Tennessee Volunteers Football: The New Southern Gothic
Turns out Faulkner and O'Connor should have just waited until the 2009-2010 Tennessee Volunteer football teams took the field to further burnish their literary reputations. Because to hell with SEC championships, Vol football players are too busy raping, robbing and beating their own fan base to worry about whipping Florida and Alabama. Right now, the most outlandish southern stories are sung to Rocky Top.
Cormac McCarthy probably wishes he'd never left.
In a little over a year, the Volunteer football team has turned into Sanctuary with cleats.
First, an offensive line recruit, Daniel Hood, is admitted to the university despite being convicted, as a juvenile, of raping his teenage cousin with a toilet plunger. As one way of demonstrating the fact that his relationship with his cousin, a latter day Temple Drake, is now repaired, Hood offers this anecdote about what he planned to do with the free tickets he received as a Tennessee football player. "The first tickets I get are hers," Hood said.
Next, two charged players, later dismissed from the team, rob two fans outside the Pilot Gas Station just off campus in the week leading up to 2009's Ole Miss game. The victims, held up by four-star recruit Nu'Keese Richardson with a pellet gun while a Toyota Prius silently waits, are big Tennessee fans. So big that they aren't really in favor of prosecution.
"I think they should still be able to play football, regardless," robber victim Corey Zickefoose said. "Tennessee is my place. It's my football team."
"Even after they put a gun in your face, you say let them play football?" a Knoxville reporter asked.
"Yeah, it's Tennessee. That's the way it is sometimes," Zickefoose said.
Even Faulkner and O'Connor couldn't make up that dialogue.
And now this.
ESPN's Chris Low spoke to one of the two men hospitalized after a Friday morning brawl at Bar Knoxville on the Tennessee campus strip. The opening line of his story? Gary Russell grew up a Tennessee fan and says he will always be a Vol.
This is both admirable and scary given that Russell claims he was beaten by six or seven Vol football players.
How bad was the beating?
"If not for my friends jumping in, I would be dead or brain-dead," Russell told ESPN.com. "It was obvious that they weren't going to stop."
Russell was hospitalized with a broken nose, received nine stitches, alleges he was beaten and kicked while lying on the ground, and yet he's still cheering when the team runs through the T.
What fan dedication.
Oh, and what about the off-duty Knoxville police officer Robert Capoullez, the man who still has not publicly spoken about what happened to him since his hospitalization after trying to break up the brawl?
He happens to be a 2009 UT grad, according to his Facebook page.
Notice, this is just football. We could also include January's arrest of four UT basketball players that led to the dismissal of Vol star forward Tyler Smith for owning an unregistered hand gun. Smith's explanation for why he had a gun? He feared for his life.
Who did he fear for his life from?
A former Vol basketball player.
Fan on player violence, meet player on player violence.
I guess you should expect as much when the unofficial fight song alleges to the murder of a federal agent. But all of this southern gothic reality leaves us with this question: Has there ever been a series of more ridiculous, more absurd crimes in the history of college athletics that featured player on fan violence?
Probably not, right?
There might be a dispute about that.
But I'm certain there has never been a series of victims of a football team's violence who still professed their fandom in the wake of their victimization.
She came to the game.
Don't prosecute them, said the victims.
Beating by multiple players at the bar?
He's still a fan.
And this is without the team even winning.
Add up the rape, the robbery victims and the two injured bar patrons and the Vol football team has victimized five people.
The Vols only won seven games last year.
New coach Derek Dooley has responded to the latest incident by dismissing one player and promising that he's going to change the culture of the football team. "As I have referenced on many occasions," Dooley said, "a change in culture is achieved in time through a combination of education, discipline and support."
But maybe all these victimized fans willing to forgive player transgressions tells us that no matter what Derek Dooley is trying to accomplish in changing the Vol culture, it's not just the football team's culture that needs to change.
Maybe it's our culture too, the one that can stare down a player holding a gun in our face and later remark on camera, "Yeah, it's Tennessee. That's the way it is sometimes."
In the immediate wake of the latest details about the bar fight, my fellow Vol fans inundated me with e-mails and Twitter messages making sure that I consider "both sides of the story." Be careful, they collectively warned, of drawing false conclusions." If only serial killing cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer had played quarterback for the Vols. "Clay," the biggest Vol fans would argue, "the leg wasn't in his mouth. It was just cut up and in the freezer. Big difference."
Even the ghost of Johnnie Cochran thinks that UT's fan defense of the players is too vigorous.
Because right now when it comes to Vol football, it looks an awful lot like what Flannery O'Connor foresaw in her 1953 southern gothic short story about a man called the Misfit.
A good man is hard to find, indeed.