Baton Rouge, Louisiana
NICK SABIN, THE HANGMAN’S NOOSE, AND LOUISIANA LAW
Whoever thought that Alabama football Coach Nick Sabin would be in the eye of a Louisiana political storm involving a new state public intimidation law? Last Friday night on a parking lot beside the LSU campus, the coach of the team ranked number one in the country was hung in effigy, and then had a dummy made up to look like him burned at a bonfire. That’s just part of football mania, right? But under a new law in Louisiana, are the hundreds of students and onlookers who participated guilty of a hate crime?
Sabin is a controversial figure who, according to LSU diehards, has earned their wrath by his betrayal of leaving LSU for arch-rival Alabama. But it’s not as simple as some LSU fans make it out to be. After coaching the 2003 LSU team to a national championship, Sabin packed his bags and moved on to the professional ranks to coach the Miami Dolphins. He did so for a considerable increase in salary, and most LSU fans held no animosity and wished him well.
But after three years with only moderate success in the pro ranks, Sabin opted out and looked over the field to return to college football. By then, LSU was enamored with their new head coach, Les Miles, who would lead the Tigers to another national championship in 2007. Alabama, however, with a rich history of football success, had been down in the doldrums in recent years. They were looking for a proven winner, and rich alumni opened up their checkbooks to make Sabin the highest offer in college football history.
Sabin accepted the Alabama head coaching position, and LSU fans screamed “betrayal.” Little concern that LSU had a long-term contract with its present coach. The fans didn’t begrudge Sabin’s right to come back to the college ranks, but were incensed that he would coach an arch-rival like the Crimson Tide. So tension had been building for the past two years as LSU fans anticipated the return of Sabin, as the opposing coach, to Tiger Stadium.
Just how successful has Sabin been at Alabama? Well right now his team is ranked number one in the country, and is on its way to play for the Southeast conference championship in Atlanta on December 6. And that’s not his only success. Last year at this time, there were some 9000 applications on file by new prospective students who wanted to come Alabama. This year, over 20,000 students have applied. Alabama president Dr. Robert Witt attributes virtually all the increase to Sabin’s success on the football field.
A few months ago, Sabin was on the cover of Forbes magazine. The publication normally prints 92,000 copies to distribute nationwide. The magazine sold out in less than a week, and a new run of over 100,000 copies was on the newsstands shortly thereafter. “Running a successful football program, and running a successful business have a number of similarities,” said a Forbes representative.
All of Sabin’s success does not set well with a number LSU fans. Prior to last Saturday’s LSU — Alabama matchup, billboards sprung up around Baton Rouge announcing a Friday night bonfire with a picture of Sabin wearing an Alabama sweater standing in flames. When Friday night arrived, a large crowd of fans, many intoxicated, hollered “burn, Sabin, burn.” Mike the Tiger paraded around the bonfire and lit up the Sabin dummy. A scarecrow was hanging by a noose with a cutout picture of Sabin for a face, donned in an Alabama hat with a set of headphones and a T-shirt that read “Got Nick?”
The chants from the crowd were:
“Burn, Sabin, burn.”
“Burn him up.”
“Burn this man.”
“Fire him up.”
“But look”, you say. “That’s just all part of the enthusiasm and intensity of college football. We often have bonfires, and hang the opposing coach and team in effigy. All we’re doing is having a little fun trying to intimidate our opponents.” But both fans and students who were at the pep rally, as well as LSU administrators, might want to take a gander at a new Louisiana law that took effect August 15th. It is now a crime for anyone to place a hangman’s noose, or an image of one, on another person’s property or on public property with “the intent to intimidate.” Conviction could bring fines of up to $5000 and one year in prison.
It would seem that the required legal components were in place here. A hangman’s noose was involved, the hanging and burning took place on public property, and can anyone argue that there was no intention “to intimidate” the coach and the Alabama fans? And let’s add this to the mix. What if the arch-rival had been Mississippi State with head football Coach Sylvester Croom? He happens to be an African-American. What would the reaction have been if he had been hung in effigy and burned on the LSU campus?
The new Louisiana law was introduced by Lafayette state representative Ricky Hardy, passed unanimously by the legislature, and was signed into law by Gov. Jindal I talked at length with Hardy this week. He told me there was absolutely no doubt in his mind that the hanging in effigy of Nick Sabin was to intimidate, and under Louisiana law, those who participated were guilty of a hate crime. In fact, he pointed out that New Orleans state representative Charmaine Marchand tried to amend his legislation by exempting from the hate crime definition any hanging in effigy related to a football game. Her efforts were unsuccessful.
Hardy told me: “It’s much more than just a football game rally. If the hate doesn’t come from the mind, it comes from the heart. There is absolutely no place in our society for hanging anyone in effigy.”
On the other side of the coin, a legitimate question could and should be posed as to why any rancorous group, at a football rally or where ever, and waving images of a noose-or having actual nooses- in the middle of a public park, are any less deserving of First Amendment protection than thousands of Ku Klux Klan members or black panthers staging a rally on Main Street. Should a town or city have to be able to differentiate between a protest rally and a mob hell-bent on intimidation? And should “intimidation” be an ambiguous qualifier for determining which representations of a noose count as free speech and which count as a hate crime?
This whole debate obviously did not “intimidate” Nick Sabin. The Crimson Tide beat LSU in overtime, and maintained their national number one ranking. And as for the outrage of LSU fans, many of them would put their animosity aside and gladly taking Sabin back to LSU if he were available. After all, winning does have a way of healing old wounds.
“If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, then we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it. That’s all it takes to get people to win football games.”
Paul “Bear” Bryant
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s weekly column appears in a number of newspapers and websites throughout the State of Louisiana. You can read Jim’s Blog, and take his weekly poll, plus read his columns going back to the fall of 2002 by going to his own website at http://www.jimbrownla.com.
Jim also has a new book out on his views of Louisiana. You can read about it and order it by going to www.jimbrownla.com. .
Jim’s radio show on WRNO (995 fm) from New Orleans can be heard each Sunday, from 11:00 am until 1:00 pm.