There were places in nineteenth century America where people lived in harmony. Harlan, Kentucky was not one of them.
--Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell, 2008
The Kentucky Louisville Final Four game tomorrow has escalated beyond just a big basketball game to something deeper and more unsettling. I've heard Mike and Mike on ESPN Radio this week express serious concerns that the opposing fans-not at all friends with each other--don't get out of hand and do something harmful to each other either before, during or after the monumental match-up.
There is no love between these two in-state rivals, and passions and emotions are going to be soaring for years regarding the outcome. Already the teams' coaches are having to downplay with the media the "hatred" that the two schools are feeling as this game, labeled the biggest in the history of the state, is about to unfold. It seems the coaches are trying to put out one of those out-of-control Califoria brush fires.
There are similar feuds among college sports teams that can be considered out of hand at times. Carolina and Duke in basketball, and Alabama and Auburn in football leap to mind. But this Kentucky Louisville basketball game has me slightly more concerned about an unseemly and possibly unpleasant outbreak than any game I remember.
My concerns stem from my recollection of reading a book last summer called "Outsiders" by Malcolm Gladwell. A chapter, titled "Legacy," dives deep into the history of Harlan, Kentucky, in the Appalachian Mountains on the southeastern border. The chapter traces the roots of its people to its founding in 1819 and even before then. With a population of some 10,000, it has been an especially troubled place historically, Gladwell points out.
Here's how he explains it:
Harlan was founded by eight immigrant families from the northern regions of the British Isles, who were never wealthy...It was a remote and strange place, unknown by the larger society around it, and it might well have remained so but for the fact that two of the town's founding families-the Howards and Turners-did not get along...These were not pleasant people. There were places in nineteenth century America where people lived in harmony. Harlan, Kentucky was not one of them.
The chapter reveals several stories about how each family continued to kill each other.
The famous Hatfield and McCoy fued on the West Virginia-Kentucky border was not far from Harlan, where several dozen people were killed in violence that stretched over 20 years, Gladwell wrote.
What was the cause of the Appalachian pattern? Over the years, many potential explanations have been examined and debated, and the consensus appears to be that that region was plagued by a particularly virulent strain of what sociologists call a "culture of honor." Cultures of honor tend to take root in highlands and other marginally fertile areas such as Sicily or the mountainous Basque regions of Spain. If you live on some rocky mountainside, the explanation goes, you can't farm. You probably raise goats or sheep and the kind of culture that grows up around being a herdsman is very different from the culture that grows up around growing crops. The survival of a farmer depends on the cooperation of other in the community.
But a herdsman is off by himself. Farmers also don't have to worry that their livelihood will be stolen in the night, because crops can't easily be stolen unless, of course, a thief wants to go to the trouble of harvesting an entire field on his own. But a herdsman does have to worry. He's under constant threat of ruin through the loss of his animals. So he has to be aggressive; he has to make it clear, through his words and deeds, that he is not weak. He has to be willing to fight in response to even the slightest challenge to his reputation-and that's what a culture of honor means. It's a world where a man's reputation is at the center of his livelihood and self-worth.
So why was Appalachia the way it was? It was because of where the original inhabitants of the region came from. The so-called American backcountry states-from the Pennsylvania border south and west through Virginia and West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina, and the northern end of Alabama and Georgia-were settled overwhelmingly by immigrants from one of the world's most ferocious cultures of honor. They were "Scotch-Irish"-that is, from the lowlands of Scotland, the northern countries of England, and Ulster in Northern Ireland....In the backcountry, violence wasn't for economic gain. It was personal. You fought over your honor.
So it is fair to make the leap that this culture of honor is at play in this Louisville and Kentucky match up in the New Orleans Superdome tomorrow? Is this culture of honor the underlying reason this game seems to be taken so seriously?
Maybe it's a stretch. But given how serious these fans are taking this game, as if their lives are at stake, it's plausible, maybe even probable.