Back in the day I was an English major, and most of my time I studied medieval literature-- things like saints, heroes and romances. One of my favorite saints, for instance, is Saint Boniface, but I have held a grudge against him for one specific thing: he destroyed a huge, ancient oak tree and then bragged about it. Doubtless, old Boniface felt justified in what he was doing (the pagans worshiped it after all, and he was a Christian bishop), but the story has never set well with me because when you get right down to it, Boniface wanted to destroy his pagan rival so badly that he would literally wipe its presence off the landscape. And an ancient oak whose rings could remember when Rome fell was the sacrificial victim. There is no justifiable reason in a land of cultural warfare to blight the earth, to enact a scorched earth policy to punish the land. To scorch the land is to scorch the very memory of a culture, to alter it forever.
Photo by Robert S. Donovan, via flickr.com)
So, in the last twenty-four hours I have been thinking through the nature of this rivalry from an outsider's perspective (outsider to the South, to football, largely, and to the SEC fandom), and trying to figure out if there is any lesson we can learn from this about how fans should treat each other and respect each other's memory. The whole point of a rivalry is to is to have a relationship, I always figured. Rivalries foster relationships with others in the spirit of competition, for bragging rights and glory. You need a tradition or common history to do that, and in each side's playful demonizing of the other side there is still underneath a mutual, grudging respect for each side to have their glory, their own history of their region. The sides of the rivalry therefore affirm each other and give them respect as a worthy opponent.
What "Al from Dadeville" did to Toomer's corner didn't have anything to do with rivalry. He wanted to wipe Auburn out by killing the place that holds their own memories, even a small (though significant) part of who they are. The Toomer's oaks are fading, and in this time, I'm praying that with this comes a reconsideration of what a rivalry is, and what it means. Rivalries don't need to be destroyed, but they need to be recognized for what they are. And those within those rivalries need to recognize the consequences of how they act.
The first thing that might help would be to realize what has been destroyed. I've been reading a lot of 'Bama fans commenting on the situation on "Roll Bama Roll," and y'all have been interesting, I have to say. A lot of them have been pretty classy as well as (understandably) defensive about it, and there are also trolls. But, those in between on this have said a lot in the threads that "it's just a couple of trees." That's where I (and a lot of other 'Bama fans, apparently) have to respectfully differ. "Al's" attack on those trees was an attack on Auburn's entire tradition and an attempt to annihilate a part of it. That's why this is such a touchy issue, because it has nothing to do with the true spirit of rivalry at all. Poisoning the Toomer's Oaks would be a lot like the following:
- Digging up Bear Bryant's grave and dressing his skeleton in a rival's jersey (forget the statue.)
- Chopping down the Grove in Oxford and filling it with broken glass
- Blowing up The Rock in Knoxville or Howard's Rock in Clemson
You could call each of these "vandalism" in the name of rivalry if you want, but they're not; it's more like Boniface wiping out Thor's tree and singing amongst the wreckage. Each of them would actually be an attempt to erase a bit of the school's heritage and deny them the chance to pass on that tradition to their kids. You can TP the trees on any corner in Tuscaloosa, but it will never be the same trees where their grandparents had done that. And, their grandchildren may never know what "rolling the oaks" was ever about.
So, on Auburn's side, they're pretty pissed, and with absolute right. They have been denied a part of their school heritage which (whether you think it's dumb or not) has been something very important to their shared identity as Auburn fans. Even so, however, I would caution the Auburn contingent to see this as a dangerous new "trend" in their rivalry and fly off the handle at 'Bama fans for being felons. Rather, perhaps it's better not to even think of the poisoning as part of the rivalry at all. "Al from Dadeville" doesn't represent the rivalry because he has no respect for it. To understand and respect a rivalry is to, at the end of the day, realize that your mutual competition and name-calling really comes down to recognizing your opponent's worth. If you mock them, it's because you know you couldn't really live without them. If someone does something this hateful to another team's common traditions and history, they're not acting from the rivalry anymore. And when they step outside the rivalry to pursue something to destroy their rivals, they act alone.
In any case, I'm hoping that, since the outrage at Toomer's Corner has sent such massive shock waves through the entire SEC and the rest of the nation, maybe all our fan bases should stop and take stock of what it means to have a rivalry, and what it means to prank each other. We need to know that Alabama doesn't "hate" Auburn. If Auburn ceased to exist, there would be no tradition of rivalry, and Alabama would be the poorer for it. The same would be true for Tennessee and Florida. And every time we talk smack about each other or each others' coaches, we need to recognize that that is a badge of respect for each other. Just maybe, if we all make that act of respect conscious, perhaps the death of the Toomer's Oaks can mean something far more important than just one town's tragedy. Now that the trees are fading and the accused killer is arrested, we need to aim for planting new seeds.