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How Does Athens Really Feel About Football?

Football is big business in Athens. Over the course of six or seven weekends each year, we welcome hundreds of thousands of red-and-black-clad fans, who in turn spend millions of dollars at local bars and restaurants. As much as, say, R.E.M., we’re known as the home of the Bulldawgs. The importance of the sport to our town cannot be overstated; no reasonable Athenian would debate its economic merit.

But how does Athens really feel about football? In advance of this weekend’s UGA season opener against Louisiana-Monroe, we asked a handful of permanent residents to tell us what they truly think about the fact that the sport is so inextricably linked to the place they live in and love.

Gwen O’Looney, radio host/former Athens mayor

I know the joy of being a football fan. Fifty years ago, when I graduated from Glynn Academy, we were the 1965 state AAA champs in football, and I was a leader in the pep club. My junior/senior year at UGA, the Dogs were the 1968 SEC champs, and my date to the Sugar Bowl was Sonny Perdue. (He was a Democrat then.)

Larry Weatherford, UGA’s wise and wonderful legislative liaison, once explained how it was so easy getting state money in a winning season and so hard in a losing one. To hear that state funding for UGA’s academic needs is linked to football scores disturbed me.

I just want the respect, admiration and inspiration of our youth to put a higher value on academic and artistic talents. I yearn for Americans who believe academic tests and competition are just as important and honorable as gridiron skills. When I heard that the Japanese drive more carefully near schools during their testing season, I wondered if Americans will ever mark academic tests as events worthy of cheering.

Stuart Libby, artist

“He done kicked the air out of the ball,” Danny Ford, the Clemson head coach (M.A., Alabama) said to Vince Dooley, the Georgia head coach (M.A., Auburn). This was seconds after Kevin Butler kicked a field goal (according to Larry Munson, 100 yards or miles) to beat Clemson. There was no TV. Clemson was on probation; they had been caught paying their players/workers. There were more human beings than seats in the stadium. I walked out an inch or two taller for having been squeezed for several hours.

Dan Geller, research engineer/DJ

I am not a fan. However, I do appreciate that I can use game days for sleeping, oil changes and grocery shopping.

Donald Whitehead, musician

I started playing football at about 8 years old, and continued until I got hurt in an “Oklahoma” drill (now banned) with a bulging disc in 9th grade at Cedar Shoals High School. I quit after doctors told me I had a 98 percent chance of being paralyzed from the neck down if I ever played contact sports again. So, I started skateboarding and ran track and cross country to stay active. Since then, I’ve had long periods where I didn’t even watch the Dawgs (including the year we won the SEC championship), and years like this one, where I seem to read everything that comes out about the program.

I like football because I played it, and I often wonder what Athens would be like without it. To put it mildly, all the creative things I like about Athens wouldn’t be on the map without UGA, and to an extent, its football program. Our vibrant arts scene might not stand a chance without UGA’s students, and we would lack millions of dollars in revenue without the hustle and bustle of game days.

I know ‘music people’ and ‘football people’ are supposed to be mutually exclusive, but that’s not the way it is in our family.

I understand why a lot of my friends don’t like football. It’s kind of competitive. I never cried when my team lost a game, and didn’t really care whether I started or rode the pine for all four quarters. That being said, breaking away on a 40-yard run felt really amazing that one time—not unlike finishing a painting, writing a song or landing my one-and-only 360 kickflip.

If there’s one thing not to like about football, it’s the larger-than-life scale at which it dominates the conversation. Sorry, folks, football isn’t more important than teachers, firefighters or safe streets. It won’t help you if you lose your job, won’t help you obtain health insurance and doesn’t feed you when you’re hungry.

That being said, you can’t blame the players. If anyone’s to blame, look in the mirror—or at least to your neighbor. If we cannot recognize what’s important in society, we will continue to reward people who play football with outsized benefits. UGA football is important to me, to our community and many others. But it’s not the most important thing.

Alia Ghosheh, comedian

I feel indifferent about the Dawgs. I’ve been to a few football games, and it was fun, but I have never been a huge sports fan. I like how the games help the local economy, and it’s fun to see so many people decked out in red and black. Traffic is crazy on game days. In short, I’m not a huge fan of football, but it makes me happy to see others enjoying it.

David Barbe, musician/studio engineer

When I moved here as a freshman in 1981, I was a fan. I went to the home games and had a great time. I came by it naturally. My mom went to UGA. She had Charley Trippi, and we had Herschel. In my case, it didn’t take too long for me to discover the music scene, which completely took over my life. After a few years in school, I sort of drifted away from watching football as I got busier with music. I continued to resist it for a while for perfectly good reasons: traffic, trash, obnoxious fans, no place to park, wasted post-gamers trolling the streets of downtown.

