No doubt the Joe Burrow Phenomenon has been good for The Plains, Athens, Athens County and southeast Ohio.
It’s been good for me, too, with LSU’s victory over Clemson in the national college championship Monday night sealing a first-place finish for your favorite local newspaper editor in his extended family’s college bowl pool (winnings in the mid three figures!).
But aside from that, since Burrow’s ascendance this season into the all-time annals of college football stardom, a flood of media attention has come our way. Over the past two months, one could hardly walk 20 feet in The Plains or Athens without stumbling over an out-of-town reporter here to reveal this singular place where Joe Burrow grew up and excelled in football. Unfortunately, many of them (but not all) have exploited this opportunity to parachute into our community, then after spending a few hours here, maybe a day or two, let loose the literary talents that they’ve suppressed all those years since creative writing class in college.
Exhibit A is a lengthy article that appeared Sunday, Jan. 12, in “Saturday Down South,” a Florida-based website that covers Southeast Conference (SEC) football. The 4,000-plus-word article covers the writer’s visit to Athens County the weekend of Dec. 28-29. The piece does make an impassioned case for acknowledging “forgotten” blighted communities in our country, with a focus on The Plains and Athens. However, to digest that point, you’ve got to chew through an awful lot of roughage (i.e., over-simplifications, mischaracterizations, over-writing and poorly researched conclusions).
In my view, the Saturday Down South contributor would have served his purpose better by sticking with the story – interviews, facts and observations not customized to shoehorn into a preconceived storyline. And he would have had a good story, since his lengthy piece does contain some insightful anecdotes and quotes from local folks, as well as giving credit to local son Joe Burrow for bringing attention to the issues of hunger and poverty in our region.
Toward the end of his epic, the writer notes that ideological warfare among Americans has distracted them from “the real, visceral problems of America. Hunger. Poverty. People don’t have adequate food and shelter."
It's a message that needs to be delivered, and thanks to Burrow has been pronounced exhaustively since his celebrated Heisman Trophy acceptance speech of Dec. 14. He took the time to draw attention to hunger and poverty in Athens County and southeast Ohio. That in turn led to Athens resident Will Drabold launching a massively successful Facebook fundraiser in Burrow’s name – $505,000 plus as of earlier this week – for the Athens County Food Pantry.
The Saturday Down South piece was just one of numerous other articles and broadcast stories in national and regional outlets making the same point in recent weeks. A New York Timespiece that appeared Monday, Jan. 13, covered the same story – headlined “As Joe Burrow Spoke of Hunger, His Hometown Felt the Lift” – without all of the scene-setting histrionics of the Saturday Down South piece. The ESPN College Gameday video segment that appeared Monday told the same story, though perhaps went overboard in displaying old, abandoned shacks as if they’re typical housing stock here in Athens County.
FOLLOWING ARE SOME of the more risible lines from the Saturday Down South article, with my commentary in italics:
• The author’s description of driving on Ohio Rt. 682/Plains Road from Athens to The Plains: “…There is a sadness I feel as I view the derelict mobile homes, roofs flaking or unsteady, dotting the roadside. There is a melancholy in the aging mom-and-pops, perhaps that once flourished but are now hanging on by a thread…’” After further descriptions of poverty – trailers, junk cars and what-not – he writes, “These striking frames tell a story of disconsolateness that continues to permeate throughout the region. It’s the part of Ohio that quietly aches.” This seems patronizing to me, coming from a guy who’s based in Alabama, a state that has nearly 20 counties poorer than the statistically poorest county in Ohio, Athens. The town of Cordova, in the same Birmingham suburban county where the writer is located, has a median household income of $22,901, far lower than Athens County’s $37,191. While this isn’t a poverty competition, folks who live in the Deep South don’t have to drive several hundred miles north in order to be shocked by examples of grinding poverty.
• After reviewing the many ways that Athens Countians have been paying tribute to LSU and Joe Burrow, the Saturday Down South writer notes, “In many ways, this nascent fanaticism serves as a pleasant distraction from the pangs of a hardscrabble life.” Consider the hypocrisy of someone writing for an SEC-focused publication – located in a football-obsessed region whose states fill the bottom rank of any number of poverty statistics – referring to football fans in southeast Ohio as “fanatics” whose only joy is being distracted by men throwing a ball around a field.
