By Carter-William Palek
Football is a significant part of life for most students at the University of Alabama, and there’s not much that will ever change that. But off-the-field drama is quickly threatening to overshadow this weekend’s football game: On Tuesday (November 5), I received an email from the school’s Student Government Association (SGA) reminding students to be on their best behavior during this week’s football game against Louisiana State University. The note came from student Jason Rothfarb, the vice president of student affairs for SGA, and specifically stated, in bold and underlined text:
“Any organizations that engage in disruptive behavior during the game will be removed from block seating instantly for the remainder of the season.”
Without context, the message seems innocent enough, but many Alabama students believe this was an attempt to silence their free expression, given the news: Earlier this week, it was announced that President Donald Trump would visit this Saturday's college football matchup between LSU and Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
Immediately, people on social media began speculating that the reason behind Trump’s visit was less about taking in a football game — given his track record with the sport and its players is historically terrible — and more about an opportunity for a much-needed PR boost. The President was recently booed at two major sporting events — first at a World Series game in Washington, DC, where a crowd threw his infamous “Lock her up!” chant back in his face; then later at a UFC fight, where he was met with signs that read “Impeach Trump.” By contrast, Alabama is deep in the heart of “Trump Country,” so logic could suggest that a U of A game should be a friendly crowd.
But perhaps some people feared it would not be. While the SGA’s email never mentions Trump by name, many students made the logical conclusion that the only reason we were given this warning was to prevent a repeat of the previous sporting events. Given the fact that groups around campus immediately began planning ways to protest the President’s visit after the trip was announced — groups whose members were largely female and students of color — it’s hard not to see the intentionally vague message as an attempt to prevent the President of the United States being booed.
The Alabama student section can be a notoriously rowdy place. Cherished gameday traditions include an expletive-laden rendition of “Dixieland Delight,” cheerily taunting teams “We Just Beat The Hell Out of You” after victories, and generally being as loud as possible. If that’s never been considered “disruptive behavior,” then what was?
That’s exactly why many students, including myself, found the email so suspicious. Not even before last year’s rivalry home game against the perennially hated Auburn Tigers were students reminded to be “well-behaved.” Not since 2015 has Alabama’s SGA sent an email directing student conduct at a football game, when they implemented new rules about wristbands for block seating.
As the story gained traction, the discourse morphed into a belief that SGA was attempting to silence the students’ First Amendment rights to protest and free speech against the government. Because I had posted the memo on Twitter, that debate was playing out in my own Twitter mentions in real time.
On Wednesday, Rothfarb and the other SGA members who sent the original message sent a follow-up:
“Some have misinterpreted my comment regarding ‘disruptive behavior,’” the statement read. “By disruptive behavior we are asking students to be respectful to all students, and staff and avoid altercations. My email had nothing to do with anyone’s First Amendment rights, and I am sorry for any confusion. Please express yourselves and especially your pride for the Tide!”
The SGA also released an official statement asserting that an Al.com article was “erroneously assigning a political context” to the e-blast; the statement also reaffirmed the SGA’s “belief in free speech and the rights of all students to express their opinion.”
Predictably, the statement made nothing better and everything worse. The story only gained more traction: the Washington Post, Fox News, NBC Sports, Sports Illustrated, and the Associated Press wrote about the clash. It became a trending topic on Twitter. The President himself retweeted the revised Al.com article. The ACLU of Alabama put out their opinion on the matter. And the whole time, everyone linked back to my tweet.
By noon on Wednesday, less than a day after I posted the screenshot, hundreds of thousands of people had seen my tweet. Many of them added to the thread and voiced their opinion. So it was somewhat curious to watch, live in my Twitter mentions, as most of those people seemed to miss the point entirely.
The central theme of the debate became: What was the intent of the original email? Did the SGA officer want to have a chilling effect on campus free speech? Was the second email really a clarification? Or was it a backpedal on the part of SGA after they were caught red-handed and embarrassed on social media?
