“The Tilted World”

In The Beginning

I used to love college football and took great pride in hating everybody except the Arkansas Razorbacks. It wasn’t until my late twenties that reason began to chip away at the unadulterated emotion that sustains being a fan of a sports franchise. Born in Little Rock, Hog Heaven was my version of paradise.

But my zeal has been undermined by an awareness of the serious permanent and mortal dangers football players risk during a game; while an unjust college athletics system doesn’t fairly compensate or insure them; while universities, ruling organizations, and coaches are making tens of millions; while they’re simultaneously risking hundreds of millions in lawsuit damages from disabled and disgruntled player employees; while academics in these institutions of higher learning are being financially suffocated and contracted due to economic forces; while I’m complicit in underwriting it all by watching it on TV, going to games, and buying gear.

So I've largely opted out of college sports and doubled down on the moral purity of rooting for my home professional team, the Memphis Grizzlies. I still pull for the Razorbacks and want them to succeed, mostly due to familial influences that bring a piece of my heart happiness. Though the love has died a little, interestingly, so has the hate for others.

Once upon a time, going to The Grove at Ole Miss — as I write about in this month’s cover story, “Forest of Dreams” on page 62 — and finding much good to say about it would’ve been the stuff of science fiction. But nowadays I can appreciate what makes it great without looking through Hog-colored glasses. And there’s little doubt, The Grove is a game-day experience unlike any other.

My theory once was that the ultimate best solution to fix college sports is to completely separate college from sports — let the Razorbacks, Rebels, Wolverines, Trojans, and everyone else form a subsidized farm system for the NFL, and free the universities to focus upon what they ostensibly should: education.

About one hour spent in The Grove — hell at the breech amidst a forest of heaven trees — disabused me of that likely happening. Ole Miss’ athletics culture is so ingrained you probably can’t excise it from the body academic. Maybe you shouldn't.

Ole Miss is an interesting case study of the relationship between athletics and academics. The Southern aristocratic school’s literary reputation is elite, with a tradition every bit as rich as its game-day mythology. I chose to honor that dynamic in my story, a kind of Oxford All-American tale where I named sections after books by famous Ole Miss-connected writers such as William Faulkner, John Grisham, Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, and Eudora Welty. This particular column is named after the latest from Oxford husband-wife power duo Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly, about bootleggers and the 1927 flood.

There’s something peaceable about sports and writing. Perhaps it’s the shared ubiquity of bourbon. Contrast the harmony at Ole Miss to the tension felt in places like California Berkeley, where the gridiron and intellectuality make for strange bedfellows, or the University of Chicago, where the immortal shadows of science put football in a more diminutive place.

Could the fall of college athletics shake even the bleachers at Ole Miss some day? Entrenched perspectives have certainly changed there before. Half a century ago, James Meredith desegregated the school with armed federal protection. Other, less dire “traditions” have fallen, as well. It once was unthinkable that cars would be banned from parking in The Grove. But change was accepted reluctantly about 20 years ago, and now it’s hard to imagine the scene with vehicles. And even the hoary Colonel Reb was displaced by a bear as the official mascot recently.

Tradition is usually the enemy of progress. Ole Miss shows that this need not be the case. Maybe the tilted world of colleges and athletics can be righted in Oxford, where their coexistence is already relatively healthy. It would be the end of everything — an era, a culture, and a lifestyle — but it could also be the start of a new, better tradition.     


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