What might have been an amused and amusing probe of the psyches of obsessive sports fans becomes, when trained on those fans who root for University of Alabama football, something altogether darker and more complex, as we’re forced to pay witness to the sort of born-stupid bigots who would surely be going to hell, were they not already occupying that unique sort of psychic hell inhabited by those who refer to their favorite teams in the second person.
We’re about halfway through Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer before we’re finally served our first taste of good old southern-fried racism, courtesy of a couple sages whose beloved football program has been jeopardized by a black player suspected of some funny business with the fixing of speeding tickets. Woman: “Stupid niggers are always getting us into trouble.” Man: “She’s got a point. Them niggers always doin’ sumpin’ stupid.” After that comes the shocking part, as the book’s author, Warren St. John, spends an entire two pages coming to terms with how “let down” he is by the remarks of his fellow fans. (“I thought we were on the same team,” he whines, in italics.)
Having grown up in Alabama and having been a fan observing this species in its natural habitat — indeed, having been a member of this species, in this very habitat — this moment could not have hit St. John with the force of journalistic discovery as he presents it here on the page. But never mind: St. John is a curious and inquisitive reporter, and seems like a decent and sane enough fellow, even though there are moments that severely strain this hypothesis:
It may sound melodramatic or insensitive to compare a loss in sports to an actual tragedy — in fact, it’s both — but the point is, at the moment of a loss, a fan is incapable of making such distinctions. A loss feels like an actual tragedy.
So at least St. John knows precisely how he comes across when he describes the feeling after the particular loss under discussion as “not an out-of-body experience, but a no-body-at-all experience, a dull existential numbness”; or when he talks of being “in the early stages of an accelerated run-through of the stages of grief. In my funk, I question why I ever bothered to set myself up for such a letdown by getting involved with a sports team.” This is precisely the moment at which the reader begins to wonder why he ever got involved with this book, as a reader. It’s largely for the same reason St. John got involved with it as a writer:
I wanted to understand how and why something so removed from our lives — something that doesn’t affect our jobs, our relationships, or our health (hangovers notwithstanding) — affects us so much emotionally.
Case study after case study fails to give us hard and fast answers to this question, but they are no less entertaining for that. The most interesting of these by far has to be a gentleman named Chris Glass, whom St. John hunts down when he goes looking for the “the most football-obsessed student in Tuscaloosa”: “He pukes before games from nerves. Alabama football frequently drives him to tears . He has lost two jobs because of Alabama football.” Moreover, “Glass is both superstitious and boastful of his superstitions for what they say about his dedication of the Tide.” Suddenly, the prospect of being in a locked room listening to Doris Kearns Goodwin discuss the Red Sox doesn’t sound all so bad.
Luckily, St. John chose to follow the Crimson Tide and its fans during what proved to be an unusually eventful season — not just because the team won the Southeastern Conference championship and ended up ranked eighth in the nation, but because the head coach, Mike DuBose, a married man, was under considerable heat from all angles — fans, media, school officials — when it was learned that he’d been putting in considerable overtime with one of the athletic department’s secretaries. Paul Finebaum, a local radio and newspaper personality, has made a career in Alabama out of his loathing for everything pertaining to the Tide football team, and watching him go after DuBose and so many other sacred idols is a necessary antidote to the kind of unrelenting obeisance we’re forced to witness in these pages.
When you’re an ardent Pittsburgh Steelers fan well into his twenties who never misses a game and is in possession of a Plaxico Burress/Hines Ward bobble head doll, you’re severely limited in how smug and judgmental you can allow yourself to be over all this. So let’s consider it sufficient to say that just how much you identify with St. John and some of his fellow Tide fans is entirely dependant on how much you long for St. John’s “vision of eternal knighthood and childhood” that occasionally “comes fleetingly back into focus.”