For what it’s worth, no part of me believes the intention of the first message was innocent. At worst, it was an intentional act to prevent students from booing the President. At best, it was a reckless directive, completely ignorant of how the majority of U of A’s 40,000 students would perceive it. It’s not clear how many members of the SGA vetted the letter before it was delivered, but the story isn’t what the email meant. It was that it was ever sent at all.
As much as the President and traditional media like to paint all of southern America (but especially Alabama) in broad red strokes, we know that isn’t true. Tuscaloosa itself lies in one of the most firmly Democratic congressional districts in America, represented by Terri Sewell, a Black woman, who ran unopposed in the last two elections and won by a 52-point margin in 2012. The suburb I grew up in, Madison, is home to NASA headquarters, full of college-educated families, and firmly purple, pragmatic politics. Alabama is one of just eight states with one Republican and one Democrat senator.
The story isn’t what the email meant. It was that it was ever sent at all.
Alabama and LSU fans alike have camped out in my Twitter mentions for days; they were eventually joined by people of all political leanings from all around the country. Some were predictably rude and harassing, calling me “a mean liberal” who “couldn’t get into a Northern school, and hates the state of Alabama.” (For the record, the University of Alabama School of Law, where I study, is a top 25 law school.) But the vast majority of people who responded, to my eye, were people just like me:
Southerners, disillusioned by the national politics of both parties, and no fan of the President.
While the national election results may paint a picture of a blood-red Alabama, anyone who has lived here will tell you that’s only a reflection on the effectiveness of voter suppression and racial gerrymandering more than the actual electorate. In fact, the average Alabama football game is probably a much better cross-section of the state than any voter results. Even a last-minute ticket to the game is more accessible for most state citizens than the byzantine quagmire of a process that is registering to vote in Alabama, a state that requires pre-registration, allows no same-day voter registration, requires a driver’s license to vote, and which at one point shut down DMV locations in many of the poorest and Blackest counties in the state. (That move was partially reversed after an investigation confirmed residents’ belief that such closures impacted Black residents most.)
But Alabama, like so much of the South, is changing. Its rural counties are shrinking. Its cities are exploding, turning younger and more liberal, as flocks of young people flee from the eye-popping rent and endless gridlock of coastal cities. The state's long-established civil rights organizations are energized by new recruits. Tuscaloosa and the University of Alabama are prime examples of that change. Nearly 60 percent of the student body is now originally from somewhere other than Alabama.
Alabama has always been a racially and economically diverse place, full of rich folk, poor folk, white folks, Black folks, rocket scientists, peanut farmers, and everything in between. But now, in the era of social media, the voices of its marginalized residents that were systematically squashed for so long are being amplified. The voices of Alabamians who have been fighting for civil rights since before that phrase made regional or national headlines can reach a global audience in the blink of an eye.
So when the President does come on November 9, he will undoubtedly drive through campus in a police-escorted motorcade. He will see many of the sights typically associated with the Deep South. He will drive through downtown Tuscaloosa, which was burned to ash in the Civil War as the wealthy landowners defended their active participation of slavery. He will drive by Foster Auditorium, where Governor George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door to forcibly block Black students from registering for classes alongside white students. He will drive past Morgan Hall, named for a former senator and a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
But he will also pass where author Harper Lee and Judge Robert Smith Vance studied law. He’ll head to his box to watch the Crimson Tide, coached by the legendary Nick Saban, who has endorsed Democrats and once let then-President Bill Clinton nap on his couch. And when he is shown on the big screen, he'll be applauded, but he’ll also be booed. Certainly not by everyone. Probably not even by most people. But he will be booed. Because Alabama has never been a place of one singular type of people.
And to the students that boo him peacefully, as is their First Amendment right, should anyone try to remove them? Remember the Alabama state slogan:
“We dare defend our rights.”
As of publish time, neither the University of Alabama nor the Student Government Association had returned MTV News's request for comment.