The Contradictions of the Reagan Democrat/Trump Base Embodied in a Super Bowl Quarterback

by Neil H. Buchanan

The Super Bowl teams are set, and although I recently wrote that, "[o]ver the course of my life, I have almost entirely lost interest in everything sports-related except college football," it seems that I picked exactly the right year to pay attention to the pro football playoffs again.
Everything that is wrong with American football in general is still very wrong, and the pro game is generally unwatchable because of excessive commercials and planned mediocrity -- Which 9-8 teams will be among the 44 percent of teams that make the playoffs?! -- but this year's playoff games included more "wows" than I can ever remember, which is even more impressive because we tend to embellish memories from our youthful days.  Just two minutes at the end of one of the second-round playoff games was enough to give fans memories (even fans of the losing team) that will glow for years.

Sports cannot be separated from politics, of course.  Colin Kaepernick, for example, was robbed of a career and tens of millions of dollars because he engaged in peaceful protest (and note that his former team lost this past Sunday because their quarterback was simply terrible).  From the political angle, this was an excellent year because the obvious political bad guys all lost.  Aaron Rodgers's year of deceptions and anti-vax activism ended with a humiliating loss at home to that offense-free 49ers team.  Tom Brady (too many annoying items to list) lost at home as well.
And the Dallas Cowboys lost, too.  Why are they on this list?  They and their owner are, as far as I know, no more Trump-adjacent or awful than most NFL teams and owners, but they are still the Cowboys.  If you don't love 'em, you hate 'em.  I don't love 'em.

Here, I want to take a look at an issue that is more complicated than any individuals' public awfulness but that is very much political.  And in this case, at least as far as I know, the main character is a good guy.

Very few people gave the Cincinnati Bengals much chance to make the big game, but their second-year quarterback Joe Burrow took them there with some spectacularly great leadership and execution.  We are in the two-week period between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl, so those who are so inclined (a group to which I most definitely do not belong) will be able to read article after article about Burrow (and every other member of both teams, including water boys and van drivers).  That will all be hagiography, of course.

Again, at this point I know of nothing that would make me cringe about rooting for Burrow.  On the other hand, I would have said the same thing about Rodgers only six months ago.  (This is hardly unique to football: see Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and on and on.  There was even a time when Anthony Weiner was thought of as a good guy.)  That is a good reason not to go all in on a person, especially a very young person who will have every opportunity to flake out over the course of an extremely public life.

But whatever good or not-good happens regarding Burrow personally, he is already famous for having shined a spotlight on rural poverty.  When he won college football's Heisman Trophy two years ago, his speech included an ad-libbed, quite moving statement about the kids from the town were he grew up, Athens, Ohio.  As the first half of this Washington Post article from last week explained in insufficient but nonetheless aching detail, Athens is one of many suffering areas of this country, and Burrow's relationship with it is rather impressive.

I should note here that I grew up in Ohio.  Most non-Ohioans, especially those from the coasts, never think about Ohio at all.  Some are not even sure that Cleveland, Columbus, or Cincinnati are in the Buckeye State.  (In an episode of "M*A*S*H," a character from New York City says: "Hey, I know stuff.  Go ahead and ask me what's the capital of Cleveland.")  Because most people cannot keep Ohio, Iowa, and Idaho straight, there is also a fair amount of this: "Oh, you're from Ohio?  How many cows on your farm?"  Most people have heard of Ohio State -- sorry, The Ohio State University (a re-branding that, even two decades on, still amuses) -- but only as a football factory.

Like most states, Ohio has enormous regional differences.  (Tennessee is really three states.  The NoCal/SoCal split in California is legendary.  And I have no idea what to say about Florida.)  Ohio's regional split is most notable for the fact that about a third of the state might as well be West Virginia.  I do not mean that negatively or positively but only descriptively.  The rest of the state is flat, rich farmland dotted with several medium-sized and large-ish cities that are still in various ways struggling to recover after losing their industrial bases (automobiles and steel, plus ancillary things like rubber and glass).  Not Southeast Ohio.

I spent ages 1 through 18 in the opposite corner of the state.  Northwest Ohio borders Michigan, and even though there is a lot of farming, the suburbs there were like suburbs on Long Island, the East Bay, or the North Shore.  Toledo is no one's idea of Boston or Philadelphia, but my life there was utterly undifferentiated from most of the America that prospered in the post-WWII boom of babies and solid, unionized jobs.

The Ohio that Burrow grew up in was never like that.  It has no cities, even minor ones.  It is Appalachia, pure and simple.  When coal mining started to die, a never-prosperous area became devastated.  Had Burrow been born forty years earlier, he would not have seen so much economic devastation, but he never would have mistaken his home for a just-like-the-rest-of-America place, even at its least-low point.

