Jim Lytle / AP
Jim Lytle / AP

More than a game: Mississippi triumphs at football but lags in development

Celebrating recent success of college athletic teams, distracted residents put divisive social issues on back burner

MERIDIAN, Miss. — It was a glorious day for football in Mississippi last Saturday. The University of Mississippi’s football team beat No. 2 Alabama, and Mississippi State defeated No. 6 Texas A&M.

Both wins happened inside the state’s borders, in Oxford and Starkville, respectively, and it was proclaimed as the greatest day ever in the 100-plus years of college football in Mississippi.

The Magnolia State was in a mood for celebration. Ole Miss and Mississippi State are currently tied for No. 3 in the country in the Associated Press top-25 rankings. They also share first place with Auburn in the Western Division of the Southeastern Conference.

But in a state where following football is a passion that can dominate life, does it distract from other, more pressing issues?

Oct. 4 might have been a day of triumph, but for the other 364 days of the year, quality of life in Mississippi leaves something to be desired. The state had the country’s highest unemployment rate in July, according to the Mississippi Economic Policy Center. Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council, ranked Mississippi last among all states and the District of Columbia in the American human development index, which measures standard of living, longevity and access to knowledge. The same group published a 2013 opportunity index, which ranked Mississippi 50th. In other words, when you are born into poverty in Mississippi, you are likely to stay there. The state's 2012–13 poverty rate — 22.2 percent — was the highest in the nation.

First in football but last or nearly last in everything else, seems to be the painful conclusion. But, say some experts, if it’s true that Mississippi is focusing on the wrong priorities, then it’s also true for many other parts of the United States.

Jake McGraw, the editor of the blog Rethink Mississippi and the public policy coordinator for the William Winter Institute at the University of Mississippi, joked that St. Louis should perhaps cancel the upcoming Cardinals baseball playoff games because of the race riots in nearby Ferguson if Mississippi is going to be ridiculed for matching sporting prowess with social deprivation.

The Chicago Bears of the NFL play on despite a plague of gang and gun crime in the city that has landed global headlines.

“While we have problems on a larger scale than the rest of the country, by no means has America solved all of its problems either,” McGraw said. “So just ask the next question. Why does our society play sports at all when we still have, the United States writ large, problems with poverty? Why are we spending our weekends focusing on sports and not addressing these other problems nationwide?”

He said Mississippi and other parts of the Deep South are being singled out unfairly. “That question would rarely be asked of the rest of the country. There is a double standard when we look at  the American South and our football and the decadence of our football obsession. We can turn it around and ask the same question of everybody else. It’s a little hypocritical.”

There is a double standard when we look at the American South and our football and the decadence of our football obsession. We can turn it around and ask the same question of everybody else. It’s a little hypocritical.

Jake McGraw

Winter Institute, University of Mississippi

In fact, he added, the state’s passion for football — far from being a symbol of deprivation and social divides — could actually be a symbol of unity in a state still struggling with racial problems and poverty. Instead of guilt over football being so prominent compared to the rest of daily life, football could act as a bridge between races. It should be taken advantage of, some say.

“Football is a source of great pride and transracial fellowship around here,” said Adam Gussow, an associate professor of English and Southern studies at Ole Miss. He pointed out that local authors have explored the issue in their work, examining how race, identity and football were all bound up in the state. “Mississippians Willie Morris [who wrote “The Courting of Marcus DuPree”] and W. Ralph Eubanks [author of “Ever Is a Long Time”] have both showed the way in which football in Mississippi has been a place where blacks and whites occupying the same community have come together in a shared passion.”

“Most of the Mississippians who will be cheering for Ole Miss tomorrow, of whatever color, will have been cheering for their high school football teams the night before.  That's just what people do around here — rich people, poor people and average folk in between,” he said.

