The book 'Fight Songs' examines Southern culture through a sports lens
A new book from Triad native Ed Southern explores the impact of sports on our culture. Fight Songs: A Story of Love and Sports in a Complicated South looks at history, race relations, and social changes in the region as big-time sports took off in the 20th century. WFDD's Paul Garber spoke with the author about the book.
On Southern's sports fandom as a youth in Winston-Salem:
My father coached Pop Warner football, so I spent all my fall Saturdays on the sidelines, and then all my fall Saturday afternoons watching football either in the stands at Groves Stadium (now Truist Field at Wake Forest) or on TV. The winters were almost entirely given over to ACC basketball. It was just, you know, as with so many North Carolinians, part of the fabric of our lives.
On the cultural differences between the Atlantic Coast Conference and The Southeastern Conference:
The difference isn't so much between the ACC and the SEC. The difference is between North Carolina and most of the other states of the south. But it's really the Big 4 of Wake Forest, Duke, Carolina, and State that are passionately devoted to college basketball moreso than college football. One of my favorites that I mention in the book is, as I was digging into the history... My dad said "Well, North Carolina has the Big 4." I was like, "Yeah, of course they do. I've known that since I was a small child." He said "No, you're not listening to me. North Carolina has a big FOUR," in that there are four major power five schools as opposed to in South Carolina there's just Clemson and South Carolina; in Alabama there's just Alabama and Auburn. With four trying to share population in the years before recruiting became such a huge national industry, it was a lot easier to find five great players for a basketball team than it was to find 22 great players to put on a football team.
UNC winning the 1957 National Championship is generally taken to be the sort of big bang of ACC basketball. But it can't be ignored, as it often tends to be, that Carolina at that time was an all-white team that beat an integrated Kansas team for the national championship, a Kansas team that starred Wilt Chamberlin, easily the biggest star in college basketball at the time, and was this powerful, imposing intimidating black man. I hate to admit it as a North Carolinian, that played a role in the embrace of that championship.
On the role sports has played in shaping regional identities of the South:
North Carolina's embrace of college basketball was perhaps a subconscious attempt to set ourselves apart from the rest of the South. At the same time that North Carolina was becoming what Time magazine called the "Dixie Dynamo," when we were bringing Research Triangle Park to the state for instance, when we had a large portion of the population moving off of farms and out of small towns and into the suburbs, when we were trying to attract transplants from other states ... There may have been a part of this, maybe somewhere in the deep dark corners of our minds, that liked embracing basketball instead of college football as a way to set ourselves just a little bit askance, just a little bit askew, from the rest of the South.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.