Robert F. Sanchez: The SEC rose as racial barriers fell


Published: Monday, August 26, 2013 at 5:05 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 at 5:05 p.m.

Years ago readers might assume that a headline such as “SEC Probes Cheating” meant that the Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating Wall Street chicanery. Not anymore. “SEC” is now synonymous with the mighty Southeastern Conference, home of national titles, Heisman Trophy winners, and –- occasionally -- cheating.

It seems almost unimaginable today that the SEC’s founding in 1932 caused hardly a stir in a national sports scene dominated by horse racing, boxing and baseball. When the media paid attention to college football, it was mostly to games in the big states, not those pitting the struggling schools in the poverty-stricken South.

Tellingly, that era’s top fictional sports hero was Yale’s Frank Merriwell, a renaissance youth whose adventures were chronicled in books, magazines, movies and a radio show. As virtuous as Tim Tebow, he not only excelled in all sports, but in his spare time he used his Ivy League intellect to solve crimes.

Back then, “The Game” –- Harvard vs. Yale -– was still considered a big deal. So was Notre Dame, with its far-flung “subway alums.” Even the annual Army-Navy game was deemed important – a status that peaked around World War II and lingered into the 1960s.

A lot of this focus had to do with longevity. By 1932, when the SEC was formed, the Big Ten Conference -– founded in 1896 -- was well into its fourth decade, and most of the Ivy League schools had been around since colonial times.

It also had to do with geography. The seven states represented in the Big Ten and the seven in what later became formally organized as the Ivy League had much of the population, most of the wealth, and virtually all of the national media.

If you wanted to compare snapshots showing how much America has changed during the lifetime of our nation’s fastest growing age group -– folks in their 80s –- you could do worse than dig for evidence in the college football landscape.

In those snapshots you’d find changes –- social and demographic -- much more profound than the switch away from leather helmets and the single-wing formation. Consider, for instance, why the SEC’s founding received little attention.

In the 1930 Census – the freshest data when the SEC was formed -- the original members’ seven states – Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky – had a population totaling only 16.1 million in a nation of 122.9 million.

In contrast, the seven original Big 10 states –- Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin –- then had a population totaling 30.5 million while the seven Ivy League states –- New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire –- had 33.2 million.

So, together, the 14 states of the Ivy League and the original Big Ten accounted for 51 percent of the nation’s population while the seven states of the original SEC accounted for less than 14 percent.

Moreover, that’s not even the whole story. The schools of the SEC were racially segregated, and the white population on which they depended for support totaled only 11.1 million.

Much has changed, of course. As of 2012, for instance, the seven original SEC states had a population totaling 52.5 million. Include the states added through expansion – Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, and South Carolina – and the SEC’s total, 92.2 million in a nation of 313 million, now exceeds the Ivy League’s 55.8 million and even the expanded Big Ten’s 84.4 million.

As the SEC grew, wily coaches such as Alabama’s Bear Bryant began to realize what Florida A&M’s legendary Jake Gaither had long known: African Americans can play football at the highest levels.

Much remains to be done, of course, to overcome the nation’s legacy of racial bias, but there’s no doubt that the acceptance of black athletes helped the SEC rise to national prominence in college sports. Paralleling that trend was the rise of the region’s universities to academic respectability –- and the emergence of the South as the nation’s most dynamic region for economic growth.

In retrospect, then, it’s a bit ironic that when the civil rights movement stirred in earnest during the 1950s, the vehicles of some defiant Southerners sported bumper stickers that read “The South Shall Rise Again!” Little did they seem to realize that one key to the South’s rise was letting the walls of racial separation fall.

Robert F. Sanchez taught journalism at Florida A&M “and later served as an editorial writer at the Miami Herald. He is now the policy director of The James Madison Institute.

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