In the state of Alabama, the days after Thanksgiving traditionally hold one of the year’s more important events: the Iron Bowl, a college football game pitting in-state rivals Auburn University and the University of Alabama against each other. The two schools have faced off annually since 1948 and the tradition dates back to 1893 (the game occurred annually until 1907, then took a three decade hiatus). Through 2015, Alabama leads the the series with 44 wins to Auburn’s 35 (and one tie).
Since 2000, the game’s location has alternated between Tuscaloosa (where the Alabama Crimson Tide plays its home games) and Auburn. In 2011, Auburn hosted the game and, if you look it up, you’ll see that Alabama triumphed 42-14. But the real winners that year were the people of Lee County, Alabama — which, not so coincidentally, is the county of which Auburn is the largest city.
Earlier in 2011, about 140 current and former residents of Lee County received some really great news in the mail from a local civic organization: they had been selected to receive free tickets to the big game. In order to prevent fraud, though, there was a slight catch: the winner had to show up to a location in Opelika, Alabama on a certain date and pick up the tickets in person, with the letter and an ID in hand. Those requirements seem sketchy, sure, but the Iron Bowl is a really, really big deal in the area. So even if the letter seemed too good to be true, what’s the worst that can happen?
Anyway, a bunch of people showed up, and when they arrived, found that the redemption center was decked out with balloons, football-themed regalia, and highlights from the 2010 Iron Bowl (which Auburn won in historic fashion) playing on the televisions. Everything seemed legit — but, nope, it wasn’t. The people who had won the tickets weren’t randomly selected, to start. All of them had something in common: each owed at least $30,000 in unpaid child support. And the people working at the redemption center weren’t handing out free tickets. Instead, they were slapping people with handcuffs and giving away one-way trips to the local detention center as “Walk This Way” and “Another One Bites the Dust” blared in the background. The giveaway was a sting operation conducted by the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.
From the Archives: All’s Unfair: When Alabama bent the rules on the gridiron (unsuccessfully).
Take the Quiz: Name Auburn football’s most frequent opponents.
Related: A book about college football rivalries.