What next? What will happen, now that the sport of football at the University of Alabama at Birmingham is as dead as Julius Caesar?
Before addressing those questions, some clarification is in order: I am not asking about the respective fates of the players who committed themselves to UAB Football, and were promised in return the opportunity to earn a college degree.
I am not asking about the impact on student life and the overall college experience at the university that is the lifeblood of Alabama’s largest city, or on the other intercollegiate sports in which UAB teams compete (excluding the bowling and rifle teams, which were deep-sixed along with the football program).
I am not asking about internal politics at UAB that may or may not have contributed to the decision of its president, Ray Watts, to pull the plug on football and thus make himself the most unpopular person in Birmingham, at least for the foreseeable future.
I am not asking about the potential outcomes of the rash of conspiracy theories — most of them, unfortunately, with at least a reasonable degree of plausibility — about the future of undergraduate academics and other operational matters at UAB, which in the eyes of many has never been anything but a cog in the endless, invisible machinations of a University of Alabama Board of Trustees whose only collective interest is in burnishing the predominance of the UA System’s Tuscaloosa campus.
I am not even asking why it is that so many waited so late — too late, as it turns out — to come to the aid of UAB Football, which languished for more than 20 years with inadequate support from students, alumni, local corporations, elected leaders and the community at large (including this citizen, who attended all of one UAB game in the program’s history, a dozen or more years ago as a work obligation; I can’t even tell you who the Blazers played, am only passably confident in saying that I’m pretty sure they won the game).
It’s not that these questions are not worth answering. It’s not that they do not intrigue me, nor that I do not have some sense of what the answers might be. But my interest is in what’s next for Birmingham, and what happens to all of the energy that has been belatedly expended over the past few weeks in a nonetheless admirable effort — via social media, as well as in appearances at Birmingham City Hall and public protests at UAB’s administrative offices — to reverse a decision that was months, if not years, in the making.
That energy was impressive — enough so even to rouse the Birmingham City Council to a brief pretense of interest in the public good, and to prompt two of its members to attempt — individually, of course — to jump in front of the growing parade of support. One can rightly point out that “saving” a college football team is hardly on par with, say, the Civil Rights Movement, but I submit that in its own way, that energy was very much in keeping with Birmingham’s history as a place where ordinary citizens are willing to take to the streets to demonstrate their desire to make a difference, to shape the city in which they live and help define its destiny. That energy was real.
Among the points that various of the active protesters of the UAB decision have made is that the protests were “about more than football.” I believe that this is true in several ways, the most important of which is the symbolism that, to my eyes, was implicit in the protests.
To get at what I mean by this, let’s look back at another symbolic event in Birmingham’s recent history, the opening of Railroad Park. There were “good things” going on in Birmingham for years before the park’s arrival in the fall of 2010, but there was no real sense of connection between those things, no focal point at which the steps of progress in our city converged. Railroad Park provided that focal point, and if you’re looking for a date certain on which a broadly shared sense of civic identity and civic momentum — of being proud of Birmingham — began to assert itself, you need look no farther than that September evening.
Of course, Railroad Park has solved none of the underlying and overarching issues that have bedeviled Birmingham for decades, and which plague us still. But the symbolism of Railroad Park, and the very real energy that has grown from it, has made us believe that we can solve those issues. It has made us believe that Birmingham can be great.
Just as Railroad Park is a symbol of what Birmingham wants to be, the demise — or, perhaps more correctly, the execution — of UAB Football is a symbol of what we do not want for our city. It is a reminder, perhaps none too soon, that making Birmingham great is not going to be easy, and that the road to greatness is littered with disappointment and fraught with traps and perils. We’re not going to get everything we want, and most of what we do get — if, in fact, real greatness is what we want — we’re going to have to be willing to work for, and to start working for right now, before it’s too late.
In the rest of Alabama — including the University of Alabama Board of Trustees — the bias against Birmingham is older than our city itself. Montgomery-based power brokers tried to, and nearly succeeded in, preventing the very founding of the city. Among the key objectives in the drafting and adoption of the Constitution of 1901 was that of hamstringing Birmingham’s ability to govern itself, to chart its own course.
And yet, Birmingham grew. It grew into a city that, for all of its faults and all of its missteps and all of its dissension and division, became a beacon for the hope of progress. And so it remains, as does the question of whether its people will ever come together to take the steps necessary to claim its birthright.
So what’s next? What happens now? Perhaps the failure to save football at UAB will provide the foundation for building on our undeniable momentum, for appreciating the good things we have and ensuring that we do not lose them — and for achieving unprecedented and lasting success in other areas of our civic life.
I surely hope so. It would be a shame to let all of this energy go to waste.