The brisk Tennessee morning gave way to a southern September scorcher, but that was not the harbinger of things to come in Knoxville, TN on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 as Kenny Pickett and the vaunted Pittsburgh defense squared off against the once mighty Tennessee Vols - at least, the warm southern sun was not a reliable omen for what was to unfold on the football field. In the stands - more accurately, in the aging hallways surrounding the hot bleacher seats of the storied "Rocky Top" - there was a different conflict unfolding.
It's been a long time since someone's called me a "faggot" to my face. I have to admit, back in the late 2000's, the effect was somewhat less bracing than it is hearing some collared-shirt and wayfarers-wearing 19 year-old shout it out to me, without any apparent concern for the scorn he might attract from lookers-on - in the year 2021. What was even more bracing was having the same supposed "insult" hurled at me from a 30 year old, and again from a middle-aged man minutes later. For the record, not that it matters to me, I was in my white Pitt baseball cap, a sleeveless Pitt shirt, and gym shorts. I would've blended in nicely at the Southside LA Fitness. If they would shout those kind of slurs at me, I can't imagine what they would say (or do) to someone who fell more squarely into their profile.
Before I continue on what could devolve into a gratuitous dissertation about the "backwards south" and how there's a reason why the cannons that rest upon the lawns of Soldiers and Sailors War Memorial point south in an ever-vigilant battle-line, there's a great something that must be said for the Vols' fan base as a whole - best told through individual anecdotes. Summarized for brevity: it seemed to me that more than not, the Tennessee faithful were there for the same reason us Pitt fans spent seven and a half hours driving on the highway to watch our painfully average football squad take on another painfully average program: they love their team, and are excited to enjoy a Saturday full of college football. They were quick to cheer on their team, but also quick to congratulate Pitt's successes and offer a begrudged compliment whenever it was warranted. Many were outwardly friendly and generous, and the more introverted ones were perfectly polite. Southern hospitality is no myth.
After a delightful tailgate where an outgoing group of Tennessee alums offered us game of flip cup after game of flip cup, we shuffled into the stadium just in time to see Pitt open with a three and out, followed by a blocked punt and Vols touchdown. Feeling the surge of dread that, as a Pitt fan, I've learned to channel into equal parts false bravado and fatalistic humor, I turned around to face the raucous Tennessee crowd and held my hand up to my ear mouthing "I can't hear you" - goading whomever might witness the audacity of a slightly intoxicated bump-on-a-log like myself and take issue with it.
"Young man, do not be rude" a woman I'll call Mary said crossly. I looked directly beside me, to see a woman in her late middle age looking at me with eyes that peered over her mask, looking like I had just sat down for dinner without taking off my hat and proceeded to eat with my elbows on the table. Her arms crossed over her well-dressed front, and her feet were pointed directly at me. "You have every right to be here but please do not make trouble. There's kids here, you better not start anything." There were in fact kids standing right behind her, and more were in front of us. In an instant I snapped-to, and saw myself in my foreign blue and yellow colors, in a stadium that wasn't my own, displaying an ill-intentioned gesture that could only invite trouble. In her eyes, I might've been one beer away from yelling "fuck you" at the field incessantly and inviting a brawl in the stands. This made something percolate through the barrier the three or so beers I had in my system had helped erect. I felt genuine shame, and the bravado gave way to genuine apology.
After making nice with Mary, and internally resolving that I have to get a hold of myself, the apology turned to conversation, which spurred on the fatalistic humor us Pitt fans are known for. I found myself discrediting Mark Whipple's play calling ability, explaining what "Pitt-ing it" is, and praising the Vols' historic 1998 season - assuring Mary that it wasn't that long ago. She told me about how her nephews go to Pitt, and how she'd like to visit Heinz Field one day, possibly next year. I made a friend in the stands that day, and my experience at Rocky Top was definitely better for it.
As this conversation blossomed, I felt a tug on my arm. I turned and saw Pete (not his real name), a Pitt buddy of mine from my undergraduate days. He looked urgent, and concerned. He beckoned his hand, indicating that he was leaving our seats, and that I ought to come with. I assured Mary I'd be back, and we shuffled into the stadium hall. Once out of the sun, slightly confused, I asked what was the matter. Pete drew close, so that only me and the handful of friends I was there with could hear, "the guy sitting behind me had an Oath Keepers tattoo." he breathed darkly. We murmured amongst ourselves in as low tones as the hum of the outside crowd would permit. For anyone who doesn't know, according to Wikipedia, Oath Keepers is an American far-right anti-government militia organization composed of current and former military and police who claim to be defending the Constitution of the United States. Personally, I don't care for domestic terrorism one bit, and I would encourage anyone who is in the position to do so to thwart the Oath Keepers' operations to whatever extent possible. While I might've simply spotted the tattoo, been disgusted, and turned away back towards the game, Pete went one step further and said he did not want to be near the terrorist - and I can't say I blame him. I didn't get to say goodbye to Mary. Goodbye Mary.
