I started reading Curtis Wilkie’s Dixie on Friday morning at the gym. I bought the book years ago for $5 at a discount bookstore and then I had it sitting on the shelf until I started into it because I needed a paperback to read on the Elliptical machine. I’m now halfway into the book and I’m wondering why it took me this long to open it. Wilkie has a terrific writing style. I often find myself saying “man, I wish I could structure a sentence like that.” In terms of content, Wilkie does a terrific job of blending the personal and the political, weaving his life story in with the story of the South trying to destroy itself in resistance to the end of Jim Crow.
I always liked Howell Raines’s line about the joys of being an Alabama fan when the Bear was the coach:
And believe me, to have been in the city of Tuscaloosa in October when you were young and full of Early Times and had a shining Alabama girl by your side--to have had all that and then to have seen those red shirts pour onto the field, and, then, coming behind them, with that inexorable big cat walk of his, the man himself, The Bear--that was very good indeed.
Wilkie has a similar paragraph, one that I was immediately repeating to my wife with a look that said “see, I’m not all that crazy”:
Several passions are important to Southern men. The love of a good woman ranks slightly ahead of the exhilaration that comes from a sip of sour-mash whiskey. Other pleasures include greeting the chill dawn in a deer stand, debating the merits of barbecue from North Carolina, Tennessee, or Texas, expanding on stories that improve with age, and enjoying the bonhomie of friends. Then there is football.
Replace “sour-mash whiskey” with “bourbon” and “in a deer stand” with “on a run, trying to think of something interesting to say about the SEC” and I could put that paragraph on the back of a personalized t-shirt. Wilkie follows that paragraph by describing the highs and lows of SEC football: the famous 1959 Ole Miss-LSU game, a.k.a. the Billy Cannon punt return, and the infamous 1962 Kentucky-Ole Miss game that Ross Barnett turned into a massive rally against integration and that preceded by one day the riot/insurrection in Oxford.
Coming on the heels of Ole Miss replacing Colonel Reb, Wilkie’s book is a great reminder of William Faulkner’s line that the past is never dead, it's not even past. Part of what makes SEC football so compelling are the ghosts that are occasionally nipping at the heels of events. I was reminded of this truism not just by plowing through Dixie, but also by Tim Vickery’s recent article explaining why much of the developing world retains some otherwise inexplicable loyalty to Sepp Blatter. Here is Vickery on the 1966 World Cup:
A few months ago in Rio I saw Uruguay coach Oscar Washington Tabarez give a lecture to Brazilian coaches. The theme was on his team's recent rise and their progress to the semifinals of last year's World Cup. Tabarez, though, in addition to being a man of soccer is an academic, a teacher by trade (nicknamed "El Maestro" for this very reason), and he could not resist some historical context.
He stopped off briefly at the 1966 World Cup, held in England while FIFA was presided by an Englishman, Stanley Rous. That tournament, he said, had been a conspiracy against the South American teams.
The great Pele was brutally kicked out of the tournament by European teams while European referees did nothing. Strikingly, all but seven of the 32 matches had European referees, and the Portugal-North Korea quarterfinal was the only knockout game with an official from outside the continent. Famously, the Germany-Uruguay quarterfinal had an English referee, while the England-Argentina match had a German -- both were controversial, and South American involvement in the competition ended before the semifinals.
Tabarez is certainly no demagogue, no flaming-eyed nationalist. But he believes that the tournament was set up to exclude the South Americans.
He may well have extended his complaint, and noted that the competition was a conspiracy against the world outside Europe. There was just one place reserved for Asia and Africa combined. The bulk of the African nations pulled out in protest, their complaints given extra fuel by the support Rous offered to apartheid South Africa. The wind of change was blowing in Africa, but it could not dislodge the cobwebs in the mind of Rous, who was floundering badly in post-colonial politics he seemed unable to understand.
Vickery then explains that when Joao Havelange replaced Sir Stanley Rous as the head of FIFA, he created opportunities for countries outside of Europe by expanding the World Cup, creating youth tournaments that members of the Developing World could host, and commercializing the game to pay for the process of bringing the game to previously ignored places. Thus, the current criticism of Blatter (Havelange’s hand-picked replacement) has to be understood in context:
There was no pre-Havelange and Blatter garden of Eden -- just a different FIFA with different defects. With its lack of historical context it is unclear whether the current hysteria in the English press is motivated by a genuine desire to carry the game forward on a global basis -- or by nostalgia for when English rule was unchallenged.
The lack of accountability of the current FIFA is surely unsustainable, the quasi-feudal personal fiefdoms that develop inside the organization are disturbing and the fat-cat lifestyle of some of those at the top makes the stomach turn. But for all its flaws and problems, it is not hard to understand why much of the developing world prefers the post-Havelange FIFA to what came before.
It never occurred to me until reading the Vickery article and the first half of Dixie on the same weekend, but there is a real parallel to be made between SEC football teams and European national footie sides. Both are the representations of states/countries with significant identities. Those states/countries have a history of subjugating racial minorities that comes up from time to time in the present,* especially as their teams deploy players from groups whom they previously tried to oppress. You can't understand the politics surrounding FIFA and Sepp Blatter without knowledge of the post-colonial struggle to democratize international football; you can't understand Ole Miss's place in the SEC without knowledge of Ross Barnett and James Meredith.
* - If you want to go one step further, both colonialism and Jim Crow were ended by World War II. Colonialism ended because the European colonial powers were devastated in one way or another and replaced by two countries - the US and USSR - that had anti-colonial ideologies and therefore had to exercise power in subtler ways. (The USSR's subjugation of Eastern Europe is the obvious exception.) Jim Crow ended for a variety of reasons, but one major one was the Great Migration that kicked into high gear as a result of war mobilization. African-Americans were much harder to oppress as rural sharecroppers; not so much when they could organize politically in great urban centers in the North. Also, the experience of fighting against the Germans and Japanese illustrated where racist ideologies could take a country.