Covering Southern Sports: The Right Way or the White Way?

By Caleb Johnson


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This year’s version of March Madness had its share of surprises, but it ended with the Villanova Wildcats – the sport’s closest thing to a dynasty – cutting down the nets again. Commentators rightly praised head coach Jay Wright and his sharpshooting Wildcats for the way they plowed through the postseason. But instead of considering this team’s dominance I found myself still bothered by a moment earlier in the tournament that underscores a deep problem with how we talk about the game and its players.

With 5:21 left in a second round NCAA tournament game between Villanova and the Alabama Crimson Tide, point guard Collin Sexton took the ball and streaked down the left side of the court. His Alabama team was losing by 26 points, but this did not matter to Sexton, who had single-handedly carried the Crimson Tide into the postseason with a series of transcendent performances, including a game-winning floater he sprinted the length of the court in about four seconds flat to make just before the buzzer sounded.

As Sexton headed for the bucket, ’Nova’s Mikal Bridges cut him off. What happened next was not remarkable for Sexton — a tough layup made to look easy — nor was what happened after the play. Sexton stared down Bridges and called him a “bitch.” He was given a technical foul for taunting, which wasn’t all that remarkable either, considering the way the college game is officiated, although NBA Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, who was announcing the game for CBS, appeared beside himself over the call.

“Oh, come on,” he said to his colleagues. “Oh, come on, are you kidding me? You say worse things to me than that here in the booth.”

When it comes to sports though, people often see what they want to see.

After the play, Crimson Tide head coach Avery Johnson replaced Sexton with a fan favorite, walk-on guard Lawson Schaffer. Sexton, projected to be one of the first 10 players selected in the NBA draft should he declare, likely ended his only college season on the bench.

Hours after the game, an Alabama-based writer named Joseph Goodman published a column titled “Alabama will be better without Collin Sexton.” Goodman writes for al.com, the website for the state’s three biggest newspapers. The column opens by recapping Sexton’s all but certain final play in a crimson jersey (he is likely to declared for the NBA draft), of which Goodman writes:

Not exactly the last impression someone wants to make before turning pro, and probably not the type of image the University of Alabama wants to project to the rest of the country after making it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.

Classless.

Clueless.

Unacceptable.

Ignore for a moment Goodman’s misguided belief that any NBA team would give a good damn whether Sexton curses on the court. Ignore too his supposing the type of image the University of Alabama wants to project. Goodman, a white sportswriter paid to cover young black athletes, had seen what he wanted to see in Collin Sexton that day. Classless. Clueless. Unacceptable. Coded language with racist connotations no different from ones associated with the word “thug.”

Purely from a basketball standpoint, was Sexton cursing Bridges right in front of an official a clueless decision? Maybe so. But the headline to Goodman’s column makes clear we are not entering the realm of logical hoops analysis. No team becomes “better” by losing a player like Sexton. Rather than look at Sexton’s actions through a hoops lens, Goodman’s column perpetuates a long-held desire among white sports fans to see black athletes “play the game the right way” for no other reason than the pleasure and comfort of the white gaze.

***

On March 29, 1865, Brig. Gen. John Croxton and 1,500 Union troops marched from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa on orders to destroy factories, a bridge, and every building on the University of Alabama’s campus. On April 3, the troops arrived under cover of night. A home guard unit and the remaining university students — most of them only 15 or 16 years old — would have been no match for the Union army’s numbers and repeating rifles. Before lives could be lost, UA President Landon Cabell Garland ordered all students and faculty to leave campus. Two professors stayed behind though and begged Union officers not to burn everything down. Their pleas were ignored. All but four buildings were reduced to rubble and ash.

One building that survived is known today as The Round House. When I was a high school senior visiting the University of Alabama, I was led by this building during a tour of campus. Painted white with a ridged roof resembling a person’s bottom teeth, The Round House stands hard against the main library. It was built in the early 1860s, when the University became a military institute in advance of war with the North, and used as a guard house. At one time The Round House was home to the University Drum Corps, which was mostly made up of University-owned slaves. It is said these slaves sounded the alarm to wake cadets on the night Union troops arrived. The narrative of its survival was meant to evoke pride in UA students. What type of pride, I was not yet prepared to consider.

The first time I laid eyes on The Round House I did not know about the Lost Cause or that I was walking a campus steeped in it, nor did I realize I’d grown up deep inside this mythology. Winston County, Alabama, where I was raised, is known as the Free State of Winston because a group of Unionists gathered at a place called Looney’s Tavern not long after the Civil War began and passed resolutions stating their intent to secede from the Confederacy and their desire to be left alone by the Union as well. These subsistence farmers had no stake in a war being fought over slavery. Nobody ever explicitly said to me during my childhood that this half-baked secession attempt absolved us lower class, rural, white Southerners from the terror and historical legacy of slavery in the South, but, as I’ve grown older I’ve come to understand that’s what they meant by passing down the story. Nobody thought seceding from the Confederacy would actually work — and it didn’t — but by attempting to do so my ancestors and others in The Free State of Winston could hold high their heads and lose “the right way.” 

