There's something jarring about the whole experience if you're not familiar with the culture. With the colors, the people, the noises, the smells, all assaulting your senses from every direction. It can be overwhelming, or it can sort of feel like a dream.
This is true of any immersion into a foreign culture—or at least any culture worth immersing yourself in—and it's definitely true of any trip to Louisiana, where you meet people you've only seen caricatured in movies, eat foods you didn't know existed, and hear words that sound like French and English combined and then sent through a wood chipper, punctuated with a thick southern accent just to make good and certain that it's all completely indecipherable.
But that's Louisiana, and we're talking about LSU football here. And instead of the acid trip you'd imagine of a trip to backwoods Louisiana, a weekend immersion into LSU football was more of a rational high. Still a completely foreign world, but it that wasn't quite as insane as I'd pictured. It left me in awe, yeah, and it made me a little bit jealous, too. But mostly, it just made me want to come back to Baton Rouge for every fall Saturday for the rest of my life.
Out of breath and walking home with $30 worth of Rasing Canes chicken fingers, I explained to a friend, "It's not even that it's as crazy as I pictured it. It's just... Why can't I do this every weekend?"
So, thinking back to my first trip to LSU, that's number one. Every weekend should be like that.
But it didn't start out that way.
I'm an outsider on this one, but as someone that grew up watching other sports, things like the Cam Newton scandal make it hard to really love college football. The whole spectacle of it all—hundreds of adoring fans waiting to cheer players in suit-and-tie as they leave the team bus, the ex-players worshiped by millions, decades after their last play in the SEC, the thousands of rival fans driving hours on end to come support their team, or the soothing sounds of Verne Lundquist for those not lucky enough to be there, and the billions it generates for the NCAA and CBS—it all centers on players that aren't allowed to take so much as 200 dollars if they want to go buy a new suit, to maybe change up their style for all those old fans watching them get off the bus, so proud to see these young men dressing "the right way."
But in college football, "the right way" is so relative. And traveling down to LSU, I checked the news on my phone and saw that we'd waded into that gray area again. ESPN's three senior college football writers put together a booming report implying the Cam Newton may have taken cash in exchange for a commitment, and then someone like the New York Times' college sports writer, Pete Thamel, bursts onto Twitter trumpeting BREAKING NEWS of an impending NCAA investigation.
Like, who cares? If you're going to write the story about Cam Newton possibly becoming ineligible because of an NCAA investigation, it should be a story about how ridiculous it is that Cam Newton could possibly become ineligible for taking a fraction of piles of money he's made Auburn the past few months. Even if you have to write that story over and over again each year until the NCAA changes its rules, it's better than some arbitrary witch hunt centered on the one guy in all this using common business sense, whose only mistake was getting caught.
It just baffles me that these people, who make a living following every move of every major program in the country and chronicling athletes like Cam Newton, could possibly feign indignation or surprise over any of it. Like, BREAKING NEWS EVERYONE: If Cam Newton took money, so did Julio Jones. Or Russel Shepherd. Or Andre Debose. Or any other high profile recruit in the SEC and beyond.
Maybe Cam Newton took a little bit more or asked for it in a more dramatic way, but it's hard to believe that he's the only guy in the SEC taking "illegal" benefits. He's the new Albert Means, maybe, but how many Albert Means clones have passed through major college football without getting caught? Ask Marcus Dupree how long the system's been broken.
Related: If everyone's breaking the rules, isn't there something wrong with the rules?
Anyway, the same way I wonder how a writer like Pete Thamel can take himself seriously prosecuting someone like Cameron Newton with innuendo while turning a blind eye to the real crime of it all, I wonder whether it's possible to ever really love a sport so blatantly soaked in hypocrisy and greed and every other bureaucratic vice that we use sports to escape.
At least, that's what I wondered.
Keep in mind: the Cam Newton news broke while I was alone and wandering around various airports, and if there's ever a place to make the whole world seem fundamentally unfair and hopeless, it's an airport. Walking through Baton Rouge on Friday night and then Saturday morning, Bureaucracy and Big Business receded, and bliss interceded. Thank God.
It's intuitive to the people that live and die with SEC football, but if you let the Big Problems ruin a good time, then that's your loss. So instead of weighty discussions about whether Cam Newton deserved to get paid, we talked about whether the NCAA could prove anything. And on this one, everyone was rooting for Newton.
At least among the fans I talked to, you got the sense they view the NCAA as less the arbiter of fairness than an authority figure that was made to be circumvented with a wink and a smile. Like a parent that sets an unreasonable curfew for a group of teenagers. The rules were made to be broken, and it's not wrong if they don't find out.
And that's the spirit that made Saturday so much fun. While everyone chattered about Cam Newton and whether he'd be around to knock off Alabama after LSU (inevitably, in the fans' eyes) took care of Nick Saban later in the day, there were no soapboxes around to ruin the fun. It was all playful, completely naive speculation. That's how all sports should be, right? Except...
Well, it's all good, clean fun until your coach betrays you and heads to a hated rival, resurrecting their program, and suddenly turning your favorite teams into perpetual underdog in the SEC West.
The "Saban Bleauxs" t-shirt was a personal favorite, and that "Traitor Hater" shirt was also pretty great. But even the Saban-hate came with (mostly) the same good-natured gamesmanship I saw all weekend. It's not to say that Saban should think about buying property in Baton Rouge anytime soon, but the hate was all in good fun.
