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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Football in the South. Yes it is different than yankee football.

To Keep Their Prime Seats, Fraternities Embrace an Old-Fashioned Rite; Khakis and Bourbon


Each Sunday, Peyton Alsobrook, a 19-year-old freshman at Auburn University, gets together with his Alpha Tau Omega fraternity brothers to compare notes on the women they take on dates to Saturday football games.

Those who seem bored are eliminated from further consideration, he says, along with any who might talk too much during a close game "because they're from up North or something." As the all-important Alabama game approaches, Mr. Alsobrook says he's narrowed his list of potential dates to four. The winner, he says, will get a coveted ticket to the big game and, beyond that, special treatment that might include candy or even "actual flowers."

As the Southeastern Conference solidifies its place as the most prestigious in college football—it has produced the last three national champions—the profile of its games and the growing scarcity of tickets have taken a toll on some of the most genteel (some might say antiquated) traditions of college football in the deep South. The University of Mississippi has already banned the waving of confederate flags, replaced a mascot that reminds some of a plantation owner and this week told its marching band to stop playing a song that ends with the words "the South will rise again."

This season, another old Southern football tradition has found itself in the crosshairs. Fraternities, which have long been given some of the best seats in the stadium at schools like Auburn, are facing the prospect of losing the privilege. To avoid this, they're taking a page from their fathers and grandfathers before them: Putting on coats and ties and showing up with a date.

The pressure is coming from alumni and other fans who think these tickets aren't being used, or who don't like the way the fraternity members behave. At Alabama last season, where season tickets cost up to $3,250 and the waiting list can take years, alumni were incensed by the empty seats in the student section, even at nationally televised games. At last year's Kentucky game, the school says nearly 30% of the 15,000 student tickets weren't used.

After Auburn's opening home game, Clinton Patterson, a computer-engineering graduate student, complained in a letter to the editor of the Auburn Plainsman that the "frat guys" in the student section "appear to make up the most obnoxiously vocal, occasionally violent and openly inconsiderate part of the student section." He went on to describe how "belligerently drunk" fraternity brothers cursed at their own team and engaged in a pushing match.

These complaints have prompted some schools to put students on notice. Alabama has started scanning student ID cards at the gates and preventing students from buying tickets in the future if they don't use, transfer or donate their seats at least three times a season. Auburn's athletic department recently devised a system in which student organizations, including fraternities, receive "spirit points" for attendance and good behavior, and have to meet quotas to keep their blocks of rows in the student section.

For the fraternities who've long held some of the best seats, and who continue to use this privilege to recruit new members, the best way to ensure that the seats are occupied, and that people at least try to mind their manners, is to encourage their members to scare up dates.

Some fraternities at Auburn say they are "strongly encouraging" their pledges to bring at least one female with them to every game. Short of inviting an entire sorority to sit in the section (which is rumored to have happened on occasion) they say it's the simplest solution.

But for modern frat guys who hail from "generation text," the act of taking a date to a football game doesn't come as naturally as it might have to their fathers.

According to several sophomore members of Auburn's Sigma Nu chapter, the best quality to look for in a date is that she makes a good "babysitter" (read: she will take care of you if you get too drunk). Others say the best dates won't mind doubling as bourbon-transportation vehicles. (Taping a flask to a date's leg is, by many accounts, another age-old Southern football tradition.)

Sam Poteat, a senior in Alpha Gamma Rho who says he usually tries to lock down a date before Wednesday, believes "there are two kinds of girls who don't know about football—the ones who want to learn, and the ones who don't."

Mr. Poteat, a finance major, prefers the former, he says, because it at least gives him something to talk about. Of course, too much football knowledge isn't always a great thing: At a game several years ago, he says, his date surprised him by calling out plays, predicting which way the ball would go and explaining why certain penalties were being called. "It was emasculating," Mr. Poteat recalls. "At a certain point I was asking her, 'What happened there?' "

Women who would be dates say they have their own calculus. Men who might ignore them, abandon them after the game or fail to hug them at touchdowns (another tradition) are to be avoided. Frat guys who get so drunk that they can't make it to the game, pass out during the game or are tossed out by security, can be blacklisted. But Auburn senior Allison DeBerard, who says she's spent entire summers stocking up on cute orange dresses, says that because fraternities control the prime seating and throw the best tailgate parties, many women who love football games have no choice to put up with some less-than-gentlemanlike behavior from their dates. "It happens," she says.

No matter what happens to the tradition, many Southern students, both men and women, say the tradition is worth maintaining. It's a relic of an era in the South when students dressed more formally and football games were accompanied by parties with fine china.

Rebekah Blakeslee, a lawyer in Jackson, Miss., who attended Mississippi, says that for her, the tradition dates back to times of war, when students wore their finest to football games to honor their classmates who were on the battlefield. At the school's recent game against Auburn, she stood in the visitors section in an elegant red coat and gold-hoop earrings while teetering on high-heeled black boots. "My feet are killing me and I hear the chuckles in the back, but I'm gonna stick it out," Ms. Blakeslee said.

"It's a tradition of Southern chivalry," said Mr. Poteat, the finance major. "It's what's always been done. We're trying to build better men."

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