The Pageantry of Casual Racism

by Neil H. Buchanan

This past weekend was the big rivalry week in American college football.  As in the past, I find myself unable to break the emotional hold that this corrupt and ugly game has on me, so I watched and watched and watched.  Whereas in the recent past I would be tempted to write yet another column defending amateurism and pointing out that scholarship athletes have never been "unpaid," however, the situation has now gotten so completely out of hand that there is no point.  This is bad all the way down.

So rather than discuss the fact that showering money on college players -- so openly that one "color commentator" spent several minutes during a game on Friday giving a star player unsolicited advice to  hold out for $7 million in "name, image, and likeness rights" from his university, to stop him from going to the NFL -- has not in any way fixed the deeply corrupt system (big surprise), I will focus on a different kind of ugliness.

There were two rivalry games that I particularly cared about this weekend.  The most obvious one was Ohio State-Michigan, the #2 versus #3 matchup.  I grew up watching those games as an Ohio State fan but pulled the rare apostasy of switching loyalties to the other side in my 20's.  This was in large part due to what a Sports Illustrated columnist in the early 2000's described as Ohio State's by-then-cemented status as the most corrupt program outside of the South.  There is no good in this game, but there are degrees of bad, and Ohio State was always in the "everyone else does it" mindset that has long infested the SEC and ACC.

Which brings me to the other game that I cared about this past weekend: Florida-Florida State.  Both teams were mediocre again this year, which is quite a change from their dominance in the 1990's and 2000's, but because I am now living in Gainesville and drawing a paycheck from the University of Florida's account, I guess I care.  A friend of mine took a job in the late 1990's at the University of Oklahoma, and even though he was a Pac-10 fan (before it became the Pac-12), and even though he was quite aware of the cocaine-fueled culture of impunity that was the Switzer era at OU, he lapsed easily into rooting for his new home team.

I might have found it difficult to like a team whose best eras were defined by a coach who ran up scores on overmatched opponents and another coach who protected an assistant coach from scrutiny for spousal abuse (a scandal that had its roots here but carried over to that head coach's tenure at, where else, Ohio State), along with a cringily pious star quarterback who could not throw.  I thus had (and have) some difficulty getting on board with the "Gator Nation" and "Chomp!" hype on this huge campus.

It is easier, however, because of FSU.  With that team as an arch-rival, how could I not like the Gators?  One of their best-ever players became a pro star who forced multiple rule changes as the league tried to stop him from "innovating" tackling techniques that ended other players' careers, and their all-time favorite coach once laughed off accusations of dirty play by saying something along these lines: "Well, heck, I guess maybe we told our boys to hit not just through the end of the whistle but through the end of the echo of the whistle."  In other words, he coached his players to cheat, and not by spying on other teams' practices or deflating footballs (How do those guys all end up in Florida?) but by getting them to physically harm players who had been properly coached that play stops when the referee's whistle blows.

As I was watching UF lose to FSU on Friday evening, however, the thing that jumped out at me was ESPN's insistence on highlighting the anti-Native American imagery that is Florida State's brand.  Camera angles were set to show players against a huge mural of the "Indian in war paint" logo of that team, and every single shot of the stands showed fans happily engaged in the "tomahawk chop" and their sing-songy Old Hollywood cowboys-n-injuns stereotype of a chant.  Piecing together what I found from a quick search online, it appears that it was in fact Kansas City Chiefs fans who first came up with that stuff, but FSU fans (who strongly overlap with the Atlanta Braves fan base) took it to the next level of casual, insistent racism.

Consider that this is all in the context of the Washington Racistnames having finally been forced in 2020 to drop their slur and ultimately in 2022 become the Commies (sorry, Commanders).  In every way except the slur itself, the casual racism at FSU is clearly worse than the R-dskins.  Miami University (the one in Ohio, not "the U" in South Florida) dropped that name years ago, as have plenty of other college and high school teams.  But imagine what would happen if somehow the FSU fan base were to decide one day to move away from their "traditions."  Certain White House-sniffing opportunists would surely scream WOKE from morning to night and cut off funding to the state's second-best research university.

But again, there is exactly zero evidence that anyone in FSU's world would even consider dropping any of this.  Even so, none of that excuses the broadcast network's decision to act as if there is nothing wrong with thousands of privileged students and alums disparaging Native American people.  Networks have standards about, for example, not showing a fan who has run onto the field (to discourage fans from seeking their moment to say, "Did you see me on TV?!  I was arrested, but it was worth it.")  There is no reason that a network could not say, "Well, look, just because you want to keep doing that racist sh*t doesn't mean that we have to show it."

One could argue, I suppose, that maybe it would be impossible to cover an FSU game without showing that bigotry on screen.  That might well be true, which is its own indictment, but consider that the network covers as a positive thing (tradition! pageantry!) a disgusting event at the beginning of FSU games, where a man dressed in fake buckskins, feathers, and war paint rides a horse to the middle of the field and throws a feather-bedecked spear into the 50-yard-line.

This is not a matter of equal time, as FSU's opponents do not have anything like that for the network to cover.  By comparison, to go back to Ohio State-Michigan, the Buckeye marching band famously plays one of its fight songs while going through an elaborate routine that spells out Ohio in cursive: Script Ohio.  Even as a Michigan fan, I find that event to be amazing and even kind of thrilling.  It is definitely cool (though in a kind of hokey way), and even though Michigan's band is every bit as good as Ohio State's (and they are both amazing), there is nothing like Script Ohio on my side or for the rest of the country.

Similarly, I cannot stand Notre Dame, but there is nothing about the Golden Dome that is icky.  ("Touchdown Jesus" is a bit much, but it is not frequently featured in broadcasts.  And to say the very least, it is a tradition that was not built on a legacy of genocide.)  Another plus for Notre Dame: When the scandal-tainted former head coach from Florida and Ohio State made it known last year that he would be interested in the job in South Bend, the university laughed him off.

In any case, the TV networks frequently do not even bother showing Script Ohio, and when they do, they simply cover it straight.  When ESPN covers FSU games, however, the horseback ride by the "chief" is presented as a golly-isn't-college-football-grand moment, no different from pep rallies or "married couples who went to rival colleges yet somehow make it work."  It is gag-inducing, and completely unnecessary.