The main difference between a big-time Division I college football game and an NFL contest—other than the unpaid labor on the field—is the crowds. Aesthetically, side-by-side, they are like one of those before-and-after pictures. The crowd at the college games tends to be young and fresh-faced: the people who show up early to the club ready to rage. People at NFL games look like those same people at the party, except it’s 4 am and in those last six hours they’ve been living hard.
I get why the young people at the college games look as caffeinated as they do. The adrenaline, the excitement, the lunacy and the wide-open nature of it all produces a narcotic that few sporting events can match. This is not an activity that promotes introspection. But lasts weekend’s Iron Bowl demands it. For the uninitiated, the Iron Bowl is the annual game between two of college football’s most intense interstate rivals, Auburn and Alabama. This past year’s game was like nothing we have ever seen, arguably the most exciting college football game ever played, as Auburn withstood a ninety-nine-yard touchdown pass and came away with a 34-28 victory. Auburn beat the number-one team in the country and did so on a 108-yard missed field-goal return for a touchdown with no time left.
But this was more than just a football game. The broadcast registered an 82 share in Birmingham, Alabama. That means 82 percent of all of Birmingham’s televisions that were in use were watching this game. That is bonkers. This is not 1960. We have more than two channels now. In our divided entertainment culture with 500 options, video games that are realer than real life, and all kinds of diversions on social media, the idea that 82 percent of any city was doing anything is, frankly, mind-boggling. Introspection is necessary because this national gravitational pull toward football in Alabama took place fifty-eight years to the day (give or take a day) that Rosa Parks entered history and would not be moved from her bus seat in nearby Montgomery. Fifty-eight years ago in the storied Southeastern Conference, the only way an African-American player could get on the field would be to tend to the grounds. Yet on Saturday millions of Alabama viewers and an overwhelmingly white crowd of damn near 100,000 people crowded the stands shouting themselves hoarse for two teams that are overwhelmingly African-American.
The other titanic story in college football is also taking place in the Southeastern United States, albeit not the Southeastern Conference. African-American football star, quarterback Jameis Winston at Florida State, could lose both the Heisman Trophy and a shot at leading his team to a national championship because of rape allegations that could turn into formal charges any day. I am not commenting on the guilt or innocence of Mr. Winston, but I am going to comment on what we do know: he is being vociferously, even violently defended by the Florida State faithful. His accuser has been pilloried over social media by Winston’s fans in Tallahassee, with ESPN’s Jemele Hill reporting that she had already “been sent several photos that are reportedly of the accuser, in addition to screen grabs of her Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. All this information is being circulated rapidly and thus becoming the Internet version of flogging someone in the town square.”
The young woman was also allegedly warned off of pressing charges by a Tallahassee police detective who was also a Florida State booster. This is sick and if found to be true, this detective should be run out of town on a rail. Once again I have to take a step back and ask, What would Rosa Parks say? This is a woman who started her activist career and first traveled to Montgomery as an organizer against rape and sexual violence visited upon African-American women by white men. (Read the book At the Dark End of the Street to hear this story in full.) In Rosa Parks’s day it was not uncommon for African-American men to be lynched on accusations of sexual violence if they were found in any sort of relationship with a white woman. I do not know the race of the Jameis Winston’s accuser, but to see the police and a college town in Tallahassee rally to protect their African-American quarterback from rape charges to save their championship season is like entering Dixie through the looking glass. What would Ms. Parks say? What would she say about a world where just the act of playing football has turned so many of these historical racial tropes upside down?
No matter what the Republican National Committee tweets, racism is not over, nor did Ms. Parks end it. (Their tweet led to the #RacismEndedWhen hashtag on Twitter.) On every conceivable level, from life expectancy, to prison sentencing, to hiring practices, racism still plagues this country. Yet does the iconography of black college athletes actually make racism less pernicious? It would be easy to understand why people would mark the spectacles in football in the Southeast as some kind of progress. I think they would be wrong. In fact, it is far more likely that seeing African-American athletes on the field allows people to turn a blind eye toward the very real effects of racism in society. This is not in any way exlusive to the South, and it is not unlike the argument against using Native American icons as mascots. Celebrating teams like the Redskins allows the dominant culture to turn a blind eye to very real conditions on Native American communities. It doesn’t push for engagement and actually creates disassociation. Look at the 1980s when a national embrace of Michael Jordan, The Cosby Show and Oprah calmed white America into thinking we had reached some sort of civil rights finish line. The 2008 election of Barack Obama created a similar dynamic. I will never forget hearing comedian turned right-wing-pundit Dennis Miller say after the 2008 election, “If nothing else, we don’t have to talk about [racism] anymore.” The RNC tweet about Rosa Parks ending racism was not a slip of the computer keys but a slip of the mask. As for the rest of us, confusing iconography for progress will just leave us confused.
Patricia J. Williams gives a new perspective on the NFL racist bullying scandal.