[7 December 2010]
“Familiarity,” the saying goes, “breeds contempt.” As the holidays descend, and goods are bought and sold against a global backdrop artificially aglow with peace and goodwill, this aphorism may well prove a worthy corrective. Particularly for sports fans, the end of the year is a time where tradition and ceremony merge into a rich pageant, not of ribbons and bows, but of undiluted hatred—the kind only your closest neighbor can inspire.
Each year, the end of November brings “rivalry week” for American college football—a series of games that showcase contests between schools whose respective fanbases take great and elaborate pleasures in hating one another. While this series of matchups is played up by the networks for ratings, it’s by no means the only venue for such intense matchups. Every sport features these intensified contests. Whether it be perennial football powerhouses competing before millions or a neighborhood ping pong tournament played out in an empty garage, rivalries are crucial to sports. They heighten the drama of typical competition and, consequently, have a tendency to bring out the worst in all of us.
Fans, particularly, seem to be transformed by the rivalry game. Ordinary enthusiasm becomes rabid fervor. A passing distaste for a generic opponent is now a consuming passion to rearrange opposing physiognomies. Particularly among college sports—where the amateur participants are ostensibly untainted by the mercenary nature of a pro contract, and where the student body fanbase serves as a build-in source of creative…“enthusiasm”—the rivalry game has been elevated to rarified air.
Just consider: “The Red River Shootout” (University of Texas vs. University of Oklahoma), “The Civil War” (Oregon vs. Oregon State), “The Sunflower Showdown” (Kansas vs. Kansas State), or simply “The Big Game” (Stanford and California). The nicknames alone suggest something more than a game is at stake. Frequently, this means a trophy, like an “Old Oaken Bucket” (Purdue vs. Indiana), the Paul Bunyan Trophy (Michigan vs. Michigan State), or “Floyd of Rosedale”—a bronze pig, awarded to the winner of the annual Minnesota-Iowa game. These are just a few of many games, with some of the most intense (like Michigan and Ohio State) not needing the added cachet of a snazzy moniker or award.
In rivalry games such as these, the opportunity to root one’s team on to victory is embraced by fans with unique fervor. More than supporting a side, however, the rivalry is a chance to participate in the symbolic (and, quite often, literal) hatred of the opponent. Rallies are held (Texas vs. Texas A&M is just one example), property is stolen and/or defiled (Rutgers vs. Princeton, Clemson vs. South Carolina), and mascots kidnapped (Army vs. Navy, Maryland vs. George Washington). Such mayhem requires intense forethought and logistics, and reflects the lengths to which one group will go to needle the enemy.
The overriding irony of the rivalry game, however, in American college athletics and the world over (Celtic vs. Rangers, Real Madrid vs. Barcelona—the list goes on) is that they are nearly always inspired by proximity. The closer the teams, it would seem, the more intense the hatred. That must in part be because bitter sports enemies nearly always recognize themselves in one another. The intimate familiarity we have with our surroundings occasions both passionate attachment and equally vehement distaste. We can say, with an expert’s authority, what we love about our city, state, country, etc. and, in that same breath, list our grievances with the same, in penetrating clarity.
If rivals emerge from a common camp, then, the intense hatred the fuels the contests must be a kind of communal, psycho-social recognition of the “other” in ourselves. The games themselves, and the fan passion that attends them, represent a kind of emotional purge. Everything we would change about our immediate reality seems projected onto the team that stands opposite. We’re not so much rooting for a win against a rival as exorcising an inner conflict about what we would change about ourselves and our communities.
Sports, at nearly every level, provide an opportunity for catharsis. They operate as a venue for a sanctioned expression of antipathy, if not, violence. For that reason alone, the rivalry game is likely to remain a sporting staple. As the famous biography subject Samuel Johnson said, “Such seems to be the disposition of man, that whatever makes a distinction produces rivalry.” Truly, these events are frequently framed as a contest of differences.
Closely considered, though, the case of the rivalry game seems to really reflect a more subtle, inward turn. The objects of our distaste are in fact those who walk among us. At a time of year when we’re bombarded with encouragements to cram shoulder to shoulder with fellow shoppers and clamor together through the shops for the next great deal, buying tokens of our love for one and all, the rivalry game is a unique opportunity to vent our pent-up dislike for those we already know all too well.