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The Racial Ambiguities of the Roll Tide Faithful

Kevin C. Cox Getty Images Sport

"ROOOOOOOOOOOOLLL...," at 2 a.m. on New Year's day, a low rumbling sound was still coming through the walls of my house. It was something like a roll of thunder, the main difference being that thunder doesn't unroll for four hours. "ROOOOOOOOLLL .... TIDE!" The rumble was man-made. The Sugar Bowl, the national championship football game between the Crimson Tide of Alabama and the Hurricanes of Miami, was scheduled to be played a short walk from my house in the French Quarter, where I live a couple of months a year. In the days leading up to the game, 40,000 large, loud men of the South had made their way to New Orleans, staging a ten-mile traffic jam on the highway leading into the city before planting themselves on a nearby corner, stripping off their shirts, painting their bodies and howling ritually at each other. This sort of thing is not uncommon in the French Quarter, but it is usually restricted to Bourbon Street, which serves as a kind of psychological drainage ditch for the more repressed parts of the United States. About the best thing that can be said about Bourbon Street is that it is cheaper than therapy. Now it was overflowing. For several days my once tranquil neighborhood resembled a playoff match among the all-stars of the Iron John fantasy camp competition.

That evening a friend and I took our seats high in the terrace of the Superdome. The crowd appeared to be split along partisan lines, a huge majority for the Crimson Tide and a small minority for the Hurricanes. But there is another, more important, spiritual division in any football crowd, between the football faithful and the football cynics. The faithful are the hordes you see on television. Men in war paint and women blowing four-foot-long horns, they hang on every play and bay for the blood of the opposing quarterback. For several hours they sustain the fantasy that they're the ones out there on the field. They wear replicas of real jerseys, with the name and number of the player they would most like to be mistaken for. After a win they slap palms and shout, "We did it!" Possibly because they have no control over the outcome, they are deeply superstitious, believing that the football gods reward conspicuous displays of fervor. The man next to us, for example, announced to everyone in section 612 that he was wearing the same underwear he wore the day Alabama secured the league championship. My kind of people.

Football cynics are more coldly rational. The protos of the type are businessmen with a financial stake in the event. They're known as scoreboard whores, because they pay to have their names flashed on the scoreboard for a few seconds before the game: The USF&C Sugar Bowl Welcomes Billy Bob McElroy, VP Marketing, Delta Drilling & Exploitation. They tend to be game sponsors, clients of sponsors, friends of sponsors, attorneys of sponsors or politicians hoping to gladhand sponsors. Their conceit that the whole affair is merely an appendage to commerce places them implicitly in the driver's seat. Football cynics identify less with the players than with the coach, whom they view as a fellow man of affairs. Whatever insecurity they feel about being fat and bald instead of lean and hairy they mask by speaking of the players with a forced condescension, regarding them as a less evolved version of themselves.

Throughout my overlong and quite possibly fraudulent attempt at crowd anthropology, my friend remained silent, staring out onto the field, with her chin in her hands. Finally, about five minutes into the game, she said, "I think the key is going to be whether the Miami defense is better than the Alabama offense." She was right. And they weren't. The Crimson Tide quickly pulled ahead. Soon they would be crowned the best college football team in the universe. "Let the tell you something," said the man beside me wearing his lucky undershorts, "I've lived in Alabama for twenty-seven years, I've followed this team for twenty-five years, and I am about to die." That is to say, he was happy. After the game the 40,000 fans who made the pilgrimage to New Orleans stumbled together down to the street, on their way to celebrate in the French Quarter, where they would drink until they became ill. Spirits ran high.

Then, with a single line, the man beside me on the down ramp of the Dome quashed the triumphal joy. To no one in particular he shouted out, "Yeah. But would you let Copeland and Curry eat at your house?" John Copeland and Eric Curry are Alabama's star defensive ends. Like most of the Alabama players—and unlike most of the Alabama fans—they are black. I turned to get a took at the guy. He was dressed up in shiny loafers, gray flannel slacks and a crimson and white chain-link sweater. He was grinning wickedly. His two finely shod daughters giggled and clutched their father's arms. But the man's bejeweled wife apparently didn't get the joke. "Daddy was saying that no one would have a black man to dinner!" one of the daughter's explained.

Still, it wasn't clear exactly how the man intended his remark. My companion took it at face value: the guy was a straightforward Southern bigot. But I didn't think it was that simple. Taking him for a football cynic, I figured that his target wasn't so much black football players as the white people who had cheered them from the terraces. The football cynic badly needs to keep his distance from the unwashed fans. While they were hog-stomping and boo-raying in the terraces, he was sipping a bourbon and soda in one of the reserved glass-enclosed suites, where he neither saw the game very clearly nor advanced the cause of the Crimson Tide with noise. Now that he was actually out among the masses he was saying to them: "I find your redneck self-identification with the Crimson Tide laughable. You don't even see that it conflicts with your crude lower-class redneck bigotry, which, by the way, I don't share."

At least, that's how I saw it. Not everyone in the crowd shared my generous interpretation. A moment after offering his thoughts, the well-heeled man was dwarfed by the shadow of central casting's idea of the Alabama redneck: football double chin, bird's nest beard, triple gut, numbered Alabama jersey. I thought I recognized him from the night before, standing and hooting on the corner near my house. "I'll tell you somethin'," he said to the football cynic, almost gently, as if he were correcting a child who didn't know any better. "They can eat at my table anytime they want. I'll feed both of them at once. You got a problem with that?" Chalk up another victory for the faithful.