FOOTBALL IN THE SOUTH

THE CULTURE AND THE RISKS

01/07/2018
SEEN
By Deirdre Edwards
 

Football fever runs deep in the South —  from high school to the NFL. Alabama to Florida, to Georgia and the Carolinas, the Gulf States, Tennessee and Kentucky, and onto the Virginias, this national pastime has its own “season” in the South. 

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"…and in the South football is a religion, and Saturday is the holy day."— Hall of Famer Marino Casem, longtime Coach at Alcorn State and Southern University, on football in the South.— Hall of Famer Marino Casem, longtime Coach at Alcorn State and Southern University, on football in the South.

Yes, as the players are lining up on the field in August, many people forget about the ending of summer. The only season in sight: football season. People of all ages start pulling out their favorite player’s jerseys and gear up for all the pageantry this contact sport has to offer.

The South’s historical love affair with football, or college football more precisely, is often said to hearken back to the Civil War. According to a Dec. 6, 2013 article on “The Bleacher Report,” reporter Andrew Hall quoted author Tony “Mr. College Football” Barnhart as saying this about the sport and the regional mindset after the Civil War loss, "We may not be able to beat the North in the war or economically, but by God we can beat them on the football field."

Armed with that perspective and the fact the North was progressing so fast economically, according to the article, the South set its sights on dominating in sports — making football a part of Southern culture, a family tradition, an economic powerhouse and home to football superfans.

Fans can be found at every level of football — not just college. High school games are where fandom first starts to take shape. Friday Night Lights — as high school football games are affectionately referred to — are a very serious part of the culture in Southern towns and cities. This is where the community first starts to see the potential and talent of the players who were just playing Pop Warner a few short years ago. And the rivalries from one school to another can be fierce. Usually, star players are picked, many scouted and recruited at this point, and fans will follow these players onto the next phase: college football.

College football is where the superfan takes shape. We’ve all seen these faithfuls at games or on our television screens. Fans drenched in school colors from head to toe, tailgating and screaming for their favorite player in the stands. The energy is electric and the South leads the pack in faithful followers. 

According to an article last December on www.usatoday.com, which listed the top 10 states with the best fan base in college football, one southern state rose above them all: Alabama. In the article, reporter Alan Siegel says, “Some teams have a small group of super fans. ‘Bama has thousands. That’s why the Crimson Tide tops this list; their fans are complete and utter diehards.” Other highly ranked Southern fan bases: Clemson (3), LSU (5), Texas A&M (6) and Florida Gators (10). So, what other colleges filled out the rest of the top 10? The Midwestern colleges and universities, where football is just as ingrained in their culture as it is in the South.

Is there something in the air that makes football fans just a little “crazier” in the South? Maybe it’s the South’s generally mild weather. Maybe it’s the region’s wide-open spaces — perfect space to really practice and play the game. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the sweet tea, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Cheerwine that’s served up almost everywhere you go — the soft drink debate will be addressed in a separate article. Whatever it is, Southerners support their teams and welcome them with all the famous hospitality the region is known to bring.

As we go to press, we’re in the thick of playoff, championship and bowl season for colleges and NFL teams.

While Saturday is devoted to college football, the party continues on Sunday with the NFL. The young men of college football are now men of the NFL and Southerners now have an extra day to root for their favorites.

The end of the season is always exciting. All football teams have worked hard and long for months to make it to the championships and most people think everything culminates with the January bowl games and the NFL’s February Super Bowl. However, for many football players (high school to professional) the work never ends  — training for the next season is always happening. Winter workouts. Spring Practice. Summer Camps. All of these efforts go towards the next season in hopes of making it to the championships again and being #1.

However, in the midst of all the training, pageantry and excitement of the game, the physical health of the player is always in question. Has the competitive spirit of the game put players at greater physical risk?

Recently, the topic of concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) has gained national attention. CTE, according to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, “is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma.” The foundation says CTE has been seen in some people as early as 17, but generally early symptoms don’t appear until years later — in the person’s late 20s and 30s — after repetitive head impacts. They go onto describe how the effects can be shown through: moods, behavior, and eventually in some cases, memory loss.

We’ve all seen and heard the heart-breaking accounts of former football players plagued with the effects of CTE. Years of repeatedly getting hit on the field has taken its toll on their bodies and their brains. It’s because of the long-term effects of playing such a physical sport that high school programs are looking more closely at concussions and their young players in an effort to keep the player mentally healthy.

Although, while we are focused on football in this article, CTE can affect all those who participate in contact sports. This includes: soccer, rugby, hockey, boxing and wrestling. The Concussion Legacy Foundation has found cases where these sports are just as prone to brain trauma/CTE as football.

Some of the College Teams with a Devoted Fanbase, Throughout the South.

It’s just as important to stress that not all athletes who suffer from concussions or a single head injury will develop CTE. The risk factors for CTE vary widely, but it has been shown where repetitive brain trauma for long periods of time can certainly contribute to the disease. For coaches, parents, and anyone working directly with student athletes, it’s important to know how to take care of your player mentally and physically. Once these things are in balance  — let the games begin!

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Issue 20.1 | Spring 2018

          Arkansas State University