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The Problem Of Woke College Football

It's the wrong time to alienate fans -- but it looks like teams are going to do just that
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On August 28, the LSU Tigers marched from practice across campus in a Black Lives Matter protest. Later, Coach Ed Orgeron said that he supported his team. That same week, Alabama coach Nick Saban led his own team in a BLM protest:

“Today I’m like a proud parent,” Saban said at the end of the march. “I’m proud of our team, I’m proud of our messengers over here and I’m very proud of the message. I’m very proud of the ’All lives can’t matter until Black lives matter’ video that we did early on that I think had a very positive impact. That was something we did together as a team.

“This is something that the team decided to do together as a team, 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.”

I am not a big sports fan, but you can’t live in the South and not understand that SEC (Southeastern Conference) football is a tribal religion. My sense is that if college football teams go woke, it could cause real disruption, in ways that might have a political effect. This is just speculation, mind you; I invite you readers who are more knowledgeable about sports to weigh in.

It’s also true about professional football. Today we’re learning that the Dallas Cowboys organization has given the green light to players to kneel during the National Anthem. Me, personally, I am not offended by the kneeling. But I don’t think that’s going to go over well in Texas.

Here in Louisiana, people care about the New Orleans Saints, but they don’t care nearly as much as they do about the LSU Tigers. If the Tigers go woke, Ed Orgeron has a big problem on his hands. Orgeron is from down the bayou. He surely knows in his bones how unwelcome the racial politicization of Tiger football will be among white fans. I wouldn’t presume to guess what Coach O’s true feelings are about Black Lives Matter, but one has to appreciate the dilemma’s he’s in. Orgeron, Nick Saban, and other coaches lead teams that are predominantly black. If the black players (and their white teammates) feel strongly about this issue, then their coach failing to support them is going to make the coach’s job untenable. That’s just a fact of life.

Yet figures like Orgeron and Saban have to know that these protests are not going to be popular with the large white fan bases of their teams. It is impossible to overstate how much good will the LSU Tigers have here in Louisiana after their National Championship win last season. But they could burn through it very quickly.

There will be people who flat out hate Black Lives Matter. But there will also be people who hate that something as beloved and unifying as college football is being politicized. The fact that the LSU Tigers are marching for Black Lives Matter is not going to make more Tiger fans support BLM; it’s going to make more Tiger fans turn on the Tigers.

Again, you might say it’s racism, and you might be right for some people. But my gut tells me it’s mostly going to be about resentment at the politicization of college football, which, again, in the South really is a tribal religion. A few weeks back, I was talking to a friend who is a pastor in Baton Rouge. We were talking about how the diminishment of this fall’s football season is going to be psychologically painful for a lot of people in this city. Laugh at it if you want, but football season is the happiest part of the year for a hell of a lot of people. The fact that the Tigers are going to be playing only a limited schedule, and that there will be only half-full stadiums (by governor’s orders), and some of the players are opting out for their safety — all of this is going to hit people very hard, especially after suffering depression from six months of Covid measures.

Folks are going to be angry. The Tigers (and, I presume, other football teams) can’t afford to have the people angry at them. 

I mean that literally. All college programs are under a lot of pressure this year because of Covid. The financial losses to universities and businesses who profit from football season are going to be massive. The projected losses are going to be so great at LSU that the university is asking fans to donate to the athletic program. You think the small business owner in Lafourche Parish is going to open his wallet to the Tigers when they’ve gotten woke? This is exactly the wrong time for football teams to alienate fans. But it’s going to happen, and when it does, we can count on sports journalists to chastise fans for being a bunch of slack-jawed bigots.

I see that one of Trump’s sons has picked up on the Cowboys thing, tweeting the following to his four million followers:

Remember, the Cowboys market themselves as “America’s team.”

Think about how popular college football teams introducing racial politics into college football in the middle of this presidential campaign is likely to play. If you’re mad at your favorite team for getting woke, and regard it as yet another example of the left politicizing everything, might that not affect your vote, and/or your political intensity?

It just seems to me that if you are a football player trying to build interest in and sympathy for Black Lives Matter, this is not the way to do it. In fact, it’s the way to energize opponents of BLM. And I have a sense that this is going to have some effect, perhaps not measurable, on the fall election — and beyond. The cumulative effect of politicizing sports to the cultural left could be to help radicalize the conservative base.

What do you think?