No more than five minutes after the marching band arrived in Columbus for the Ohio State football game, we had already been flipped off by about 30 Ohio State fans, many of whom were not students.
Let me repeat that. Ohio State fans, some well into their thirties and forties, were giving the finger to members of the Michigan Marching Band, who ranged from 18 to 22 years old. Really? I don’t mind being ridiculed by Ohio State students, but any full-grown adult who still flips the bird at a college marching band needs to get a life.
The problem, of course, was that these over-zealous Ohio State fans were caught up in the intense rivalry between the University of Michigan and Ohio State.
Rivalries and intense competition in sports are an integral part of nearly every culture. Whether you are talking about enmity between Michigan and Ohio State, the Red Sox and the Yankees or even the soccer teams from Argentina and Brazil, rivalries are unavoidable in the sporting world. Of course, these rivalries can be fun. I enjoyed lying on my couch with a bag of chips and a tub of guacamole to watch the championship round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. I would also love to see our football team demolish Ohio State next year.
But it’s a stretch to assume, as many people do, that rivalries are inherently good. As spectators, overly intense rivalries in sports shape our views of competition and can indirectly affect the way we perceive higher education and politics.
Let me start with the aforementioned Ohio State fans who were so entrenched in college rivalry that they never grew out of mocking Michigan students. I hope that by the time I reach my forties I will have moved on to better things.
But Ohio State fans are not the only people who treasure football rivalries as one of the most important aspects of attending college. As I’m sure you know, their view is fairly common. Two of my high school teachers, both alumni from the University of Illinois, booed when I told them I was going to college at the University of Michigan. I know they were joking and whatnot. But it’s a problem that even among professional educators — who are supposed to encourage higher education — any mention of a Big Ten school conjures up notions of sports rivalries.
Maybe you don’t mind that our society often values sports more than education. But sports also seem to reinforce the competiveness of politics — and I doubt that anyone thinks politics should become more competitive.
After Barack Obama was elected president last November, the celebration in Ann Arbor bore a strange resemblance to a sports rally. People with cowbells led the same “Go Blue” chant that is typically heard in the Big House and at some points the crowd often burst into choruses of “The Victors.” Sports and politics are competitive, but potential voters should not view both from the same perspective.
Contrary to Meg Young’s column about March Madness (An amateur at the Big Dance, 03/23/2009), I am less convinced that competition in sports encourages meaningful passion. Young argued that sports fields were often the place where important social battles could be fought. She used events such as Jessie Owens’ victory in the 1936 Berlin Olympics or Jackie Robinson’s entrance into Major League Baseball to indicate the uplifting quality of sports.
But these events were monumental because they were reflective of the political and social environment in which they occurred. Jessie Owens’s gold medal symbolized ideological differences that already existed between the United States and Germany, and Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier was one event in a pre-existing movement against segregation. These events certainly deserve praise, but they do not prove that rivalry in sports is intrinsically valuable.
When I tell people about my spite for unnecessary sports rivalries, they usually tell me to go complain in Europe, where soccer matches often cause riots. While Americans’ sense of rivalry certainly pales in comparison, it isn’t any more justified. I understand that rivalry can make sports more fun, but in many instances it goes to far. For example, it worries me that my roommate wants to burn an Ohio State effigy in front of our apartment next year.
Sports are intended to be entertaining, but they can also influence our societal mindset. If we recognize this, we can stop sports from shaping our view of more socially relevant institutions like education and politics. In the end, these are the institutions that have a more importnant impact on our lives.
Jeremy Levy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.