I watched Saturday's game surrounded by LSU fans (obviously), but right in back of two Alabama fans. And it was probably my favorite part of the entire weekend. The LSU fans took every opportunity to heckle the living hell out of this 'Bama fan and his daughter, but he gave it right back, and before long, everybody was friends. It was bizarre to me, as an outsider.
When I end up sitting next to a rival fan, we usually don't speak the entire game. If it's really bad, we'll exchange angry glares, or if it's really, really bad, beer will get spilled onto someone's lap, and things get ugly. But in the SEC, everyone's there for the same reason—because win or lose, there's nothing better than a Saturday spent watching college football. The back-and-forth hate is part of the fun, and it's treated it as such.
One Tiger fan, after a penalty on LSU: "Bet you a thousand dollars that ref has a home address in Tuscaloosa!"
And the Alabama fan: "...And if I know Nick, the check's in the mail!"
Yeah, everybody wants to win, and by the end of the game, the Alabama fan had what looked suspiciously like tears in his eyes, but bottom line, everybody was having fun. It's yet another thing that baffles me about SEC football. How fans can take this stuff more seriously than I've ever taken any sport, and yet, they all have a better attitude about sports than 90% of sports fans. Down there, it's supposed to be fun, and first and foremost, it's all a celebration.
LSU and Alabama fans may hate each other officially, but it's hard to remember that when they've made friends halfway through the first quarter, and they're passing a smuggled flask of whiskey back-and-forth by halftime. In SEC country, they say "college football is life" and it sounds way more serious than it should.
What they forget to add is, "In SEC country, life's more fun than you've ever imagined."
It's not like that every weekend, obviously. I happened to have my initiation on probably the best weekend of the year for LSU football, with a great game, and a huge win for the home team. So obviously, my vision's colored a little bit, and the hyperbole about all this needs an asterisk.
But God it was awesome. The fans, the food, the football. All of it was sort of perfect.
When I talked about immersion at the beginning, I mentioned two options: you can either be overwhelmed in situations like that and retreat, or you can go along for the ride, accepting the newfound reality almost like you would in a dream. And at LSU, the dream delivers on all fronts.
Maybe if you weren't a football fan, like most of my family and many of my friends, you'd be put off by the whole scene. There's definitely something bizarre about 150,000 people who spend a day drinking and shouting about football, ending every conversation with a hearty, "GEAUX TIGERS!" And those conversations, of course, almost always wander back to the same discussion, as everyone wonders aloud whether LSU can make it to the Sugar Bowl. Throw in the visual assault created by a sea of purple and gold, the different strains of music blasting from every direction, and a heap of heart-attack inducing cuisine, and it'd have been completely reasonable for an outsider to conclude we were all insane.
But if you love sports, you understand. And it really is like a dream. I mean... In a perfect world, everyone would plan their week around the big game, fans old and young would know every team from top-to-bottom, and the whole thing would be treated as equal parts carnival and competition.
That was Saturday's game in a nutshell. Beyond the spectacle of Saturday in Baton Rouge, the game itself couldn't have been better. 'Bama pushed, LSU pushed back, and it continued for 60 minutes. The matchup between Patrick Peterson and Julio Jones is what the announcers hyped in the lead-up to Saturday, but really, the Saban/Miles matchup won the day.
Had the game been in Tuscaloosa, it's hard to believe LSU finds a way to win it. But with the crowd around to keep things interesting, LSU stayed just close enough to give themselves a chance, and when Les Miles pulled out that brilliant reverse on 4th and 1, well... You know how it ended. From that point on, it was bedlam in Death Valley, with 90,000 people slowly getting louder and more ecstatic as the final minutes ticked away.
How we dream about sports as kids, LSU fans play out in real life. I expected an acid trip from Baton Rouge, where everything overwhelms the senses and it all blends together into one, strange journey into an alternate reality. But that's not what I got. LSU football's some other sort of drug, where everything blends into one simple, universal celebration of a tradition that's passed down through generations, and will continue to the end of time. Not an alternate reality, but a better reality.
And it's not hard to see how people get addicted, then. As baffling as SEC football seemed to me before this weekend, it all makes sense now. Because as baffling as life can seem to everyone, always, SEC football remains pretty self-explanatory and perfect.
The NCAA may be lathered in hypocrisy, and the lack of a playoff system will always screw SEC teams out of opportunities at a National Championship that they deserve a thousand times more than someone like Boise State, but why worry about all of that? Why let the NCAA or the BCS ruin a perfectly good Saturday? It may sound crazy to an outsider, but when you're in Baton Rouge on a Saturday and the Tigers are playing, I'm not sure anything else really matters. It didn't on Saturday.
I still wonder about college football and the NCAA and the BCS and people like Pete Thamel, but more than anything else, I just can't wait to go back to Baton Rouge. Or maybe Tuscaloosa. Or Gainesville. Or wherever else this strange, addictive world exists.
Oh, and as for my new favorite college football team? The unapologetic abandonment of logic, the wink-and-a-nod approach to everything, the good-natured emotions tearing through an exterior that's more intimidating than it looks, and the suspension of disbelief forced upon everyone crazy enough to come along for the ride... Yeah, Les Miles pretty much personifies all of it.