Racism, Jordan Jefferson, and Southern Football

"Sunlight is the best disinfectant"  
-- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis

The word "racism" has been floating around in our little community recently, due to the non-quarterback controversy between Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee and the unfortunate booing incident of this weekend.  

I think there's no surer way to end a civil discussion by throwing out the charges of racism, so let's get it out of the way first.  I am in no way charging any person who has posted a comment on this site, or any other LSU site, as being a racist.  That's just asking for a screaming match and will in no way lead to a productive dialogue, which is my goal here.  So, please be civil.

However, I do think racism is a factor in Jefferson's treatment.  I certainly don't think it's the only factor, but I don't think we can ever have an honest dialogue about those other factors without first dealing with the elephant in the room.  So, I am taking Louis Brandeis' advice and shining the light on the issue so we can all discuss it in a rational, civil, and non-accusatory manner.

Jordan Jefferson is not the first, nor will he be the last LSU player booed by the home crowd.  Hell, Jordan can have a nice conversation with Jarrett Lee about being booed.  The two players who have faced the most intensely negative fan response in my lifetime are both white quarterbacks: Jarrett Lee in 2008 and Jamie Howard in 1994.* The idea that the LSU crowd will not savagely turn on a white player is simply not true. 

 

*Ed Note - there's also the curious case of Josh Booty, another white quarterback.  I've never met an LSU fan that has anything positive to say about Booty, but when he actually was the QB, we felt sort of resigned to hoping he lived up to his potential.  He never faced the same sort of booing as the others, which is odd, because as time has moved on, people have largely "forgiven" Howard while the grudge against Booty only grows by the year.

I put "forgiven" in quotes because the person who needs forgiving is not Jamie Howard, but the jerks who sent him death threats.   

That said, I do feel the booing of Jefferson is different.  Howard and Lee were booed purely for on-field performance.  Also, the boos for those two were reactive, not proactive.  Lee threw a pick, or even a slightly bad pass, he got booed.  Same with Howard.  They did not get booed for simply walking on the field.  Jefferson did.  

Jordan Jefferson just went through a pretty awful ordeal.  Now, we can argue his level of culpability, but he certainly didn't deserve to have his name so publicly dragged through the mud.  The charge of second degree battery grows more absurd by the day.  Jefferson nearly had his football career, and his reputation, ruined by a misdemeanor (which he hasn't been convicted of).  He hasn't exactly been exonerated, but his version of events seems much closer to the truth than the original narrative.  

He is back on the team, but he has lost his starting job.  His teammates, who have publicly supported him, even more publicly celebrated his return.  However, the message was clear, Jefferson is now the backup to Lee.  For a misdemeanor charge, Jefferson was suspended four games and upon his return, demoted on the depth charge.  Say what you will, he has certainly suffered consequences on the team for his actions. 

Miles called on Jefferson to make his 2011 debut in a situation that, well, clearly called for a quarterback sneak.  We weren't going to be coy, the ball was on the six inch line and it was fourth and goal.  Everyone in the stadium knew that if Miles went for it, he was calling a QB sneak.  So instead of using his immobile QB, he tabbed the quarterback who is bigger and indisputably a better runner.  From a football standpoint, this was no more controversial than putting in a three tight end set on the goalline.  

The crowd didn't exactly erupt in boos.  But the boos were loud and audible on the broadcast.  It wasn't a majority of fans booing, but it was a fairly large percentage.  Large enough to be heard on TV, anyway.  This wasn't one or two morons.  The boos quieted, but did not stop when Jefferson scored a touchdown. 

I'm not saying that these people booed solely because Jefferson is black.  On the other hand, I do not believe Jefferson would have been booed for simply entering the game were he white.  Now, I can't prove that, obviously.  It's just how I feel.

The reason I feel this way is because there is an ugliness to the comments about Jefferson among LSU fans that just feels wrong.  Racism, at times, is like pornography.  You can't define it but you know it when you see it.  We can all spot the obvious racist, but what about the more subtle kinds of racism?  What about the racism that lurks in our own hearts?

Big-time college football, and many of our most popular sports, are entertainments predominantly performed by young black men for crowds dominated by white men.  There's nothing inherently racist about that, but it certainly feels odd when you step away from it and try and look at it as an outsider.  And I don't think it's entirely unreasonable to ask why this is.

Hell, why is the fan experience seen through the prism of, well, white people?  This blog is written by a bunch of pasty white guys, so I'm not excluding us from this.  The sports blogosphere is predominately white males writing for other white males, but so is old school sports journalism. 

Then again, there is no barrier to entry blogging.  Go to blogger, set up an account, and get to it.  You don't even have to pay for hosting.  It's not like there is a cabal of bloggers keeping other voices out.  It's just that the most popular blogs seem awfully white.  Once again, I'm not saying it is wrong, but why is this? 

I hate lazy sports terms which are just racial code words: athletic, blue collar, natural talent, scrappy, etc.  I try very hard to avoid these terms as a synonym for a player's skin color. 

Then again, I'm not going to sit here and say I don't absolutely love Jacob Hester because he was so damn scrappy.  Now, is my love of Hester because he had so many big runs and that he was so great at running to the sticks or is it because he's a white running back, and good white running backs are getting rare. 

I never consciously rooted for Hester because he is white.  I never had that conversation with myself.  I just always liked Hester for the way he played.  But was his race a subtle thing in the back of my mind that made me predisposed to root for him?  I'd hate if that were true about me, but maybe it is.  I can't with 100% certainty say it isn't.

Then again, as many of you know, my favorite player on the team right now is James Stampley - a guy for whom the term "blue collar" should have been invented.  He's a former walk-on who earned a scholarship the hard way and is now a vital piece of the team as a ferocious run blocker.  He's also pretty clearly not a white guy. 

I honestly don't know what the point of this piece is, which is bad, because it is pretty long already and that just violates some basic rules of writing.  Oh well.  The issue of race is so large, so all-encompassing in American society, it's just bound to tie us up in knots.

It's difficult for us to speak honestly and openly about race.  Let's face it, there's a lot of baggage there, particularly for Southerners. Jim Crow wasn't all that long ago.  I didn't live through it, but my parents did. It hasn't entirely passed into historical memory.  I do feel that this history has forced us, particularly the South, to confront racial issues head on.  I've mentioned it before, but now the only appropriate form of "racism" is that against Southerners, who have grown accustomed to seeing themselves portrayed as dumb, ignorant, racist rednecks throughout pop culture.

To quote the Drive-by Truckers, such is the duality of the Southern thing.  And maybe that's the price we pay for the sins of previous generations.  While I find the portrayal of the South as a haven for racists infuriating and, well, incredibly offensive, the only way to combat this portrayal is to shine a light on the rest of us who do not resemble this stereotype at all. 

We must keep the dialogue open.  When something happens that might have racial overtones, it does us no good to wish it away and pretend it doesn't exist.  We have to talk about it precisely because it is uncomfortable to talk about.

Jordan Jefferson wasn't booed solely because he is black.  But the depth of the hatred aimed at Jefferson goes far beyond "he isn't a good quarterback." Every time someone called him a thug, I wondered if they were thinking of a different word. Who could think Jefferson, who has been a team leader and generally been a good person during his time in the intense spotlight, was a thug?  The whole incident, and the commentary from many corners of the fanbase, just set me on edge.

LSU's fanbase has no more racists in it than any other large fanbase in the country.  You get a big enough group, you're going to have some morons. But we need to do our best to drown out the morons and have a serious discussion about who we are as fans.

I don't have any answers, but I do have a flashlight.  

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