When Football Becomes Idolatry: Dead Trees at Auburn’s Toomer’s Corner

Toomers corner oaktrees1 Wow.  Again, wow. It just got real in the state of Alabama. Harvey Updike, 62, from Dadeville, AL was arrested early this morning for poisoning the famous oak trees at Toomer's Corner in Auburn, AL.  These trees are very important to fans of Auburn University and they are traditionally rolled with toilet paper after big Auburn victories, especially in football. They are also a traditional gathering point for thousands upon thousands of Auburn fans and are greatly associated with Auburn tradition. Updike is a fan of the University of Alabama, Auburn's rival, and poisoned the 130 year old oak trees in anger after Auburn defeated Alabama in football in late November.  The state of Alabama has gone crazy over this affront.

Updyke Okay. I just summarized what is happening here in this state today and it makes no sense whatsoever. How foolish was Updike (to the right)?  Why would anyone do anything like this?  I'm no Auburn fan, but I understand that they have their own traditions that are important to them, just like every community/culture of people.  What kind of peson would take that tradition away because he was angry over the loss of a FOOTBALL game?  Really? It's a game.  Apparently, Updike has so completely attached his identity to how Alabama does in football, that he became unhinged. That is really sad.

To the credit of Alabama fans everywhere, I have heard an almost universal denunciation of this act. EVERYONE that I have heard from sees poisioning the trees at Toomer's Corner as being an act that takes the rivalry too far. That is a VERY good sign. I'm glad that reasonable people are speaking up.  There is now a lot of fear that some fans of Auburn will retaliate with a destructive act against a University of Alabama landmark.  Some are even professing concern that at some point, a human life could be taken over this.  I heard that concern expressed on the radio today on 740AM in Montgomery.

I love college football. Pro football, too.  I am a big LSU fan as well as a fan of Miss. St., my alma mater. I totally get the passion behind SEC football and that it is fun for a lot of people. Fanaticism is not relegated to Auburn/Alabama fans nor do most Auburn/Alabama fans or SEC fans that I know take their fanhood to anything resembling the level of Updike.  But, even though being a football fan can be fun, it can also be dangerous. While 99.9% of all fans would never think of doing anything close to what Updike did, there is still a danger that Updike's over-the-top actions can illuminate in all of us.

We can make sports too big of a deal.

I think that for the Christian, especially, we need to consider how much time, energy, passion, attention, joy, sorrow, grief, and excitement we give to our sports teams.  How much of our identity gets wrapped up in whether or not OUR team won the game?  It can quickly become an idol in our lives. I know people who have had relationships broken with other people because they are fans of rival teams. I know people who can't take their team losing and it puts them into a funk. But, the point is, in the vast (or even small) scheme of things, none of this really matters. Not really. It is fun and it is a great cultural touchpoint and activity where people can connect. I am one who believes that games are important. As a New Orleans Saints fan, I completely understand how important the Saints winning the Super Bowl was to New Orleans residents and people all over the Gulf Coast. But, if the Saints had not won the Super Bowl, my life would not be that different today.  Football is fun, but it is not an ultimate thing.

Most people get that. Harvey Updike lost touch with reality. But, idols (lesser things that we make ultimate things) cause us to start traveling down that road. It becomes an issue of degree. You might not name your children "Crimson" and "Bear" like Updike did in his devotion to Alabama, but you might care more about if your team wins emotionally than you do about other people or the things that matter to God. Many Christians would not dare miss a football game for their favorite team, but they think nothing of missing things related to the God that they claim to worship. Football idolatry is insidious because it seems innocent (and it can be). It seems like good fun (and it can be).  But, we all need to guard our hearts and make sure that lesser things do not take a preeminent place in our emotions and affections.

Maybe you would never do what Harvey Updike did. I hope not. But, maybe we all need to reel in the amount of money, time, passion, and emotion that we expend towards something that is just a game, after all. Maybe there are more ultimate things that we could give our time and attention to. I'm not saying to not watch football or root for your favorite team. I think that cultural festivities like this are important and that God created us to play games (it is a universal phenomenon that is not morally wrong). But, when it gets out of place, it becomes a problem.  It just seems like things are getting out of whack when it comes to sports. We should all remember what is most important.

4 Responses to When Football Becomes Idolatry: Dead Trees at Auburn’s Toomer’s Corner

  1. Thank you for this post and the insights you gave. As an Auburn alumni, I am saddened by the malicious act done against the college. However, another event I heard about this week has given me pause and I question my own heart. Please forgive my lack of exact details, but on the news they told of a professor at NYU who had posted on Twitter about the female journalist, Lara Logan, and the sexual assault against her by Egyptians during the protest. This professor was joking and making fun of the sexual assault against the journalist. Someone expressed their outrage over his comments and his reply was that it was funny if it didn’t happen to your side. In other words, injustice is not injustice if it happens to the other “team”. This comment has cut me deeply. Since when is injustice not an injustice? Since when is it okay to find humor in a sexual assault? Since when is injustice okay so long as it’s the other team affected? I’ve paused these past couple days in reflection. Where in my life am I not willing to call an injustice unjust? If an Auburn fan had committed a similar act against Alabama, would my heart break just the same? In this case, I can say that yes I would have called this unjust and denounced the act. But how often do I hear about an awful act, yet brush it aside because it happened on the other side of the world, across the nation, or even across town? Does my heart only break over injustice when it affects me or is too close to home? When I hear about brokenness, am I broken over it? There seems to be countless divisions within our country: conservative vs. liberal, Republican vs. Democrat, white vs. black, Auburn vs. Alabama (only to name a few). We seem to be all taking sides. Can we not stand together against injustice? I have intentionally avoided areas where I would hear divisive comments about the Toomer’s Corner trees and I am thankful to read in your post that so many Alabama fans have denounced the act. I know you have often spoken on the topic of injustice. It’s interesting that it took this professor’s comments in the light of the poisoning of the trees to make me pause and truly reflect on injustice. I hope that others will stop and reflect also.

  2. I agree, Catheryn. We usually seem most affected when something happens to us. If I understand the Nir Rosen situation, he was fired over his rude and insensitive comments, so justice was done in that situation. I am sick over what happened to that reporter, however.
    We need to work to make things right everywhere we are. That is how we can be a part of reflecting the truth of the Kingdom.