Babylon or Zion? (part 2)

My last post was mostly about religion.  This post will mostly be about college football and sport in general.  I didn't want this to become a defense of my "purpleness" or something about not being able to "serve two masters."  However, I suppose it does help explain why I try to keep one foot in Babylon and one in Zion.

Mostly, though, it's just me riffing on why sports has become its own sort of religion and how religion (at least in Utah) has bled into sports.  And why it's gone wrong.

I.  History Lesson

A history of College Football in Utah.  It doesn't need to be long.  This should suffice:

Brigham Young founded the University of Utah a long time ago.
A slightly less long time ago, someone (not named Brigham Young) founded the Brigham Young Academy in honor of Brigham Young.
Not long after their respective foundings, the schools started playing football.
They played it almost every year, and it began to get heated when they played.
At first, the University of Utah beat Brigham Young Academy--a lot.
Sometime thereafter, the Brigham Young Academy changed its name to Brigham Young University--to sound cooler, or something.
Sometime after the name change, Brigham Young University hired a guy out of Granite High School named LaVell Edwards.
Thirty years and 20-something wins over Utah later, and BYU named an ice cream and a stadium after him.
Both schools beat Utah State senseless every year.
Then the University of Utah hired a guy out of Bowling Green, by way of Notre Dame, named Urban Meyer.
And like the Spanish Inquisition before him, Urban proceeded to drill, torture, and defeat the Cougars.
Urban was Catholic; the Cougars were Mormon.
Then BYU hired a guy named after a Horse.  And he did well against Utah.
Then someone dubbed the Utah / BYU rivalry "The Holy War"; thousands of Crusaders rolled in their graves.
Oh, and somewhere in there, people poured beer on Max Hall's family.
And here we are today.

It saddens me that the rivalry has digressed in sportsmanship and respect.  There was (and hopefully still is) something endearing, something unique, something special about the Utah / BYU rivalry.  Time had it as a good-natured and competitive meeting that took place whenever the Universities met up in Sport.

These schools are forty miles apart. That's close.  When they played, they played bragging rights and their accompanying smack talk; conference championships; neighborhood rivalries; and to taste the sweetness of victory or avoid the bitterness of defeat.

Friends and families could be divided for three hours on a Fall Saturday, only to reunite later over Turkey and Trivial Pursuit.

In short, it was a blessed, harvest time event.

Somewhere along the way, however, the rivalry got ugly.  Religion--and its attendant biases and prejudices, adherents and detractors-- strolled into the show.  People in Utah started to align according to their faith; they chose up sides and in so doing became equal parts self-righteous and hypocritical, pious and petty.

Now people--not everyone, mind you, but enough--openly hate on each other, calling each other classless, pouring beer on families, punching coaches' wives, stealing cell phones, assaulting cheerleaders / getting beaten up by assaulted cheerleaders, stealing statues, tearing down goal posts, getting pregnant, living in sin, stoning prophets...

You get the picture.

I don't know exactly when or how this happened, but it's here.  Maybe it's been progressing that way for years. One thing's for certain: there's something deep and dark about the hatred that is oozing from the "Holy War."  And I wonder why it's happened here, in the Valley of the Saints.

II.  Sport

Sports are and have always been a way for us to safely create a microcosm of our society.  A place where the rule of law is absolute and we have at least the feel of control.  We can pour in all our violence, all our competitive urges, all our desire to win, be the best, destroy, etc. without actually destroying.  Whereas the Romans got to watch their gladiators defeat the "others," we get to cheer on our Spartans / Trojans / Cougars / Utes as they defeat the invading Aggies / Longhorns / Fighting Irish / Wolverines.  Better yet, no one gets decapitated at the end of it all.  (I'm waiting for you to blink on that one, MMA).

But perhaps the most appealing aspect of sport is the sense that these competitions are fair.  They are the Mosaic law.  Eye for an eye, hoop for a hoop.  No one gets an upperhand at the beginning* because everyone starts with the same score: 0.  From there, it's up to you. 

