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Matthew Stokes: Let’s try optimism

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

This week marks the beginning of SEC Media Days, the unofficial start of the college football season in the Deep South, just as Thanksgiving is sort of the unofficial start to the holiday season.  Fall camp will start in a few more weeks, and then – boom! Kickoff time. It really is the most wonderful time of the year. One of the more interesting turns in football fandom during the last several years is the emphasis on the process, made famous by Alabama coach Nick Saban but also increasingly emphasized by any number of coaches. Despite the noise of social media and talk radio, the weekly process of improvement has made fandom more bearable and, dare I say, fun.

Admittedly there is a disconnect between the intensity of fandom in our state and much of our day to day existence in a state that often ranks near the bottom of many national rankings.  Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist John Archibald took a stab at this disparity in one of his first columns after a much deserved sabbatical.  It’s a familiar argument anywhere in the South, but one exacerbated by the high quality (and high pay) of our state’s college football programs.  It boils down to this: if our state can conjure up the resources to pay Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn millions of dollars, then surely we can find a way to improve education, infrastructure, and any other number of issues.

In the first sense, I can’t help but agree with Archibald.  If fans took but a small portion of the money spent on game tickets, tailgate food, and team merchandise and put it back into tutors for their kids, local education foundations, and various nonprofits, the effect would be noticeable. It’s not unreasonable to think that collectively, we do not put enough emphasis on the important things that can improve our communities and our state.

Yet Archibald sounds an old note as he disparages Alabamians’ anti-abortion convictions, and peddles the faulty notion that Saban and Malzahn have a high salary at the expense of everyone else.  The reality, of course, is that if athletics in Tuscaloosa and Auburn were consistently mediocre, the economic impact on both communities would be markedly negative. Moreover, Archibald ignores several salient developments over the last few years.

The truth is that while Alabama’s median income remains low, the state legislature recently took steps to dramatically improve teacher pay. The legislature took a very courageous step in the last session when it passed the state’s new literacy bill.  If the success of our neighrbors in Mississippi is any indication, this should bring about serious improvement for our state’s students. Archibald and his media colleagues have often criticized other reform measures such as the Alabama Accountability Act, but school choice and transparents in school quality will only serve the state over the long run.

Archibald’s fatal conceit lies in two areas.  First, he errs in suggesting that the state government can fix economic disparity. This can be accomplished in a sense, but only to the extent that the state creates the conditions for economic growth. If the state does that, then its most vulnerable citizens have a chance at prosperity.  Without it, it stands to reason that our underserved neighbors will remain just that. The state legislature has spent considerable energy to that end, including the recent gas tax.

In the second case, Archibald fails to recognize that progress is a process. To borrow from another great Alabama coach, Gene Stallings, we should not confuse activity with accomplishment. To carry on the football metaphor, the progress necessary to pull people out of poverty and restore communities bears more resemblance to the old-school offenses of Stallings and Pat Dye; slow, consistent, and determined.  We do not cure poverty by legislative fiat alone.

Most importantly, we do not cure poverty and close the gap between rich and poor by despair. While Archibald is well-meaning in his critique, his pessimism does not echo the experience of most Alabamians. Writers are not politicians, and we’re all allowed a certain license that does not play well on the campaign trail. Still even in honest writing, there must be a sense of optimism that shines through for readers. Those readers are citizens who vote and engage the political process in other ways.  

No one should argue that optimism ought to be blind. Yet anyone who has ever worked towards a goal knows that even real and obvious frustration must take a back seat to the task at hand.  If Alabama is to experience progress, what good comes from stewing resentment towards the wealthy, even if it is the head football coach of your hated rival? Instead, let us focus hard on how we might improve specific problems within our state.  

Our state has a tragic past and an imperfect culture. No serious person denies this. The path to Alabama’s prosperity does not lie in guilt, or second-guessing every legislative decision in hopes of finding a racist skeleton in every closet. The better play is to appeal to all our better natures, and unite Alabamians in optimism as pursue quality outcomes for our friends and neighbors.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.

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