When my sons were school-aged, we started watching the Dawgs on TV. Over time, I got hooked. I had forgotten the atmosphere of college football: the band, the cheerleaders, fight songs, the delirium of the victorious fans, the utter devastation of the losers. All served up on a crisp fall afternoon on the grounds of my alma mater.

Beyond that, it’s a just different trip than the gray, matronly parity of the NFL. At the college level, the teams have distinct identities defined by geography, style of play, the coach, a charismatic star and their most impassioned fans. (Personally, I can’t stand Lane Kiffin, while I find Steve Spurrier hilarious.) This sort of thing just goes with the territory.

A big part of being a sports fan involves having a team to root for. I have three. My baseball team is Chase Park (Athens Little League). My basketball team is the Hawks (saw my first game at Alexander Coliseum when Pete Maravich was a rookie and I was a tiny fellow). My football team is the Dawgs. No two ways about it.

I am a fan. Hopefully not an obnoxious one.

Rashaun Ellis, writer

I love, hate and am also indifferent towards the Dawgs.

I love all the money UGA football fans throw at this town. It’s the only reason that bartenders and kitchen managers in Athens are also homeowners. I don’t know of any other town where someone can buy and build modular synthesizers for their art-dance bands while being a line cook.

A drunk dude downtown once thought I played for UGA and had me sign his jersey. I just signed my own name.

I hate the fact that I am trapped indoors on a football Saturday. The roads are not safe all day, and neither is just walking down the street. I’ll park my car to avoid the traffic and poorly driven SUVs just to get pushed off the sidewalk by frat boys and watch drunk people trip over fire hydrants. I hate what this energy does to some of the people who participate, because I’m sure they’re actually nice, to some degree. Once, on a post-game Saturday night, a frat boy bumped into me so hard that I lost my breath, and then threatened to beat me up and called me a bitch for… what? I don’t know. His “brothers” wordlessly dragged him away, and I went home and cried. Ain’t I A Woman, too? I am afraid of football Saturday.

I am indifferent to sports, because it’s all an empty pursuit. I go to Little Kings or Manhattan to drink during the game because neither of those bars has a TV. When “your team” wins, it really means nothing in the grand scheme of your life, does it? Besides, most college athletes don’t move on to the major leagues, so they’re sustaining injuries for nothing but a scholarship, and colleges regularly make money off of their superstar players while not even paying them. College sports are exploitative, and I’m not here for that. Pay them.

Terrell Austin, actor/director

My perception of Georgia football is hopelessly colored by my 10-year high-school-through-grad-school experience as a waiter at various restaurants downtown. There was a lot of money to be made, and we all competed for those football shifts. A good night was when you closed up at 1 a.m. with $120 in your pocket and hadn’t had to negotiate with anyone urinating in view of your outside tables or deal with the aftermath of ailing sorority girls in the ladies’ room.

On one memorable occasion, a middle-aged couple wobbled in around noon before the game. He went straight into the bathroom, and the lady plopped down and started waving a $20 bill between two red talons. I rushed over, hoping she didn’t want a lap dance.

“Two burgers and two Bud Lights.”

“I’m sorry, we don’t have burgers here.”

“Two turkey sandwiches, then.”

“I’m sorry, we don’t have those either. Or Bud Lights.”

“What kinda place is this?”

“It’s a vegetarian restaurant, ma’am.”

“Oh, Jesus Christ.”  

She got to her feet just in time to intercept Hubby as he emerged, and they stumbled out into the sunlight to find some decent food.

Years later, imagine my surprise when my scholarly, just-out-of-college daughter told me that she had started watching all the Georgia games on TV.

Say what?

“Have you ever watched a game, Mom?”

“Of course I have!”

“But did you understand what was going on?”

“Well, not really. I’ve never really wanted to understand—I hate football!”

But last fall I visited her in D.C., and we sat in an empty bar watching what turned out to be Todd Gurley’s last game while her saintly boyfriend explained everything, play by play. It was fascinating. I finally knew what a “down” was (nothing to do with anybody kneeling). And there, far removed from the circus of game day in Athens, I finally felt like a Dawg fan.

Sienna Chandler, musician

I like football. It means I get to eat wings.

Peter Dale, The National chef/owner

I grew up in Athens in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s while my dad was in grad school at UGA. My first memories include going to Georgia football games with my parents, sitting in the student section. These were the days of Herschel Walker, and I would get hoisted to my Dad’s shoulders to watch Herschel score touchdowns. It was hard not to get wrapped up in the pageantry and revelry. To this day, I bleed red and black—go Dawgs!

