It's Just Part of Who You Are
“When I walk into the arena, I cry. It’s ridiculous,” says Ashley Judd. “If I don’t cry when I walk into the arena, I cry when the lights go down, when the pregame show starts. It’s very touching. It’s sacred ground.” Judd is a Kentucky Wildcats fan. Game day, she explains, “starts with getting out of bed and putting on my Kentucky slippers, a gift from my dad.” During the hours leading to game time, “I am not friendly,” Judd continues. Game time, she says, “is not a social gathering. This is about basketball. I only have people over who are as serious about basketball as I am.”
Judd’s ritual is one of several revealed in SEC Storied: The Stars Are Aligned, premiering 14 August on the SEC Network. It’s not surprising, exactly, as she’s never been shy about her Kentucky loyalties. Neither is it especially revealing, in the sense that Judd again demonstrates that she is a canny and charming self-performer. What her story does do, however, is fit in with most all of the other stories in Andy Billman’s documentary, in the sense that it describes and celebrates the very idea of fandom, and in [articular, fandom within the Southeastern Conference.
It’s likely that other fans, devoted to other teams in other organizations, would make a similar case, that their devotion is singularly fierce or uniquely colorful. Still, the SEC is a fundamentally self-promotional entity, and so, it’s produced a kind of monument to exactly that, a film that doesn’t question or challenge or even go into detail about that self-promotion, but instead, just presents it, incessantly. As SEC Storied: The Stars Are Aligned aligns stars to testify to the glories of fandom, it manages multiple promotions at once, from the SEC to the teams within it to the fans who whoop on sidelines, tailgate, display team colors, or cook pigs. They all have a stake in this game.
“It truly is a religion,” asserts Willie Geist, a kid from New Jersey who became a Vandy convert back in the ‘90s. “There’s something about how invested people are, thousands of people going through the interstate highways of the South, traveling to these games.” His version of fandom, like Judd’s, is simultaneously sincere and self-aware. He appreciates that Vanderbilt fans, for all their enthusiasm, also know they rep “a little school just trying put a team on the field.” As Geist has it, his fandom includes a moral high ground that Tennessee acolytes’ version does not, a point that makes its own case against the rival, whom he remembers “stomping on us” during one game. “Do you kick puppies in your free time? Do you steal ice cream from little girls in sundresses? Is that what you do, Tennessee fans?”
Yes, all fans assert that their fandom is the best kind of fandom. The Stars Are Aligned isn’t about to argue with that, or to dig into how such self-delusions take hold or what sorts of emotional purposes they serve. Instead, it offers personal memories, a little bit of game footage and lots of shots of people with chests and faces painted. Most of the stories begin with paeans to longstanding traditions, to familial histories or to transitions at pivotal moments (see Willie Geist). Some speak to irrational behaviors (James Carville defines a “real college football fan” like so: “Someone who can read the Sunday paper after they lose, you’re not a college football fan.
If you look at the Sunday paper with abject terror, you’re a college football fan”), others describe patterns of behavior (pointing over his head, Auburn alum and professional golfer Jason Dufner explains, ““This whole area, trees and telephone poles, will be covered in toilet paper. These are not just football games”). Such descriptions of rituals suggest that what looks crazy to a non-fan is utterly acceptable, non-news, to fans. And they know who they are.
This sense of belonging to a club is key to being a fan. Even if one group of fans hates another group of fans (Ole Miss alum Shepard Smith: “The only real hate I have, and I don’t like to use that word, it’s a strong word, is for LSU. I hate that tiger, I hate when that band does that horrible sound up there”), they share and understand their peculiar passion. Being indoctrinated can take a minute, as Amy Robach recalls. She first attended her first Georgia football game, which she decided to attend without the accessories she was advised to bring, including a date. “I felt humiliated, like an outcast, I was an island, I was a miserable, alone person,” she remembers. And then, she says, she decided, “I’m going to submit.”
Robach’s story is not unlike that of another woman, Melissa Joan Hart. The film doesn’t draw conclusions about how boys and girls might be absorbed into fandom differently, but Hart’s initiation suggests that girls take a special route. Arriving at her new boyfriend’s hometown, she says, she donned all the gear she thought was expected, from an Alabama t-shirt and a scrunchie to “Roll Tide” written on her cheeks. When she entered a sorority house for a “lovely sit down dinner,” she was surrounded by other fans who had a very different sense of presentation. These girls wore the team colors, but “without the branding”.
Hart smiles now, like it still hurts. “People kept coming up to me and saying, ‘Now, can I get my picture made with you?’ And I realized it wasn’t because I was Clarissa or Sabrina. It was because I looked like a fool!” Poor girl: it’s good to see that she’s now aligned.