Big Trouble In Little Tigertown?
Southern towns like Clemson, SC, have a difficult past when it comes to race. Does college football improve these issues or make them worse?
After yelling something I hadn’t quite heard, a well-built 6’8” Black man was making a beeline towards me from across the Nike outlet store.
“How about them Tigers, baby?!” he repeated excitedly. I looked down at the orange paw print on my t-shirt. “Oh right! Hell of a season so far,” I replied.
We talked for a little while, and he told me that he had played at Clemson. Then in the NFL, for the Minnesota Vikings, before being dismissed for marijuana use. I don’t remember his name, but I Googled him later and everything checked out.
Now, he was working here. Selling gear that he had once been paid to wear on Sundays. He insisted on putting through the shoes I was buying with a “staff discount”. They rung up at about $11. “Anything for a Tiger,” he said with a wink.
Clemson, South Carolina, is an enigma.
A city with a population of around 18,000 and a stadium that sits 85,000.
A university that rose from humble beginnings as an agricultural college to the 74th highest-ranked university in America. With an endowment of $1 billion.
A football powerhouse that’s miles from…well, just about anything.
The title of this post was funnier when I thought the movie was called Big Trouble In Little Chinatown. Which, now I come to think of it, wouldn’t make much sense.
On the About page of this project, I say that “for the longest time, my idea of America was something like Main Street USA: manicured, perfect, and overly optimistic.” As it turns out, that’s not too different to downtown Clemson.
Aside from plenty of outdoor pursuits there isn’t a ton to do in Clemson, other than consume…the idea of Clemson. Three of the top six things to do in the city on TripAdvisor are University sports venues. Remember all those jokes from the ‘90s about a Starbucks on every corner? Imagine that but with souvenir stores.
If you’re coming here, orange better be your colour.
Referring to the same t-shirt I was wearing in the outlet store, a former colleague of mine once called Clemson “a backwards racist town.” Weird flex to go so hard after somewhere I had emblazoned on my chest, but ok.
My (white) ex-colleague’s hostility towards the town, which I don’t think he had ever actually visited, was out of left field but not exactly unprecedented. Nor are such comments exclusive to Clemson – I’ll wait while you try to find a college town in the American South that doesn’t have its share of racial issues.
Still, racism was something I’d never encountered while I was in town. Then again, as a straight white male with an “adorable accent” (their words, not mine), why would I have?
My gut instinct was to pivot this article away from racism and write about the Disneyfication of small-town America instead, because that would be less…scary. The fact that I can not notice racism, and choose to talk about other things, is an issue is an example of my privilege.
But folks, it’s time for me to confront some of that privilege.
Clemson has no shortage of racial tension. For example, a student left the university (note: there’s no confirmation he was expelled) in 2020 after making racist posts on social media. An assistant football coach who used the N word in 2017, albeit repeating something said by a player, remains on staff to this day.
The use of John C. Calhoun’s moniker, a former Vice President of the USA who once declared slavery a “positive good”, has tapered off on campus…but you can still enjoy a steak at the upmarket Calhoun Corner on the outskirts of town.
Clemson’s population is around 80% white. Its student population is 76% white, and 6% identify as Black. In 2021, just under 50%* of its football team is non-white (Black, Hispanic, Samoan etc.).
* This figure is a rough estimate. Without surveying all 120+ players, especially mixed-race players, it’s hard to know exactly how they would identify.
There are those who will find it troubling that the primary export of Tigertown – Clemson football – is disproportionately built on the backs of non-white young men. Who aren’t, with the exception of possible endorsement deals, being paid.
This is, after all, a University that’s built on a former plantation.
But for all of that discomfort, there’s a great deal of potential here too.
In 2020, then Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence and other players laid out a “five-point plan of actionable steps to create real change” and fight racial injustice. That same year, current QB D.J. Uiagalelei expressed his disappointment at confederate flags flying in downtown Clemson.
Athletes, including those at the collegiate level, are no longer afraid to speak out about issues like racism and civil rights. This much we know. And, while there will always be those who prefer that they “shut up and dribble”, these student athletes have a platform to make their voices heard. If people are willing to listen.
Samantha Connell put out a great piece for The Tiger in 2021, entitled Clemson’s hypocritical approach to racism. She writes that:
“Clemson is not listening. They preach a song of equality, diversity and inclusion, but when the time comes to support those notes, they somehow forget how to sing. Clemson’s hypocrisy sweeps through the grass on our (former plantation) campus, spills from the windows of our numerous buildings named after racists and intoxicates the students that believed their university would continue to denounce racism and hate speech.”
Connell also notes that the college sold “Unity” t-shirts in advance of peaceful protests back in 2020. Apparently, “portions of those proceeds will funnel back into the Clemson community or an organisation chosen by the student-athletes”, but you could argue that their sale represented an attempt to sanitise and Disneyfy protests to make them more palatable for the campus. Go Tigers!
Clemson University’s most recognisable building is the historic Tillman Hall, opened in 1893 and named for pro-slavery politician Ben Tillman. In June of 2020, the Clemson Board of Trustees passed a motion to petition the South Carolina State legislature to change the name of Tillman Hall.
As of 2021, its name remains the same.
In 2018, I was in town to see Clemson play Louisville. The Tigers whupped the Cardinals 77-16. The morning I left I grabbed a dozen wings – half tossed in Pete’s Pimp Sauce, half Big Bear’s Dank Hot Teriyaki – at Backstreets Pub & Grill.
The wings were solid and did a great job of offsetting the previous night’s overindulgence, celebrating a decisive Tiger victory. Tin signs from English and Irish brewing companies transported me back home for a hot minute.
Backstreets breaks with tradition by responding to its haters – the bar has a section on their website explaining its large volume of one star reviews on Google and TripAdvisor. The reason for all of that negativity?
They dared to put up a sign saying NO CONCEALED WEAPONS ALLOWED.
A reminder that going against the grain of any long-held belief, habit, or tradition can be tricky (and sometimes painful) in a conservative region. Whatever it might be, and even if it seems wildly out of date to some residents.
In an old standup routine, Jerry Seinfeld once quipped that “loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify, because the players are always changing. You're actually rooting for the clothes when you get right down to it.”
College sports are a little different, in that you’re not just rooting for a team but something you’re a part of. You’re rooting for yourself, and the friends you make there, to succeed. You’re rooting because you want to be proud of where you go to school even if, ultimately, it’s somewhere you may have picked at random.
I want to believe that Clemson understands that.
On the face of it, me – a lanky pale Brit – and my burly new friend at the Nike store didn’t have much in common. Yet there we were, laughing it up in a Florida outlet mall, brought together by something as simple as a Tiger Paw.
We could always use a few more things to bring us together. College football might not be the be all and end all of that, but it can be a place to start.
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