Tied into the decision-making — and the different choices conferences are making — is another institutional problem with college football that administrators, fans, players and coaches need to address: the many ways the legacy of slavery still surfaces in the game today and the persistence of Confederate iconography in the sport.
The links between college football and the Confederacy date to the late 19th century. In the aftermath of the Civil War, scions of the old planter class embraced the game in an attempt to reclaim a sense of martial valor lost after Appomattox.
The teams, the formations, the uniforms, even eventually the band, all called back to a long-standing tradition of Southern militarism, and the physicality of the game itself indulged the Southern taste for contests mixing honor and blood, a taste previously satisfied by activities such as dueling and cockfighting.
Later, as the game developed and the sport acquired a national following, highlighted by inter-regional games like the Rose Bowl, established in 1902, Southerners again turned the football field into a space for re-fighting the Civil War. One Atlanta Georgian headline, for instance, described the University of Alabama’s upset victory over the University of Washington in the 1926 Rose Bowl as “the greatest victory for the South since the first battle of Bull Run.”
And then came the battles over integration in the middle decades of the 20th century. As the bowl system spread, producing more games between integrated Northern squads and teams from the segregated South, college football emerged as a key inflection point in the Southern campaign of “massive resistance” against the Brown v. Board of Education decision. As a result, Confederate flags proliferated, becoming one of the sport’s most pervasive symbols. In 1967, the state of Alabama even passed a statute requiring the flag to fly at games held in the state as part of legislation designed to thwart integration.
Today, few Confederate flags fly before games, and you’re not likely to find national media types likening games to Gettysburg or Shiloh. But connections to slavery and the Old South remain hidden in plain sight and ingrained in the landscape of the sport.
Consider the University of Mississippi, or “Ole Miss” as it’s colloquially known. In 1936, the university adopted the “Rebels” as the school’s official nickname, a not-so-subtle homage to the “University Greys,” a unit within the Confederate army made up almost exclusively of Ole Miss students. Soon thereafter “Col. Reb” — a white-haired, Col. Sanders-type character clad in an aristocratic-looking suit — appeared as the school’s mascot.
The university has since taken steps to distance itself from its affiliations with the Confederacy. In 2003, Ole Miss announced that it was retiring Col. Reb in favor of a brown bear, and in 2016, the school went even further, announcing that “Dixie” would no longer serve as the school’s fight song. Yet the university’s athletic teams are still known as the Ole Miss Rebels — a name that when coupled with the red, blue and gray of the school’s color scheme makes the connection to the Confederacy hard to ignore.
Likewise, the reigning national football champion LSU Tigers don a similar, though less explicit, tribute to the Confederate army. While plenty of other schools have adopted the “Tiger” nickname, Charles H. Coates Jr., the school’s first football coach, settled on the “Tigers” as a nickname in the 1890s, in part because of the former military school’s association with the Louisiana Tigers, the name given to the Louisiana soldiers who fought with Robert E. Lee in Virginia.
It’s not all about mascots, either. Take the Sugar Bowl, for example. Every year college football teams from across the Southeastern Conference vie for a chance to play in this annual New Year’s Day game. The “Sugar” in the name comes from its inaugural stadium — Tulane Stadium, which happened to then sit on the site where a French colonist first granulated sugar, an innovation that launched Louisiana’s sugar revolution, paved the way for a rapid expansion of plantation slavery and placed New Orleans on track to becoming the world’s largest slave market by the eve of the Civil War.
And like Louisiana’s old sugar industry, the Sugar Bowl is big business. This year alone the two participating universities — Georgia and Baylor — each received a $4 million payout, all on backs of unpaid athletes, the majority of whom are Black.
The linkages and continuities with slavery can sometimes hit even closer to home. Not only were many Southern universities like the University of Georgia and the University of South Carolina built through the labor of enslaved people, it’s likely that on-campus stadiums — these now colossal sporting cathedrals — owe their original foundations to the work of convict laborers, most of whom, again, were Black and imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Slavery’s shadow is hard to escape.
2020 has been a remarkable moment. Statues are falling left and right, and Americans are realizing that our nation’s troubling history still preys on all our institutions — even the ones we would like to bring us all together. That is why the most significant development amid the heated debate over whether to stage college football in 2020 might have been recent moves by players toward organizing online.
Stars like Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields taking part in the #wewanttoplay movement over the weekend mark the most recent episode in a summer in which college athletes have made their voices heard. If this trend is any indicator, there will likely be a new power broker guiding college football on how to handle its history problem, and we should listen to what the players have to say.
Because the fact is, when it comes to college football in the South, whether to play the 2020 season isn’t the only debate worth having. The sport needs a reckoning with the past.