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A lesson in the Auburn trees February 17, 2011

Posted by markgeil in Philosophical musings.
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I was born and raised on sports, and I have known some fine rivalries in my day. I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, back when N.C. State was good at basketball. The twice-a-year State-Carolina basketball game was intense. Subsequent meetings in the ACC Tournament were even more passionate. Throw Duke into the mix, and local bragging rights were up for grabs on a regular basis.

Raleigh was mostly red, so the occasional cyanic infiltrations of Carolina or Duke blue brought spirited squabbling. We made jokes about them, they made jokes about us. We cheered when we won (oh, those were the days!) and blamed the refs when we lost. We argued superiority on playgrounds and school halls and we pretended to be our favorite State players beating the Tarheels at the basketball hoop behind our house.

Then I grew up and moved to Columbus, Ohio for graduate school. It was there that I met Big Ten football, which is to its fans what ACC basketball was to me as a child. I also met “Ohio State – Michigan”, which many consider the greatest rivalry in all of sports. Of course, this was back when Michigan was good at football. (Oh, snap!) I smiled when the folks in Columbus refused to mention the name of their foe, instead calling them “That Team Up North”. I was impressed by the calendar of events for “Michigan Week” preceding the annual showdown. Finally, I went to The Game, and understood, and I was no longer an observer but a participant in this grand rivalry.

Then I grew up some more and moved to Atlanta, Georgia. I figured that with Georgia Tech right here in town this would reconnect me with ACC basketball. I was wrong. Atlanta is unabashedly SEC country, and their rivalries are about SEC football. But they’re different. The rivalries I knew had bitterness, and they had hatred, but they had boundaries born out of mutual respect. Here, the rivalries, and Auburn-Alabama in particular, seem too often to lack any respect at all. There is bitterness, and hatred, and it is deeply personal. People won’t let their children play with neighbor children because they root for the other team. Seriously. They harbor generations of resentment and affront and it feels more like a deep grudge than sport. And they seem proud of this anger and hostility. Because saying “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle” is not enough. That’s what average fans say. They are serious fans, so they must punctuate the battle cry: “Roll [expletive] Tide! War [expletive] Eagle!”

And it has apparently culminated in this. An Alabama “fan” called a Birmingham radio station to boast about what he did to bitter rival Auburn. “The weekend after the Iron Bowl,” he declared, “I went to Auburn, Ala., because I live 30 miles away, and I poisoned the Toomer’s trees.” He was referring to Toomer’s Corner, the site of Auburn’s post-game celebrations and the beautiful live oaks that get rolled after victories. He was serious. The soil has been tested, and it’s loaded with a herbicide so strong you can’t buy it at the local garden store. The century-old trees will likely die.

The moron has since been arrested, and the outrage from both sides is reassuring. His actions are certainly not typical of fans in any rivalry, Auburn-Alabama included. He has irreparably damaged an icon and his actions have left a scar on his own side of the rivalry that will take a long time to heal.

Hopefully, though, that healing process will include a little self-examination. Are we taking things a little too seriously, a little too personally? Have we lost the concepts of respect and civility? Can a rivalry not breed enjoyment, but only hatred?

My daughter went with a friend to her first big-time college football game, and it happened to be at Auburn during their recent championship season. She marveled at the spectacle and the pageantry, and she when she went to Toomer’s Corner after the game she felt a connection to a storied legacy. Oh, how sad, for fans of Auburn, and Alabama, and football, that one loser took the rivalry way too far. But let us guard ourselves so that we teach our children pageantry and legacy and not hate.

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