College football rivalries can be terrific things. They can also be sick. The one in our state is terrific in many ways. And it is sick in many ways. I fear it is getting sicker. The advent of the Internet and the spread of talk radio have made college football the subject of constant public discussion. The nastiness in this state seems to grow with each passing day. For many, it isn't enough to pull for one team or the other. It is, for whatever reason, also necessary to heap as much abuse as possible on the other side.
I got a dose of it last Friday, a day after Auburn's resounding 42-14 rout of Mississippi State. Driving south for a family weekend at the beach, I made the mistake of listening to a sports talk show. It was a mistake, because it just about ruined my day. The subject, the only subject, of discussion was Tommy Tuberville's decision to call a fake field goal leading 35-14 with five minutes left. It was ugly. It was ugly when people who have absolutely no clue called Tuberville classless, unsportsmanlike and worse. Tuberville is, in fact, deserving of no such labels.
It was ugly when a man who identified himself as an Auburn fan trashed the memory of Coach Paul Bryant in the most vile, disrespectful way imaginable. It was so vile and disrespectful that I won't print it here. I'm not going to criticize Tuberville's decision. He says he didn't do it to embarrass anyone and I take him at his word. I saw nothing wrong with it at the time. There was, after all, five minutes left in the game. If you wonder whether three touchdowns can be scored in five minutes, just check out what Florida did in less than five minutes of the second quarter against Tennessee. It was no issue at the game. It only became an issue after Lee Corso made it one.
But that really isn't the point. The point is that the Auburn-Alabama rivalry is in desperate need of some civility off the field. On the field, it is a different matter. The players give it all they have, hug each other's necks and go on. It's the fans who create the mayhem. How grown men and women can get their own sense of self-esteem tied up in who wins or loses a college football game is beyond me. How a person can believe he or she is somehow made better than another person because of the football team he or she pulls for wins a game is a mystery.
As hard as it might be to believe, the players at Auburn and the players at Alabama are very much alike. They have the same hopes, the same dreams. They are all deserving of respect for the price they pay to play. There is nothing wrong with discussion on the Internet or on the radio. The message boards on this and other websites give fans opportunities for interaction that weren't available not long ago. That should be a good thing, and it usually is.
There is nothing wrong with criticism. But far too often it goes well beyond that in this state. It went there last weekend. Alabama callers, no doubt still smarting from the barbs of Auburn callers a few days earlier when the NCAA appeal was denied, got their revenge. I truly believe it is an extremely small percentage of the fan bases at both schools that make the rest look bad. Most don't call radio shows or even post messages on the Internet. Many of those who do call those shows or post on the Internet do it in good taste and without malice. Unfortunately, those who do otherwise are the ones who get the most attention.
For those who call talk radio shows and spew venom and ugliness, for those who wait like eager puppies just to touch or speak to a teen-age football player, for those who constantly criticize and condemn on Internet message boards, for the sickos who call and leave nasty messages on a players' voice mails, I've got some news. The players see you for what you are. They laugh at you.
We're not even out of September, but Auburn finds itself in an extremely favorable position in the Southeastern Conference West Division race. At 2-0 in the SEC, the Tigers just might be the team to beat. The final denial of Alabama's appeal means the Crimson Tide is no factor. Mississippi State, clearly, is not a threat to win enough games to be a contender. That leaves Auburn, LSU, Arkansas and Ole Miss.
Those who insisted before the season that Ole Miss would finally start playing some defense were sadly mistaken. The Rebel defense I saw against Vanderbilt on Saturday was woeful. Not even Eli Manning can overcome that often enough to get Ole Miss to the SEC Championship Game.
That leaves Auburn, LSU and Arkansas. Both LSU and Arkansas must go to Jordan-Hare Stadium. If the Tigers can beat them both, they will clearly have the inside track.