Now that I am a business owner, I have mixed feelings about football season. I look forward to watching games, and on the rare occasion joining the festivities in Sanford Stadium. Football weekends can be great for us financially. However, it kills us if Georgia plays at night. Our weeknights in the fall tend to be quieter, because football fans are saving up energy and money for the big weekends. There is a misconception that fall must be a huge time in the restaurant business in Athens. That might have been the case in the past, but not anymore. Spring blows fall out of the water.

George Fontaine Jr., Normaltown Records co-founder

Even though I grew up in Houston, I was a Dawgs fan from birth. My dad went to school here, as did many other relatives and family friends. I went to my first UGA football game on my first-ever trip to Athens when I was 16, and rarely missed a game (home or away) when I attended college here from 2000–2004. I know “music people” and “football people” are supposed to be mutually exclusive groups that look at each other with skeptical, sideways glances, but that’s not the way it is in our family. (All-time favorite Dawg: Hines Ward.)

Montu Miller, hip hop promoter

I am definitely down with the Dawgs. It started when I attended UGA, and just like this town, has become a part of my life.

Matt Blanks, artist/cook

I’ve always seen football season as kind of like a rich stepdad: I don’t really care about it, but it pays the bills. All these insanely similar-looking white people show up and are instantly everywhere; count how many families you see with a toddler in a cheerleader outfit and a chunky dad in Oakleys and a visor. They have RVs with more amenities than any actual house I’ve ever lived in and hilarious corgis that bark at everybody. They show up in hordes and leave their puke in strategic places on the sidewalk they know I’ll step in.

But they eat in restaurants. They go shopping, and they go out to bars. They pay ridiculous amounts of money to park, and then still walk like five miles. I know the dorky town I love couldn’t float without the massive fall football influx, so I love it for that, but I don’t watch any games, or care even a little. I never really have. I only know about athletes if they make the news doing something terrible, like dogfighting or marrying a Kardashian. I’ve lived here for 15 years, and I couldn’t tell you the name of a single player who’s ever played for UGA. A drunk dude downtown once thought I played for UGA and had me sign his jersey. I just signed my own name.

Far removed from the circus of game day in Athens, I finally felt like a Dawg fan.

I’m a line cook, so football season basically means busier shifts, extra shift beers and having to drive weird ways to get home. Other than that, it doesn’t really affect me. I guess watching super-drunk kids stumble around during the day can be pretty hilarious. I inevitably end up in a conversation with a stranger who tells me I remind her of her brother and how weird he is at least once a game day. Like clockwork.

Oh, and I did start a super nerdy game-day game, “Sorority RPG.” When you see a group of sorority girls walking, you pick out their roles for a role-playing game team. Like, which one is the healer, warrior, thief, wizard, druid, hunter, etc. It’s surprisingly fun.

Joel Hatstat, musician/studio engineer

One time in 2005, a guy was doing a class project where he was asking people downtown various questions about the government and then various questions about the Bulldogs to prove a point about where our attention was focused. I got about half the government questions right, and all of the football questions, including “Who plays in Sanford Stadium?” wrong. Also, I worked at the Georgia Theatre at the time, and game days made me think that people weren’t really people, but absurdly drunk obstacles to my happiness. That being said, I do enjoy catching a game here and there on TV.

Tony Eubanks, community activist

I moved to Athens for grad school in 1980 (me and Herschel!). I attended every home game that year, as well as the Sugar Bowl victory over Notre Dame for the national championship. (Favorite quote of the weekend: “How do I get to my seat?” “Shiiit, you got a helicopter?”) I like watching football, but hate that it has such a deleterious effect on the players’ health.

In 1984, our UGA Ultimate team made our first ever trip to college nationals. We called ourselves Develupmintle Studeez, in homage to the infamous Jan Kemp debacle—our acknowledgment that there can be a dark, exploitative side to football.

As a former downtown bar owner, I’ve benefited from those six fall weekends. As a taxpayer, I appreciate those tourists’ dollars helping to pay for capital projects in our city and schools. As an accounting tutor for the UGA athletic program for the past 20 years, I appreciate what Georgia football does for so many people.

One of my favorite parts of my job—besides my interaction with my students—is dispelling the myth that our athletes are just dumb jocks. I’ve seen firsthand that UGA is at the forefront of academic support for our student athletes. They work full-time jobs while taking full-time classes. They graduate at rates equal to, if not higher than, the general student population. I’ve taught students in every varsity sport, and many are the first in their family to attend college, able to do so because of their athletic abilities. Most of those “other” sports are funded by football.

Are there inequities in the risk/reward continuum between players and the administration? Absolutely. But look around: These days, that applies to every aspect of American life. There’s good and bad with everything, and painting with a broad brush doesn’t do us any good. College football is no different. It’s all a matter of degree.