bunch of friends you haven't seen in a while sounds pretty fun. I say this as someone who spent two Saturdays last fall at weddings of people with whom I shared no college ties. I was going bonkers during the Michigan State game as Michigan started to come back. Then the local affiliate switched to the Washington State game. I also say this as someone who had to watch that game one year alone at the bar of a Chili's in in the Shenandoah Valley.

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