• “It’s safe to say that Burrow is the biggest thing that’s happened to the area in quite some time, possibly ever… Folks might even recall the time Governor Kasich visited on a campaign stop.” What about the time Floyd the Barber forgot to wear his suspenders?! Sorry… Seriously, Joe Burrow’s positive celebrity is definitely huge for our region, and it’s difficult to think of anything else rivaling it. However, JFK and LBJ and MLK’s visits to Athens and Ohio University were major events, as were the more recent campaign stops by Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. (Most folks probably don’t recallthe John Kasich visit to Athens. I don’t, and I edit the newspaper.)
• “Like the remaining prisoners at Shawshank after Andy Dufresne makes his quiet escape, the Athens locals giddily tell Joe Burrow stories and are happy to roll out a stat or two.” In other words, we poor schmucks who Joe Burrow left behind in Athens County are like the imprisoned felons who couldn’t escape from Shawshank prison in that film and novel.
• “Just a few miles away from The Plains stands Ohio University in downtown Athens, a public institution framed by several handsome brick buildings that squat on a hill, the base of which empties into the slow-moving Hocking River.” The author obviously spent some quality time in uptown Athens in order to obtain that gloriously reductive takeaway on the 19,000-enrollment public university that dominates the uptown (not downtown!) Athens area, with many dozens of historic buildings. But his point about “two worlds” is valid, albeit painfully obvious to those who live here: A substantial divide does exist between college-town Athens and the rural poverty that’s common outside of town and throughout the region. Fortunately, OU has a long record of trying to help the blighted regional economy, through its Innovation Center, Voinovich School and various other public-private partnerships.
• “Athens County may be the place where Greek-columned scholasticism collides with blue-collar Appalachia, but one has to wonder how much interaction between the two entities is there, truly? This is not to say that the college is indifferent to the poverty that encircles it, just… different.” Those are some good questions, though if you don’t include OU students, most of whom, being college students, live in their own bubble, people in Athens County can’t avoid being exposed to others from different economic and cultural backgrounds, if not at work, then in their neighborhoods, schools, churches, stores and public events. To what degree they’re actually “interacting” is another question entirely.
• “This reliance (on Ohio University) is more greatly pronounced now that the region can no longer hang its hat on certain resources for survival, and one cannot understate the crippling effect dried-up industry has had on the local economy. Throughout the years, coal was a major contributor to southeast Ohio… but at some point, coal production began to wane and companies ran out of places to dig. Brick-making was another industry that provided a major shot in the arm, but that trade also made its exodus some years ago.” “Can no longer…,”“Throughout the years,” “At some point…” “Some years ago…” A basic writer’s trick when you don’t have facts and are too lazy or don’t have time to find them is to be as vague as possible. The author of this article obviously had no idea when these industries left the area. So any narrative that echoes Springsteenian clichés about once-booming areas that have gone to seed, when applied to Athens County, misses the point that like much of Appalachia, our area has been economically depressed at least since the mid-20thcentury and probably before.
• “Even the city of Athens, as quaint as campus and its surrounding areas may be, does not teem with newness. Pockets of development do occur – a Kroger here, a Donato’s Pizza there – but one does not drive through town remarking on the prevalence of new construction and booming industry.” One wonders if someone touring Vienna, Quebec City, Belfast or Istanbul would complain that those historic cities did not “teem with newness.” And citing a pizza chain restaurant and supermarket (which has been in that location since the ’90s) as examples of “new construction and booming industry”… Oy vey.
• “The weather doesn’t help much, either. Sunless days, often strung together, seem to hang over creation, and it isn’t uncommon to behold only a few minutes of sun over the course of a weekend.” Think about this for a moment. Based on the writer’s one- or two-day visit to Athens County on a rainy weekend, he drew the conclusion that our area is plagued by a micro-climate with remarkably depressing, suicide-inducing weather. A more reasonable conclusion is that during the winter, the amount of sunshine we’re graced with doesn’t differ noticeably from the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, New England and Southeast United States, or for that matter, parts of Canada, Asia, Europe and South America.
• Continuing his thread about our lousy weather, he wrote, “A few residents, looking for an inkling of joy, buy mood lamps to place in their homes.” This makes me wonder if the entire article was intended as parody. Yes, that must be it.
I could regale you with more examples of the sins of parachute journalism in this particular article but I’ve run out of space. And I should repeat this – the author likely meant well in his stroll down the road of good intentions. He certainly did a good job of inspiring my column this week.