“Fight Songs” Explores the South’s History of Racism and its Relationship to Sports

What began as a pure and simple love story that flowered from the storied traditions of college football became, thanks to the pandemic, a more clear-eyed examination of college sports in the South and how it helps define or reinforce what it means to be Southern. Ed Southern’s fourth book, Fight Songs: A Story of Love and Sports in a Complicated South is indeed still a love story with parts history, expose, and admonishment. A lifelong fan of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, Southern’s name is as coincidental as his meld and marriage into Alabama football. From and of the South, the author begs the question: is the behemoth that is college sports strong enough to move the country past the vestiges of the South’s “peculiar sin?” 

Southern’s wife, Jamie, is from Alabama and the Crimson Tide ebbs and flows through her veins. The two met and bonded over the legacy of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, sort of a griot of the gridiron and the nexus for Fight Songs. Southern is forthcoming with his own history, the descendant of land laborers who might have been too poor to own slaves but not completely absolved of slavery’s spoils. Of this, Southern writes, “guilt is passive, and classless. What I take is responsibility.” He suggests that college sports should also own its part for perpetuating the “ugly south” and leverage its power to make change. We saw some signs of a movement in 2020 when Alabama’s five-time national champion head football coach, Nick Saban, and two-time national champion (beating Alabama) Clemson coach, Dabo Swinney marched and rallied with their players during the long, hot summer of protests over racial injustice. It was during this time that more and more symbols of the Confederacy and monuments of its leaders fell. Players refused to take the field under the Confederate flag or to the strains of “Dixie” or with rebel mascots emblazoned across their chests. 

Fans of college football, Southern says, have supported the spectre of player exploitation and, by extension, perpetuated the elitism of attending college. He explains anecdotally and statistically the cycle of multi-billion dollar earnings in college football programs like Alabama and Clemson and the exploitation of college athletes, leading to exploding tuition costs that make college financially out of reach for the poor and largely non-white. These football and basketball powerhouses can demand more to attend their schools and not for the academics, but for the pageantry and savagery presented on the field and on the court. 

Southern does not defend the South, as he says “O, my loved and lovely South: so often the scapegoat for national sins, so often because we make it so easy.” Instead, he lifts the tattered veil that has never truly hidden what ails it. With words and phrases such as “fixin’ to” and “might could,” Southern lays out the fabric of his home, threadbare from hate, intolerance, and ignorance and weaves in hope that “the South can be redeemed of this history.” Could college football be a driver of this redemption? Southern “spends a lot of words” contemplating this notion. The author juxtaposes Bear Bryant’s mantra, “It’s not the will to win that matters… It’s the will to prepare to win that matters” with the lack of leadership at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic: “…Millions of Americans were mourning that shouldn’t have been, who wouldn’t have been if those supposed to lead us… had done the least little bit to plan and prepare.” Southern writes, “I’m long past wondering if we could use a lot more of Bryant’s ‘will to prepare to win.'”

Ed Southern, like most college football fans, longs to return to the field of his alma mater, Wake Forest, to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Paul W. Bryant Drive in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, or to “Death Valley” in Clemson, South Carolina and to satisfy his craving for college football again — “the carnival of it, the fanfare, the snap of the snare drums, the order and the open aggression.” While we wait he says, “Tear down every rebel statue and marker in the meantime: Leave us woods and fields to wander in, honeysuckle to pick; give us back clean waters to fish and swim in. Let us never again sing nor whistle ‘Dixie.’ Let us forever pull over for funeral processions and take food to new neighbors — whatever their skin colors or accents, wherever they’re from or of.” Perhaps this is how college football, or its hiatus, can help redeem the “loved and lovely South.”

Fight Songs: A Story of Love and Sports in a Complicated South
By Ed Southern
Published September 7, 2021