Editor’s Note: Diane McWhorter is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama – The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution.” The views expressed here are solely hers.
The insurance company Geico sponsors my home state’s most sacred sporting rituals – the Geico 500 NASCAR race at Talladega and college football, over which the Alabama Crimson Tide still rules! But would The Gecko want to move to Alabama? He is not white, sounds foreign and is, you know, kind of fey – and this is the state that in 2011, passed the most draconian anti-immigrant law in the nation.
But image-savvy businesses may have qualms about lending their adorable mascots to the Heart of Dixie if Roy Moore is the winner of next Tuesday’s Senate election here. He is an avowed Constitution-denier, slavery sentimentalist, segregation-upholder, gay-basher, Jew-damner, woman-shunner and alleged one-time fancier of teenage girls, two of whom have accused him of sexual abuse – accusations that he denies.
Given the economic backlash against discriminatory legislation passed in North Carolina and Indiana, many Alabamians – “mainstream” Republicans alongside the chronically thwarted liberals – are bracing, if Moore wins the election, for what Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox told me could be a “catastrophic” blow to state commerce and self-esteem, notably to the 24-karat “brand” of Alabama’s second-best-known celebrity, the Tide’s coach, Nick Saban. As Saban further assumes the Christ-like mystique of his walking-on-water predecessor, legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, after Alabama’s ascension to the playoffs for the national title – and as Tuesday’s electoral crossroads gains scriptural meaning nationwide – a natural question arises: What would Saban do?
A lot more is at stake on Tuesday than getting on the right side of money. After decades of jokes proposing that Alabama “build a school the football team could be proud of,” the University of Alabama has finally been getting some extra-gridiron respect, its national cred evident in rising out-of-state enrollment – more than 60% of entering freshmen. Auburn University, too, caught some luster from alums such as Apple CEO Tim Cook, along with its football team, this season’s Southeastern Conference runner-up.
And yet it hardly requires a college degree to see that students, let alone teaching talent, would think twice about moving to a state supplying half the country’s GDP of late-night satire. Such embarrassment has been the historical constant of Alabama’s “elites,” and they have borne it with exasperation, silence and paralysis. Thus, I was not surprised when of the 27 Auburn and Alabama system officials I contacted – a few presidents, along with bankers, industrialists and lawyers on the boards of trustees – none would weigh in on the Senate race.
And though the University of Alabama’s general counsel assured me there was no legal or ethical problem with Saban (“or any employee,” he added) speaking out as an individual, the two Alabama trustees who would talk to me (as long as they weren’t named) echoed the Tide radio play-by-play man Eli Gold, who says that Saban “is 1,000% a football coach.” Indeed, Saban (though he is registered to vote in Alabama) is so politics-deaf that on November 9, 2016, he claimed he didn’t even know there had been an election the previous day.
On reflection, one trustee said, “But if he’s really worried about it affecting the program … ,” then he added wearily, noting President Donald Trump’s popularity in Alabama, “I don’t know what we do. Whatever you say about our candidate, you could say about the guy in the White House.”
True, but still no prophylactic against fiscal pain (See: the philanthropists’ flight from Mar-a-Lago).
Though advertisers threatened to desert Sean Hannity after his defense of Moore backfired on Fox, the bowl-season brands I consulted were decidedly not interested in discussing a hypothetical Sen. Moore. According to Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff, the race “never came up in the room” during the deliberations that made Alabama the debatable pick over Ohio State for the semifinals. Hancock added with a laugh, “You can say I said, ‘Oh my goodness, it never came up!’ ”
Chick-fil-A, which will host Auburn in the Peach Bowl, declined comment, perhaps mindful of Moore’s resonance with the anti-gay-marriage debacle involving its own founding family. Nor would Dos Equis, a sponsor of the Sugar Bowl (where Alabama will face Clemson), comment on “the most interesting man” in Alabama – Moore is a “Build the Wall” enthusiast. As for the Gecko, Geico did not return my calls.
Such corporate tact will come as a relief to Maddox, who is already worried that Moore’s candidacy will scare off the companies he’s wooing to Tuscaloosa, to join the local Mercedes-Benz plant once greeted as Alabama’s own economic miracle. For sponsors to boycott Alabama now “would do nothing but help Roy Moore,” he says, creating “an us versus them, national versus Alabama dynamic – now it becomes about pride rather than anything else. And pride goeth before a fall.”
Maddox is a Democratic candidate for governor in 2018 and one of the state’s classic romantics, who believes adamantly in “our people” and insists that “our leadership has not reflected” them. In this majority-Republican state, he considers it like unto a miracle that the Democratic Senate contender, Doug Jones, a prosecutor of child murderers, is holding his own in the polls against an accused fondler of teenage girls.
If Jones loses, no one will be able to blame his “historic unpopularity,” a private email server or two X chromosomes. His abortion-rights position will undoubtedly be the “right” reason given, but the real reason would more likely be that he’s a Democrat, which has become a cute synonym among some white Alabamians for African-American. (Full disclosure: Jones is a friend of mine, and I would vote for him if I were registered in Alabama.)
Among the more crushing regrets of Alabama’s heartbroken liberals is that Bear Bryant didn’t translate his bulletproof popularity into moral authority and move the state to the right side of civil rights history in the 1960s. If the Ghost of Winningest Coaches Past were to visit Saban this season, I suspect he might urge his heir to think bigger than his own crowning legacy, a stadium full of houndstooth apparel, honoring his signature hat.
Local sports reporters haven’t broached the legacy thing with this coach, although columnist Joseph Goodman says Saban could “influence the race with one sentence. He wouldn’t even have to endorse anyone. He could just ask, ‘What’s best for the future of Alabama?’” But Goodman, a Birmingham native, points out that Saban is from West Virginia. And “to really care about dysfunction in a state like Alabama when you make $8 million a year,” he told me, “I think you have to be from here.”
Saban, who actually will be paid $11.125 million this season, declined my invitations to discuss leadership and “the awful responsibility of Time” outside of 60 minutes on Saturday. So, it remains up in the air whether the coach, come Tuesday, will get a senator he can be proud of when he and his team take the field on New Year’s Day – or if he’ll be left the high priest of a pariah state.