Auburn Football: Media Can’t See Forest for the Trees


Long before Harvey Updyke morphed into the oak tree equivalent of Jack Kevorkian, many in Auburn had already pronounced the impending death of the Toomer’s oaks. While we condemn Mr. Updyke’s actions, we have noticed that the public relations folks on the Plains trot out a tree story or two every time there is other news that casts the campus in a negative light.

In August of 2011, The Sporting News ran a story about the NCAA investigations into Auburn’s recruiting tactics.

"Wednesday didn’t end well for the Auburn football program. Two afternoon breaking stories – one about the program’s recruiting, another about its top tradition – helped sap momentum the Tigers had built in recent months.The recruiting angle involves the extension of an NCAA investigation into how Auburn brings in players."

To offset this, another story of the poisoned trees erupted across the internet on the same day. Here’s one from Real Clear Sports.

"No one knows if the poisoned oaks at Toomer’s Corner will survive. The same could be said of the traditional south they represent."

Prior to the BCS game this year, when many believed LSU was the eventual champion, featured a story in Montgomery about the trees being younger than much thought.

"According to the update on the trees, a group of Auburn faithful conducted research after seeing some older photos and believe the oaks were planted between 1937 and 1939, but most likely in 1937."

After the Alabama victory, a new tree poisoning story was released about the Auburn president deciding to take the steps to replace the trees by transplanting new, mature trees in the location.

"The Future of Rolling Toomer’s Corner committee voted unanimously to recommend replacing the poisoned oaks with two large, live trees at yesterday’s meeting."

Never mind claims by the school itself that new trees in that location would be a bad idea if they didn’t stop vandalizing them.

"If there were no change in the tradition of rolling Toomer’s Corner, we would have many of the same problems with new trees."

In fact, the Winter 2007 edition of Auburn magazine featured a cover story dedicated to the declining health of the trees.

"I’m surprised, given the power washing, that the oaks are still there. It is really hard on the trees."

In March of this year, another story appeared in The Sporting News claiming the trees were showing new signs of life.

"At the time, it was thought the trees would surely die. Now there is slightly more optimism as there appears to be signs of growth."

Hooray for optimism. However in April, Auburn had an embarrassing showing in the NFL draft followed, predictably, by a May 1 story in local media about the poisoning.

"This spring, new leaves did appear on the trees and for a time they were not showing any adverse reactions to the herbicide. However, that has all changed and most of the canopy is turning a yellowish brown color."

So we see that the trees have been dying for years. However, this does not stop the strategic release of stories to distract the public, and the “family”, from negative news.

College rivalries are a great American tradition and harmless pranks will always play a role. However, both sides have overstepped in the tree story. This was not a harmless prank – even if the trees were already dying – because it was just too personal. And using the story for propaganda purposes diminishes the great strides both schools made working together in recent years. It’s simply out of bounds to use the stories of the trees to fuel hatred or distract fans.

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