Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

On tribalism, from fall Saturdays to Election Day

Finally, blessedly, college football season is upon us. It’s the unofficial sport of the South. The sport that from Labor Day to New Year’s Day helps reunite old friends and divide households.

The sport that helped us learn how to hold our noses to vote for the likes of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

Before you exclaim, “Must everything be about the election?!?” hear me out. Because I think the tribalism infecting our politics is a cousin of sports fanaticism — and, especially in the South, college football in particular.

Professional-sports fandom is most often a function of place. I grew up 90 miles from Atlanta, so I back the Braves, Falcons and Hawks. Yes, there are bandwagon fans and Yankees hangers-on all over, but for most of us it’s simple geography. While the Braves were good for much of my youth — they lost Game 7 in Minnesota on my 13th birthday — the Falcons and Hawks enjoyed only spurts of decency. Proximity alone kept me loyal to them. (Although, as a wayward pre-teen and well into my 20s, I did experiment with … rooting for the Chicago Bears.)

College sports are different. My parents went to the University of Georgia. Had we lived in Dallas or Denver, I might have liked the Cowboys or the Broncos on Sundays. But there never would have been a doubt on Saturdays. Having followed in their footsteps to Athens, there never will be, either.

College football fans forgive many a misdeed by our guys and believe the worst about our rivals. If there’s an NCAA investigation of our team, it’s a set-up. If the NCAA probes our rival, they’re gonna get the death penalty, and deservedly so — unless their good ol’ boy boosters pay off the investigators. (Sigh.) Again.

It’s like so many truthers or birthers sharing “exposes” on Facebook.

Should real evidence of actual malfeasance surface near our own program, though, there are very few contortions we won’t suffer to explain it away. Suffice it to say, Jan Kemp is not regarded by most Georgia fans as one who spoke truth to power. Barack Obama might get a warmer welcome at the Walton County GOP’s annual barbecue.

Speaking of which: If you get too caught up in partisanship, you’d be shocked to come to the Gold Dome and see the way Republican and Democratic legislators will sometimes share a smile and a slap on the back right after one gives the other the what-for in a floor speech. It’s kind of like watching Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets hugging one another after a hard-fought game and thinking, I thought they called this Clean Old-Fashioned Hate?

At least after a ballgame — eventually — most fans, win or lose, can remember it was only a game.

Governing is different, as it can quite literally be life or death depending on the issue. That’s all the more reason political tribalism, which leads us to believe it’s OK if it’s our gal did it but not if your guy did, is so corrosive. The things we excuse in the name of party loyalty seem to get more egregious with each election.

If only it were just a game.

Football remains just a game, and I’ve learned to tone it down over the years, even if I still think traffic incidents involving scooters and Georgia football players really aren’t worthy of arrests and suspensions.

Just please, Kirby Smart, don’t ever pull a Trump with my Bulldogs. I can handle only so much self-imposed exile from my tribe.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.