We resolved to make our way to the Pitt section, and more importantly, shade. However, like a turbulent and foreboding river, the Tennessee student section was between us and our destination. Now, I have proudly worn a James Conner jersey in Beaver Stadium while a Penn State frat boy berated me with yells of "I hope his cancer comes back!" I've had countless WVU fans pass by me and mutter "eat shit Pitt" in that dim-witted swagger anyone must assume while accosting a total stranger about their college football allegiance. Never in my life, however, have I experienced such a large group of students uniformly shouting slurs that 9 years of living in Pittsburgh have conditioned me to believe were only used by those raised on the outskirts of modern sensibilities. "Faggot" seemed to be the favorite. It almost felt like someone had spread a rumor to the effect of "the best word for getting a rise out of these politically correct northerners is 'faggot.'"
Now, it must be pointed out, it's not like this sort of behavior is unheard of in Pittsburgh either. There's the occasional Steelers game where I hear someone call Mike Tomlin a slur, unprintable by me. Not to mention the many in Pittsburgh who hate Tomlin as our head coach but cannot, seemingly for the life of them, offer up one football-based reason for their animus. Despite these unsavory individuals (whom I am purposefully avoiding calling "outliers"), generally speaking, you can safely walk around Heinz field on any given Saturday or Sunday without any real fear of hearing something as disrespectful as what I heard at Neyland with shocking regularity. It definitely happens at Heinz, but at Neyland it was impossible to miss.
Let's be clear - this is not about being heckled or having thin skin. This isn't about how being called "faggot" made me feel about myself. This is about a deeply troubling repeated display of disrespect that is unacceptable in college football and society as a whole. It's just as bad if you take the college football aspect out of it. With the college football element present, it's a sad reminder of the shortsightedness with which people who use such slurs must live their everyday lives. It's football. Your team isn't doing well. So, you call a complete stranger a "faggotty ass mother fucker." Right.
Is this a southern thing, or a Tennessee thing, or a Knoxville thing? I want to say no. I want to think of Mary, the fans at our tailgate, the student I had a friendly chat with in line for the bathroom that went something like "I think I'd rather melt in the sun than freeze in the snow," or the many who did small gestures like letting me walk into the aisle first, or getting up to let me find my seat. I want to remember the countless (and I literally mean I lost count after a while) Tennessee fans who approached us after the game and cordially wished us good luck and safe travels. I want to remind myself of how unforgivably close-minded it is to try and fit 80,000 football fans into one neat and tidy box labeled "the south is irredeemably bigoted, and as a northerner, it feels both easy and satisfying to lump them all together into one bunch and call it a day."
However, I can't answer this question because I don't know the answer. I can't say "yes." for many reasons. But, I can't say "no." I've seen people sustain a substantial amount of blowback for using racial and homophobic slurs at Heinz field. Who spoke up at Neyland? Who told one of their own that they were out of line and should stand down. Who stepped forward apologized on behalf of their fanbase in a desperate attempt to make sure we Pitt fans knew that these homophobic slurs were not to be taken to represent Tennessee as a school and community? Would Mary have said anything? I want to believe that she would've said something - that someone who would sternly accost a young man for making a goading gesture at a crowd would be positively indignant at the prospect of a young man calling a group of human beings "fucking faggotty cock suckers." But I'm not sure.
I'm not sure that a school which still has Confederate Civil War memorials on campus is doing everything it can to foster a more accepting community. I'm not sure that a school who's mascot celebrates those who, in part, volunteered for service to fight for a group of states who sought to keep black people enslaved in the south are aware of or especially care much about the culture present at their football games. At what point do you stop with the "bad apple" rhetoric in favor of "diamond in the rough" rhetoric, suggesting those who were hospitable are themselves the anomalies? That might be going too far. However, I don't want to know what my experience would have been like if I looked like anything other your average pasty white dude. I'm white, male, straight, upper-middle class - I am the owner of an absurdly high amount of unearned social privilege just by the nature of my being. And they treated me like that. Me. As I write this now, I think of my friends I was there with. We looked pretty vanilla, in every sense of the word. Is that why some Vols fans even bothered to be polite to us? Is Knoxville hospitality only reserved for certain people?
Pitt won, 41-34. In retrospect, it wasn't that close of a game. Even after going down 0-10, it never felt like there was much to worry about. Tennessee is a very sloppy team, and seemed to hope that the shock and awe of a loud crowd and a semi-uptempo offense would be a sustainable method for winning a football game. However, it was quickly apparent that neither Milton nor Hooker could reliably hit receivers on anything more than a 10 yard pass. It also seemed that the attempt at an uptempo offense gassed the Tennessee O-Line rather than tiring the deep Panthers D-Line. Furthermore, the first time the Panthers defense had the Vols offense in front of them with a reasonable amount of field to work with, they made the stop. From there, it was a matter of Whipple giving his 5th year QB Kenny Pickett the latitude he needed to pick apart a Tennessee secondary that finished at the bottom of the league last season. The defense put up five sacks, two fumbles, an interception, and two fourth down conversions on the board. For anyone who thought differently, SEC offensive players do not have protective forcefields surrounding them. Especially not the quarterbacks.
The Panthers will host Tennessee next year at Heinz field. If revenge is in order, in addition to the decisive victory which more than covered the spread, the best we can do is leave this series 2-0 (4-0 all time) and let that and that alone be our retaliation against the Volunteer fanbase. Let's pack Heinz field, do the same old cheers, and enjoy college football the way it's supposed to be enjoyed - together.