From 'Roll Tide' to 'Gator Bait', college football reckons with its problematic traditions
Photo: Ikone Sportswire / Getty Images
In Alabama "Roll Tide!" is a phrase for all seasons.
The love of the University of Alabama football powerhouse is so ingrained in the southeastern state that the legendary college chant is routinely used as an abbreviation for "hello," "goodbye," and everything in between.
Or maybe it forgot the Confederate origins. The story of the phrase, as well as the creation myth behind the Crimson Tide nickname, is murky at best.
There is some evidence that it came from an ancient seaman's song called "Roll Alabama Roll". It's a late 19th-century song - a kind of elegy - that mourns the sinking of the Alabama, a Confederate raid ship, by the Union warship Kearsarge. This one-on-one battle is the most famous naval battle in the history of the Civil War and is immortalized in a painting by the French impressionist Manet.
Is it just a coincidence that the Yea Alabama University battle song calls for "Dixie's Football Pride" to send Georgia Tech's yellow jackets "to a watery grave"? Is the rally cry “Roll Tide Roll” coming from “Roll Alabama Roll”?
Yes, according to the Alabama Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. They are the centuries-old non-profit group responsible for building hundreds of Confederate monuments across the south. "Roll Alabama Roll" definitely inspired "Roll Tide," says Joe Ringhoffer, former commander of Semmes Camp 11 of the SCV.
John Beeler, a history professor at the University of Alabama, says he doesn't know of any direct correlation, but he wouldn't be surprised if it were true.
At a time when protests against Black Lives Matter have scrubbed or contextualized campus Confederate iconography, many universities south of the Mason-Dixon Line grapple with school traditions that are more subtle than larger-than-life Robert E Lee statues or "stars." "-And-bar" rebel flags.
Two generations ago, the Confederate flags floated in the stands at the Southeastern Conference Games, and the marching bands proudly played “Dixie” - the Confederate's unofficial anthem. That is no longer the case. But the universities are now discovering that even seemingly harmless battle songs and fan-friendly chants are not safe from their problematic story.
In June, the University of Florida banned their "Gator Bait" cheers at home games. Historians say that black children were used as bait to attract alligators in the 19th century, and the term "alligator bait" was also used as a racial fraud. Some Florida tourist attractions even sold postcards depicting African Americans being attacked by alligators.
The president of the UF school, Kent Fuchs, explained the ban with the "terrible historical racist images associated with the sentence".
Some Gator fans have protested the decision to abandon the tradition, saying that the singing is not racist. In the GOP area code earlier this year, Judson Sapp, a Florida Republican who lost a 10-way race to replace agent Ted Yoho, even campaigned to save Gator Bait.
In June, the University of Florida banned their "Gator Bait" cheers from all home games. Photo: Andy Lyons / Getty Images
The University of Texas also made headlines this fall after the Longhorn Marching Band decided not to play their battle song "The Eyes of Texas" in a game against Baylor. The decision came months after Texas athletes marched from campus to the state capitol in Austin with soccer coach Tom Herman in the days following the assassination of George Floyd. A group of student protesters asked UT to drop the song because of its "racist overtones". The tune - sung to the sound of "I Worked on the Railroad" - was originally performed in black script by white performers on minstrel shows and was inspired by a quote from Confederate General Robert E Lee.
The school tweaked its rules to strike a balance between activist students and older alums and donors. She decided that while "The Eyes of Texas" was being performed, the players would have to stand but no longer have to sing it. But it did not work. After a four-hour overtime loss to Oklahoma in October, only Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger remained on the field during the song.
Richard Reddick, UT's Assistant Dean of Justice, Engagement and Public Relations, is currently chairing a committee to figure out how to preserve the school's 117-year-old song "but with more complete accounting and appreciation of its past."
It will not be easy.
Settlement of history has been particularly chaotic for the southern college football programs because of their symbolic role in the former slave states since the reconstruction. The offspring of the planter class used the game to reaffirm the proclaimed values of the Old South in terms of masculinity and chivalry.
As a result, many southern college football programs selected uniforms, nicknames, and rituals that gave birth to Confederate militarism. For example, Louisiana State University chose the nickname "Fighting Tigers" to dedicate itself to a rebellious civil war regiment known as the Louisiana Tigers. Auburn waved the "Bonnie Blue Flag" during the Games and the University of Virginia initially chose silver gray and cardinal red as their team colors "to represent the glory of the Confederation, colored in the blood of the fallen".
As the sport grew in popularity and national matchups were held between separate southern and integrated northern schools, bowl games were perceived as proxy battles for the Civil War.
The 1926 Rose Bowl victory of the University of Alabama over the University of Washington was counted as a victory for the entire Old South. "We were the baby of the south. We felt like the Rose Bowl was more than just another football game," said Hoyt Winslett, Alabama's first All-American, after the game. This championship inspired Yea Alabama, the new one The school's battle song, and lyrics like "Hit your step, you're Dixie's soccer pride", alluding to the greater symbolic importance of the team.
After Alabama's tie with Stanford in the Rose Bowl the following year, University President George Denny said, "I'm coming back with a slightly higher head and a little more inspired soul to win this battle for the great Anglo-Saxon race of the United States South."
Confederate symbols at college football games reached a new tipping point in protest against integration policies in the mid-20th century - especially after the landmark decision of the Brown Supreme Court against the Board of Education. For example, Florida's coach ordered a patch with the Confederate flag on team uniforms at the Gator Bowl against Penn State in 1962 and replaced the traditional Gator numbers on helmets with the rebel flag.
A year later, Alabama Governor George Wallace notoriously threw himself in a doorway to protest the enrollment of the University of Alabama's first black students. In 1967, his wife, Governor Lurleen Wallace, ordered the University of Alabama to play "Dixie" and to fly the Confederate flag at all home football games.
"It was no accident. It was southern institutions that said," We are against the civil rights movement. Let's repeat this white past and show these Confederate artifacts as objects of devotion, "said Timothy Lombardo, assistant professor of history at the university of South Alabama.
Change has been largely slow and steady over the past 50 years. The Crimson Tide was first desegregated in 1970. The NCAA and SEC have banned Confederate flags and playing "Dixie" from football stadiums. Open symbols like Colonel Reb, the goat caricature of an old, white plantation owner who danced on the sidelines of the Ole Miss Games earlier this century, have also disappeared.
Now in 2020, with the statues falling left and right, it is the more granular symbols that grab attention.
"For so long these things were lost in the background, but I think what happened is they were brought to the fore of our minds," says Connor Towne O'Neill, English teacher at Auburn and author of That Devil's Bones: A Reckoning with monuments, memory and the legacy of white supremacy
It is then not inconceivable that the seemingly 94 year old battle song the Crimson Tide and the ubiquitous "Roll Tide" will be on the list in the near future.
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