Sound familiar yet?

***

Nicknamed Young Bull, Collin Sexton arrived on the Alabama campus last summer with a mythology of his own. Go to YouTube and type his name in the search box. You’ll be rewarded with jaw-dropping dunks and dizzying drives. Not only is Sexton a once-in-a-generation athlete, he has fun playing the game. I once watched him bring 2,000 fans to their feet during a preseason practice by drilling a succession of long three-pointers. He smiles and he claps and he talks to himself on the court. He gets under the skin of opponents. He is exactly the type of player you love to have on your team — and loathe if he isn’t. In my lifetime, Alabama men’s basketball hasn’t had a player with this combination of charisma and talent.

Last November, during a game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, I watched Sexton high-five invisible teammates after each free throw he shot. He was one of only three Alabama players eligible to be on the court after a bench-clearing scuffle resulted in ejections. Even the Minnesota fans in attendance that night at Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, New York, began cheering Sexton as he eluded triple-teams on possession after possession. Alabama lost the game, but Sexton tallied 40 points, and his legend grew. This performance came less than a month after he was briefly ruled ineligible for being named in an FBI investigation connecting dozens of players and coaches with a network of agents and shoe company executives paying cash to steer players to programs. No discussion of college sports should ignore the NCAA’s corrupt amateur athletics model, which was once skewered by “South Park” as modern-day slavery — an argument that holds water when you consider the NCAA will rake in more than $1 billion this year off the men’s basketball tournament while players like Sexton receive not a dime.

I’ve often heard folks say Alabama teams “play the game the right way.” Best I can figure, this idea stems from former head football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who cut the figure of a stately white grandfather in his houndstooth fedora, coat and tie, and dispensed gravel-throated wisdom that now gets played over the public-address system before kickoff at Bryant-Denny Stadium. I remember being in college in Tuscaloosa and saying how the Mike Shula-led Crimson Tide football team “played the right way” as a way to defend the losses they compiled. Same for Mark Gottfried’s men’s basketball program, which, aside from one deep tournament run in 2004, was unremarkable at best.

While the claim to and pride of athletes “playing the game the right way” is not unique to University of Alabama sports fans, it does have certain implications for us because of the Lost Cause mythology that began the day campus was evacuated in advance of certain defeat by those Union troops. This claim allows our fans to maintain a position of false morality and avoid reckoning with the school’s past. UA is, after all, the campus where Gov. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door to keep black students from attending class. It is the campus that could not count a single black scholarship athlete until Wendell Hudson arrived to play basketball in 1969. The campus where this year alone two white students have been expelled for using racist language in cell-phone videos shared on the internet.

Growing up, I was taught “playing the game the right way” meant you did not run up the score on opponents, you did not showboat, you did not earn selfish penalties or fouls that would harm your team’s chance of winning. Judged from this position of false morality, Collin Sexton’s actions against Villanova were wrong. But an unchecked position of false morality is exactly what allowed the Lost Cause to take root and grow. Looking at college sports from this perspective ignores who came up with the idea of “playing the game the right way” and who is intended to follow this mandate. Goodman’s column reminds us, though, when he writes, “Collin Sexton's final action as a college basketball player was getting hit with a technical foul for taunting a superior opponent while trailing by 26 points.”

In other words, why don’t you just smile while taking your beating, boy?

***

I can’t know what Collin Sexton was thinking as he untucked his jersey and walked off the court against Villanova. He smiled, though, as he hugged his replacement, Schaffer, who hails from Cullman, Alabama, a town where folks claim there was a sign displayed into the 1970s that said, “Nigger Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You in This Town.” The two exchanged what looked like words of encouragement while ’Nova’s Jalen Brunson shot free throws. 

A moment later, the CBS television cameras caught Sexton bumping fists and shaking hands with every player and staff member on the Alabama bench. That gesture won’t show up in his stat line, alongside the 17 hard-earned points he scored that day, or in the narratives writers like Goodman tell about black athletes and how they should behave, because it just doesn’t fit.


Caleb Johnson grew up in rural North Alabama. He has written for the Southern Foodways Alliance and the Paris Review Daily, among other publications. His debut novel, "Treeborne," will be published in June 2018 by Picador

Update (2:00 p.m. ET): The story has been updated to reflect Sexton's intention to make himself eligible for the 2018 NBA Draft.