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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: The college football quandary

by Philip Martin | January 4, 2022 at 2:58 a.m.


Karen is a stickler; she tells me when you are faced with a choice you don't feel prepared to make you are properly in a quandary. It's only when each of your options lead to the violation of a moral obligation that you can say you are facing a dilemma.

When Mary McGregor sang that she was torn between two lovers, she was in a quandary. When Sophie Zawistowska had to choose which of her children would live, she faced a dilemma.

So this guy I know is in a quandary. His teams are playing for college football's national championship Monday night.

I do not understand why he feels invested in both the University of Alabama Crimson Tide and the University of Georgia Bulldogs; while he has lived in both of those states he has no real affiliation with either campus. His alma mater is a Louisiana school that also plays Division I college football but he seems to have no particular interest in their fortunes -- he pays closer attention to my alma mater, LSU, simply because they compete against his darlings in that greatest of all college football conferences, the SEC.

But before you write him off as a front-runner, understand for as long as I've known him, he's been a fan of both 'Bama and the Bulldogs, to the point that he often employs a possessive pronoun when talking about either program.

(He's also a Dallas Cowboys fan, as if you couldn't guess that. I guess the heart wants what it wants.)

Leaving aside the inherent spiritual problems of tribal identification with problematic institutions like big-time college football programs and the advisement of Matthew 6:24 against trying to serve two masters, this is probably a good problem to have. No matter who prevails Monday night, he'll have the opportunity to experience whatever you experience when your team wins the big game. And he also gets to experience the sweet agony of defeat, which might be even better, if you consider the science.

Studies have shown that the least successful sports teams tend to have the most committed fans. The technical term for this phenomenon is called the "shared-dysphoria-pathway-to-fusion" (SDPF) hypothesis, and there's been serious research on it, especially in the U.K., where it's long been taken for granted that the fanbases of underachieving clubs in the Premier League (the highest level of the brand of football Americans call soccer) such as Crystal Palace, Hull, Norwich, Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion are more bonded, vociferous and willing to help out other fans of their team than are fans of more successful squads like Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United.

We can be fairly certain that a significant portion of Chicago Cub fans felt a little strange after winning their first World Series after more than a century in 2016. Sure, they gained a championship, but in doing so they lost an essential component of their collective identity as Cub fans.

No longer were they long-suffering diehards or lovable losers. No longer could they bemoan the curse of the billy goat. Stripped of their illusions of star-crossedness, they were just another fanbase waiting for next year.

Neither Alabama or Georgia qualifies as an underachieving team, though Georgia hasn't won a college football national championship since 1980 (it also won a consensus championship in 1942 and finished at the top of one of the various end-of-season polls in 1920, 1927, 1946 and 1968). It's played in a post-season bowl game every year since 1996 and for the national championship--losing to Alabama--in 2017.

It's impossible to argue they're not an elite program.

But Alabama's dynastic dominance is such that Georgia felt like an interloper even when it was ranked ahead of Alabama in the polls. Few alert observers could have been surprised when No. 3-ranked Alabama beat Georgia 41-24 in the SEC title game on Dec. 4, ruining Georgia's undefeated season and raising some doubt about the impregnability of its lauded defense.

People who know things expect Monday's national title game rematch to be much closer, with some calling Georgia a slight favorite. The conventional wisdom is that it's very difficult to beat a tough opponent twice in a short span of time, but there's also the idea that Alabama coach Nick Saban--certainly the greatest college football coach of this century--holds some sort of psychic sway over his former assistants, who collectively are 1-25 against him.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart used to work for Saban, and he's 0-4 against his old mentor.

Alabama has dominated the rivalry recently, having won the last seven meetings going back to 2008. Smart obviously has more at stake--if he loses to Saban again there will inevitably be lots of chatter about how he just can't beat his old boss and, despite his success, some suggestions that the Bulldogs ought to move on and find someone who can beat Saban on a semi-regular basis.

(Good luck with that: Saban has won a record seven national championships--six at Alabama--and his teams have made the College Football Playoff in seven of its eight years of existence, winning three of the last six BCS championships. His record is 178-24 at Alabama, 269-66-1 overall and 9-2 against Georgia.)

Maybe the most interesting thing about the Alabama-Georgia rivalry, which extends back to 1895, is that it was suspended for a few years in the 1960s after Alabama coach Bear Bryant and Georgia athletic director Wally Butts were accused of fixing the 1962 game between the teams, which Alabama won 35-0. An Atlanta insurance salesman claimed he had accidentally been connected to a phone call in which Bryant sought and received intelligence from Butts about Georgia's strategy and weaknesses.

The salesman sold his story to the Saturday Evening Post for $5,000 and the magazine rushed it into print. Butts lost his job in the ensuing scandal; both he and Bryant sued for libel, each asking for $10 million in damages.

Though there was some circumstantial evidence that supported the insurance agent's story, Bryant eventually settled for $300,000, while Butts' libel case went before the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor, establishing the precedent that news organizations can still be held liable to public figures if they publish information that's been recklessly gathered or is deliberately false.

Despite the Court's ruling, the powers that be thought it best to cool the Alabama-Georgia rivalry after the 1965 game; they didn't play again until 1972. Since then, Alabama has gone 14-7 against the Bulldogs.

We enjoy sports because they allow us to completely give ourselves over to ultimately inconsequential, artificially contrived contests in which young men of our tribe engage others in some simulacrum of battle to satisfy our innate need to be occupied by something other than our own neuroses. Feel free to root for one or both or neither blueblood program.

As Jerry Seinfeld once observed, we're really only rooting for laundry anyway.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com.


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