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The Politics of the Pigskin
By Karin Beuerlein

Ah, October. The blaze of leaves, the chill of wind, the approach of the Alabama game. I can't remember a time when the passage of fall was not marked by the desire to squash the Crimson Tide like a bug. I am a Vol forever — to my bones. I love Tennessee football. It makes my heart swell up in a tacky Lee Greenwood kind of way. Growing up, it never occurred to me that I should not love football because I'm female. I mean, I admit to a certain girlie tendency to watch the actual ball to the exclusion of everything else on the field ("Holding? Who? Where?"), but I love the game as much as your average male redneck. And I look better doing it.

    Still, it has occurred to me that there are other reasons not to love football. I am the daughter of two University of Tennessee alumni and sports fans. My mother is a screamer; she has been known to burst veins during ballgames. My father is a brooder; he prefers the radio broadcast to the television and sips beer silently through fumbles and touchdowns, reacting to both with the same slight facial expression. In terms of football genetics, I am my mother's child. I am acrobatic and vocal during games, and beer only makes it worse. But although I'm a daughter of the South, I did not soak up all the trappings of my upbringing.

    I love my mama's fried chicken, but I'm more of an olive-oil kind of girl myself: I do yoga, believe in the fundamental goodness of the government program, and subscribe to Mother Jones. I don't trust corporate schemes or conservative religious politics, which happen to be the two legs Southern football stands on.

    I am painfully aware that the commandments about clipping did not come down a mountain on stone tablets. Football is made up, like Santa Claus and Oz. Nothing tangible is lost or gained in the struggle for the end zone, except maybe broken bodies that will betray age at an unnatural rate.

    Lord knows I don't get squat for being loyal to my national champions. Through my television set, I systematically controlled the 1999 Fiesta Bowl referees with concentrated bouts of cussing, but the White House did not call me when my team blew the lights out in Tempe. Coach Phillip Fulmer did not send me an FTD bouquet to thank me for my third-quarter prayers, which, frankly, won him a damn fine ballgame.

    So why do I hang around, when I look like death in this shade of orange? Pride in my alma mater? Yes, I went to UT, but no, I don't remember it fondly. But that's another essay altogether.

Up North: Statues of Founding Fathers.
Down South: Statues of Heisman Trophy winners.

Up North: Expect their daughters to understand Sylvia Plath.
Down South: Expect their daughters to understand pass interference.

Up North: Take prospects on sailing trips to entice them to join the law firm.
Down South: Take prospects on fishing trip so they don't leave for the NFL their senior year.
    Perhaps I appreciate the physical discipline of athletics. But to be honest, I don't even consider everyone on the football team an athlete — no matter what he tells you, that thing hanging over the offensive lineman's belt is not a muscle. Besides, I'm no slouch myself. I invest considerable time in torturing myself with aerobics, running, and basketball, yet Neyland Stadium never fills with well-wishers on my behalf. This seems unfair. I'm quite good at aerobics.

    Well, what about the life lessons that sports teach? The hardest thing about watching a sports broadcast is hearing the inevitable references to the monopoly student athletes have on discipline and character. Sportscasters, recognizing the metaphors that keep them employed, allot a significant portion of their broadcast time to plugging the idea that sports teach us about life. I played basketball in high school, and the lessons I learned had more to do with meanness, jealousy, and the sacrifice of academics in the name of Almighty Sport. Okay, I guess I did learn about life.

    I somehow managed to acquire some character and discipline of my own without the aid of a ball, puck, or bat. Alert Brent Musburger. The thrill of the spectacle? Now maybe we're getting somewhere. One of the things human beings are best at is suspending their disbelief: It's the principle that drives the movie industry and its attendant rites of celebrity veneration. We take ordinary things and make them larger than ourselves with advertising and group psychology until they become something we can worship.

    Just look at what we've done with football. In the fall, it's on the tube three days a week with superimposed graphics that require college degrees to produce. We accord major-network sportscasters up to a hundred times the purchasing power of the city employees who rescue us from burning buildings. And for what?

    Sportscasters know exactly what you know about the outcome of the game — which is to say, nothing. They get their predictions right about as many times as if they'd drawn them out of a hat, making pithy observations like, "Whoever controls the first half is halfway there." If I tried to write down the stuff they say and sell it as a freelance writer, I'd be slinging shakes at McDonald's faster than you can say, "Big players make big plays."

    Half the time they're not even talking about the game they're watching. They're talking about themselves: "When I was coaching . . ." or "When I was the best-looking wide receiver Nebraska ever had . . ." or "Well, John, when I was starting quarterback for Florida State, I ran a play sort of similar to that, or really not like that at all, but what a play it was!"

Up North: Also a Physics Major.
Down South: Also Miss USA.

Up North: Mario Cuomo.
Down South: "Bear" Bryant.

Up North: Students and teachers are not sure if they are going because they have class on Friday.
Down South: Teachers cancel class on Friday because they don't want to see the few hung-over students who might actually make it to class on Friday.
    Still, I remind you that humans love to suspend their disbelief, and if I'm anything, I'm human. I fall for sportscasting shtick all the time, even though all the prognosticators, except poor old Beano Cook, picked Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl and then didn't apologize when they were grossly, horribly wrong. I will enforce silence upon an entire roomful of people just because Kirk Herbstreit utters the word "Tennessee." I will glue myself to the screen so that I can hear the hardest-hitting lineman Washington State Beauty School ever had tell me why he likes Tee Martin in tomorrow's game. I will watch the graphics shine and twirl on the screen like candy.

    Okay, that undefinable something? I didn't want to say it, but of course there's something about sports that can capture us without our permission. In its finer moments it is as much an art as the swell and crash of a symphony. How else to explain the glory of a 100-yard punt return? If there were nothing in a game to appeal to our natural sense of wonder, could we lose ourselves in the outcome the way we do? Something is strangely right about a hard-fought touchdown. It's good karma. A ball passes through the uprights, and somewhere in China, a soft breeze lifts a butterfly over the branches of a gingko tree. Shut up, I'm serious.

    Of course, football is not always pretty, especially when it pretends to be something it's not, like a battle with actual consequences. Or a substitute for thinking and conversation. In our beloved South, football is an unconditionally sanctioned drug with pre-game approval from a local minister. It's a socially permissible escape from the ticking in your mind; it replaces the alcohol most Southern Baptists won't touch.

    Make no mistake, this drug has side effects for heavy users. The harder you want to win, the more it sucks to lose. I know a man who doesn't speak to his family for days after Tennessee loses a game. For the less fanatical, football is like cotton candy: sweet and fluffy while it lasts, and utterly gone when it's gone. Regardless of which type of fan you are, there is a thrilling meaninglessness in choosing a side and attaching yourself to a particular outcome. Or maybe the side chooses you.

    Orange jerseys and the sound of the band playing "Rocky Top" will always remind me of childhood Saturdays when the air was crisp and redolent of pure blue sky. When I raked leaves until game time. When my mama and daddy turned on their respective broadcasts and settled into their peculiar patterns of listening, and the house filled with sound. It's October, after all, and it's time to wish Bama ill. Somehow, that's a beautiful thing.

Karin Beuerlein writes full-time from someplace in Tennessee, an hour from the nearest interstate.
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