Gussow said the traditional pregame parties on the Grove at Ole Miss had become exclusionary, with tables decorated with candelabras and people wearing bow ties and fine dress to football games. But there was also a more racially mixed Everybody’s Tent, created for those without high-dollar tastes. He booked bands for that diverse venue, which included Mississippi-born African-American blues musicians Bill “Howl-n-Madd” Perry and his son, Bill Perry Jr.

“Football fields are the most integrated spots in the state, bar none,” McGraw said. “It is the only place in the state where blacks and whites are on a level playing field, literally and figuratively.”

Quarterback Bo Wallace is carried off the field by fans after the University of Mississippi’s win over No. 3 Alabama in Oxford, Mississippi, Oct. 4, 2014.
Bruce Newman / Oxford Eagle / AP

But that does not mean all Mississippians are reveling in the sporting glory of a fall Saturday.

On Fourth Street in downtown Meridian last Sunday morning after the historic wins by Ole Miss and Mississippi State, men flocked to a windowless building. It was church of a different kind. It was a parlay house, a bookmaking oasis. Mark Aikens, 55, sat outside under a gazebo and thought about the question of love of football and lack of progress. “Does Mississippi deserve our scorn?” he was asked.

Before he answered, a man asked a visitor to raise his shirt to make sure he was not wearing a wire recording the conversation for an FBI van around the corner.

“Sure, we do. Too much poverty here, the only jobs are with low pay, McDonald’s and the hotels and the banks. And they won’t let me in there,” Aikens said. “You looking around at this downtown? What do you see? Boarded-up buildings. It’s self-explanatory."

"That junior college out of town has 5,000 kids," he continued. "You think there are technical jobs here for all those kids? No, but we have football.”

The diagonal parking spaces in front of the bookie’s joint called Lance’s filled up quickly. It was an hour until kickoff for the NFL games, and men were rushing to get their bets down. Standing in front of Aikens with a smirk on his face was Chris Crawford, who is awaiting federal sentencing for bookmaking. Crawford wore glittering red Versace tennis shoes, which go for $995.

Mississippians have nobody to blame but themselves, he said.

‘Too much poverty here, the only jobs are with low pay, McDonald’s and the hotels and the banks. And they won’t let me in there. You looking around at this downtown? What do you see? Boarded-up buildings.’

Mark Aikens

Meridian resident

“Some of you take ‘Obamacare’ and handouts,” Crawford said to Aikens as he sipped from a bottle of beer. “People are crybabies. You make what you want out of life.”

At a high school football game Friday night in Meridian, former Meridian High School star Kenny Smith sat and watched from the stands as his alma mater defeated Provine High School. Smith considered the question about whether Mississippi was downtrodden and if football served only to gloss over the state’s economic problems.

“People are comfortable living here,” said Smith, who played in the NFL for nine years. “Maybe making $20,000 a year is OK for them. This is their home. But I also think at some point you have to leave Mississippi and see what else is out there in the world.”

Football is certainly a way out and it has made some Mississippians famous. Jerry Rice, the all-time leading receiver in the NFL, is from Crawford, in the east of the state. Brett Favre, the NFL’s all-time passing yardage leader, is from Kiln. Walter Payton, all-time second in rushing yards, was from Columbia. Steve McNair, a record-setting quarterback from Alcorn State and an All-Pro NFL quarterback, was from Mount Olive.

Archie Manning, the All-American quarterback at Ole Miss and the father of Eli and Peyton, is from Drew.

Consider this: Mississippi ranks No. 2, just behind Louisiana in the number of players in the NFL, per capita, according to NFL.com. That might help explain why so many celebrate football.

“We get beat down,” McGraw said. “The people in the state are desperate for something to be proud of. Things we latch on to find pride in, people on the outside generally look down on."

“There is a difference in morale in the state between yesterday and today, compared to two weeks ago," he concluded. "There is an energy, there is a feeling that finally we are looked upon with some semblance of respect. A lot of times, because of our history and ongoing problems, people feel ashamed of the state.”

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