In on the Joke at the First-Ever Florida Man Games

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The idea came to Pete Melfi, a radio personality turned podcaster in St. Augustine, Fla., last year after he organized “the laziest race in the history of races,” a .5-kilometer beer run, and the participants had a grand old time.

Wouldn’t it be fun, Mr. Melfi thought, to hold another race, this time with a big after-party? And what if the theme was none other than the meme that launched many thousands of headlines about his home state: Florida Man?

His wild idea morphed into an all-day competition with a series of zany events: A mullet contest. A “mud duel” with pool noodles. An “evading arrest” obstacle course, with real sheriff’s deputies pursuing the contestants. (But, to be clear, there were no actual arrests in the race. The handcuffs came from a sex toy shop.)

“We understand that Florida is weird,” Mr. Melfi said. “We embrace it.”

If the rest of the country — hell, the rest of the world — is going to make Florida the punchline, then those who call it home might as well be in on the joke. Don’t overthink it.

But Florida Man has been a cultural phenomenon for so long that some in Florida and beyond have spent quite a bit of time thinking about what it means, how to challenge it and what it says about the state’s identity. Maybe the games in St. Augustine could also be an excuse to explore the evolution of the meme — and of Florida itself.

“Florida has always been, to me, such an important barometer of where the nation is headed,” said Julio Capó Jr., a historian at Florida International University in Miami, who has written that viewing the state and its people “in caricature form” is a centuries-old habit. “Yet there are very few attempts to take the state seriously — to understand its past, its present and much less its future.”

At the peak of the meme’s popularity, in the mid to late 2010s, everyone, it seemed, mocked outlandish and unlucky tales fished from the state’s bottomless trove of police reports and mug shots. The @_FloridaMan account on Twitter, now known as X, attracted hundreds of thousands of followers. The Florida Man Birthday Challenge encouraged people to enter their birth date and “Florida Man” to see what bizarre headline that published on their birthday popped up.

But questions soon arose about thrusting regular people into the harsh public glare, especially if they were suffering from addiction, mental illness or poverty. Other states had freakish incidents, too — if fewer involving alligators. Why pick on Florida?

The writer Lauren Groff, who moved to the state 18 years ago, recalled another Florida meme, in which someone saws the dangling state off the map.

“It’s a giant and incredibly complex state that has been reduced to something deeply silly,” she said.

The prevailing theory for how Florida Man became popular goes like this: The absurdity of the state’s 2000 presidential recount turned Florida into the butt of late-night jokes. The state’s strong public-records laws made it easy for anyone to obtain police reports. The internet and social media exploded it into a sensation.

But Ira P. Robbins, a law professor at American University, found in 2021 that other states had just as broad or broader access to public records than Florida. “Why don’t we have New Mexico Man or New York Man or Massachusetts Man?” he said in an interview.

Craig Pittman, the author of “Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country,” noted that Florida has produced weird news since before it became a state in 1845. “When we were a territory, we were known as a rogues’ paradise,” he said. “Half the people were scalawags and robbers, and the other half were their penniless victims.”

But now, many newspapers have stopped publishing mug shots. The owner of the @_FloridaMan account retired it in 2019, citing unease with mocking people’s behavior on what is often one of the worst days of their lives. In his newsletter highlighting oddball stories from around the state, Mr. Pittman does not include any about Floridians who have been involuntarily committed for psychiatric care or who are clearly suffering from addiction.

Yet none of this has spelled the end of Florida Man. The phrase has entered the political lexicon, transforming from a generic term for a nonpublic person — Florida Man as John Doe — to a stand-in for former President Donald J. Trump. “Florida Man Makes Announcement,” The New York Post riffed in 2022, when Mr. Trump declared his re-election campaign.

While that particular Florida Man lives in a gilded Palm Beach compound, regular Floridians do face real struggles that outsiders, including some who have flocked to the state in recent years, may not grasp, said Tyler Gillespie, a writer in St. Petersburg. Their attitude is, “‘We can kind of do whatever we want and we can leave,’” he said of the newcomers.

“My family’s here, so I’m pretty rooted,” Mr. Gillespie said. “But there’s hardly anywhere affordable to live.”

Incongruous as it may seem, St. Augustine, where Mr. Melfi lives and organized the Florida Man Games, is the oldest continuously settled city in the nation and a place steeped in history.

The first-ever Florida Man Games were held at the fairgrounds of a historic district, with tickets going for $55 a pop on Saturday. Sponsored by a Florida apparel company and others, including a car dealership and a gym, the competition awarded $5,000 to one winning team, based on its performance in events throughout the day.

Hundreds of people came to revel in the laid-back Florida-ness of it all. Shirtless overalls. “Merica” hats. Mullets! Overthinking they were not — nor was this reporter, once she settled in to watch.

A team from north of Tampa, the Red Eyed Gator Huggers, brought a mascot: a 5-year-old green iguana named Mikey. “What’s more Florida than a stinkin’ iguana?” said C.J. Mays, Mikey’s owner, as she petted its back.

Contestants wolfed down a huge pile of pork using their bare hands. “Everything I do is for Florida and America!” Dylan Mullaney of Jacksonville exclaimed as he consumed.

Women dressed in pinup style competed for the title of “Florida Ma’am,” including one sporting beer cans as hair rollers. Organizers were forced to improvise for the mud duel after someone “slashed” the plastic pool in which it was to take place, Mr. Melfi said.

“I heard they had New York plates on their car,” he joked about whoever was responsible.

The shenanigans were made for Instagram and TikTok, the platforms that spread word about the event in the first place. The emcee was a TikTok personality. One of the teams featured a guy known for holding a big American flag as a hurricane blew in.

Among the competitors — all of them men, most of them white — was Joshua Barr, a 37-year-old from Citrus County, whose three-person team was named the Cooter Commandos, in homage to a local river turtle. Each team member created an over-the-top persona to promote the team on social media. Mr. Ryan’s was Captain Cooter, “based off early ’90s wrestling, W.W.E., a little bit of ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage,” he said. To compete, he wore a flashy tank top and cutoffs.

“You’ve got to lean into the joke and lean into the absurdity of it,” he said.

Mr. Ryan’s Florida, he said, involved growing up riding his bicycle and being in nature. One of his team members has been his friend since first grade.

In recent years, a lot of new people have moved into Citrus County, on the state’s west central coast, he said, stirring some resentment among locals who “don’t want Northerners moving there — they want things to stay how they are.”

“We’re, like, just getting our first Chick-fil-A and Target and Starbucks,” he said.

Mandy Millam, 37, whose husband was also one of the Cooters, said people from outside of the state still misunderstand it too often.

“Florida has a wild heart,” she said. “We have wild nature. But people perceive us as having wild abandon. We don’t cross that line as much as people think we do.”

She added: “I love this place so much.”



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