Burrow's story, however, is not one of an unlucky kid growing up poor and making it big.  His father is a former NFL player who made a career as a college football assistant coach.  The elder Burrow had gigs at Nebraska, Washington State, Iowa State, and North Dakota State, before moving to Athens fifteen years ago.  Why Athens?  One of the only "just like the rest of the country" features of Southeast Ohio is that there is a campus of the state university system in the middle of nowhere.  Confusingly named Ohio University (which would incorrectly suggest that, like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State or Michigan and Michigan State, Ohio U. is the dominant academic flagship institution while State is the ag school), OU is a medium-sized state school that is barely big enough to justify fielding a Division I-A football program.

Being in the top division does not mean much, however, as the OU Bobcats are in the Mid-American Conference (MAC), along with schools like Toledo, Bowling Green, Kent State, Central Michigan, and Northern Illinois.  They are the patsy schools on Big Ten and Big 12 teams' schedules, but they do occasionally beat the big boys.  Even with those not-too-infrequent upsets to boast about, however, the MAC is nobody's idea of a power conference.

Even so, this would make the elder Burrow an exception to the Southeast Ohio rule.  OU surely does not pay assistant coaches the million-dollar salaries that assistants now command at the Alabamas and Texases of the world, but he must have been comparatively well paid.  After a quick online search, I learned that several of the assistant coaches at the University at Buffalo (also a MAC school) are now making $100,000 or more.  Burrow moved to OU when his son Joe was in grade school, and because the population in that area is so sparse, the kids all went to the same schools.

In that sense, the younger Burrow's Heisman speech was all the more impressive.  Even though he had grown up in relative comfort and always knew that he was not "of Southeast Ohio," he remembered the kids who are, and he used his moment in the sun to remind people that there are parts of this country where people are literally going hungry.  Athens is the poorest of Ohio's 88 counties, with a 30 percent poverty rate, and it is the eighth-poorest county in the country.
As a result of his speech, there was an outpouring of money donated to Athens-area food banks.  Poignantly, one news article pointed out that there was an important psychological effect of Burrow's comments:
"Burrow’s speech helped ease the humiliation of asking for help.  [The man who created the fundraising page after Burrow's speech] told NPR that a student in his wife’s elementary school special education class had spoken proudly about using the food pantry [after] Burrow’s remarks.  'As we all know, sometimes people are embarrassed that they have to utilize something like a food pantry,' [the senior] Burrow said, 'so I guess it’s okay now that Joe Burrow talked about it.'"
The problem, of course, is that most poor counties in this country do not luck into having a future Heisman Trophy winner's family move into town to take a relatively high-paying job.  And even with Burrow's efforts, the donations to the Athens food bank subsided quickly.  This is in no way an anti-poverty program.
All of which finally brings us back to politics.  The Burrows, both father and son, are savvy enough to know that it would be a huge risk for Joe to come out in favor of any political position with real consequences, so "Please don't forget the poor kids I grew up with" is most likely the extent to which they feel they can be political.  Maybe he has been more bold, but it seems impossible for him to have taken any position on a political issue and flown under the radar.   That is not how the NFL is.

But what if Burrow decided to spend a big chunk of his reputational capital by putting his money where his mouth is?  Because Athens is a university town, it is a tiny blue dot in a sea of surrounding red, rural areas.  In that way, it is no different from Ithaca, Ann Arbor, Gainesville, or Iowa City.  Even so, Ohio is trending redder and redder, and Southeast Ohio is more like West Virginia than it is like the rest of Ohio (which, like most states, is only blue in the cities).

It is, therefore, not as though Burrow (even if he were personally so inclined) could imagine that the people he is trying to help would agree that we need a robust anti-poverty program in the United States.  He would have no reason to be confident that he could say that such a program must be adequately funded and implemented sustainably in a way that goes beyond anything in Joe Biden's Build Back Better plan.  This is formerly coal country, and just as neighboring Kentuckians cheer Mitch McConnell's nonsense about Barack Obama's nonexistent "war on coal," Southeast Ohioans are big Trump fans.  Athens itself did go strongly for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden (55% and 56% respectively), but that was the OU effect.

And who better embodies the insanity of coal country politics than Senator Joe Manchin, the yacht-owning political elite from across the Ohio River?  Manchin has been terrible about a lot of things, but he has taken special glee in deriding anti-poverty child credits as giveaways, sounding like former Republican pseudo-intellectual Paul Ryan and his talk about safety nets becoming "hammocks."

Burrow, then, by pure happenstance focuses our attention on the old Reagan Democrat phenomenon, by which the working class white base of the Democratic Party ultimately became a big part of the Trump base.  (Trump voters are, in fact, generally quite well off; but there is no denying that rural whites are mostly in his thrall.)  The people who are being hurt the most are, perversely, supporting their oppressors.  The best Burrow can do is tell everyone that there are poor kids in his hometown, but because it is professionally risky -- and probably isolating, even among his biggest fans -- to take a stand for real change (again, assuming arguendo that Burrow would want to do so), he is reduced to being a cheerleader for wholly inadequate charitable one-offs.

I have no idea whether Burrow could change minds by taking a strong position in favor of social spending that would help the people for whom he appears to feel genuine sympathy.  The Republican Party and its Manchinian fellow travelers would surely fight back hard.  But unless someone tries, the problems will only fester, and the political system will never respond with anything remotely resembling a solution.