Sports are fair in an undeniably cruel and often unfair world.  By way of example, the majority of Brazilians live in abject poverty.  Many are one room, dirt floor, tin house, beans for all meals poor.  But despite this, Brazilians make the world gasp in awe when they take to the pitch for World Soccer matches.  I was in Brazil during the 2002 World Cup.  Brasil beat Germany in the final match to become the "Pentacampeao"--five-time champion.  Poverty lost out that day to unbridled joy and pride.  I've never seen more deliriously happy, jovially drunk people at 8:00 in the morning. 

All this was possible because the playing field was level.  Brazil earned its victories, poverty and corruption forgotten.  For one day, at least, the Federal Republic of Brazil could say they were the best at something and know it was true.

That's not usually what happens after BYU / Utah games anymore.  If one team beats the other, it's not enough to have won.  The sense of accomplishment somehow isn't enough anymore.  The winning team and its supporters will often disparage the loser.  The divisive comments--"I hate those guys" or "I'd rather die a Ute than win as a Cougar (or vice versa)"--are routinely heard, not in whispered conversations, but in shouting matches between victor and loser at the stadium, on the radio, and at home.

This kind of behavior is something like Achilles dragging Hector's corpse around the walls of Troy after slaying the Trojan hero in single combat.  This act of desecration was so putrid to the Greeks that, at least according to the Iliad, the gods conspired to help defeat Achilles.  But in "The Holy War", many take "rubbing it in" as par for the course.  To the victor go the spoils.  All's fair in love and war.

I worry that this is a result of the religious subtext that has crept into the game.** 

(Thanks to Ted Naismith)


Bringing this all back, I'm afraid that the "Holy War" has become not a positive, fair microcosm of how society should work, but rather as a reflection of how society is working.

There were plans by a self-professed Christian minister to burn the Quran this week as some sort of protest about the planned Islam Community Center near the World Trade Center Ground Zero.  Americans everywhere are sacrificing the First Amendment on the altar of the War on Terror--arguing that the same Islam Community Center planned near Ground Zero should not be constructed, and if it is, the builders should not be surprised at what could happen.  (This is a story for another time as well).  Religious people are viewed as ignorant and blind.  Aetheists are despised as evil.  Republicans ridicule Democratic values and Democrats ridicule Republican values.  (Again, another story).

We Americans love to sort each other into groups, label each other, and ultimately (here's that word again) pigeonhole ourselves into a comfortable corner where we are surrounded only with what makes us feel comfortable and good.  And justified in what we do and believe, reason or love be damned.

In the end, we build up a castle, only to be holed up in it, spewing insults down on those who pass by, who are not in our kingdom or of our kingdom.  We shout to them that they are wrong, that they are misguided, and when they ask us to join them, we shout again that we don't want to join their search for the Grail, because "we've already got one."

We arrange ourselves into Bhuddist, Baptist, Mormon, Catholic, Ute, and Cougar.  And feed our insecurities by hate.  We engage in bullying and call it righteousness (or open-mindedness if you're not in a religious context).  We are doing just fine in our corner, thank you very much.

And we are all the poorer for it.


* Unless you're in the BCS, but that's another story as well.

** Which is odd, because there are just as many Mormon Utah fans as not.


Jerkolas said...

Well I think that history of the rivalry is spotty at best, but I agree that the rivalry is a crazy one. It is something that is hard to explain and understand rationally unless you have been caught up in it yourself. I for one am keen on seeing whether the Utes leaving the cougars behind for the PAC10 helps diminish the hard feelings.

Gary said...

Interesting. Having grown up in Montana, to me Utah was just another team that BYU pummeled every year, like New Mexico.

Then I went to BYU and observed the rivalry. In the mid-90s it was LaVell/McBride, tongue in cheek and light hearted. Towards the late '90s it started getting nasty.

Nowadays I won't even go to RES or the Huntsman Center. You simply can't do it with young children in BYU gear without ludicrous levels of harassment. I would not be shocked if the same were true vice versa.

That being said, I have several Utah fan friends that just like football. I get along with them great.

I certainly agree that the rivalry has gotten too ugly, and it's a shame.

Marie said...

I like reading your writing, it makes me laugh(sorry if it's not supposed to). Just to help me to follow and for fun you should try to hyperlink your *asides. Other than that, fabulous linking! I forgot Bronco's name for a second (sh, don't tell my husband) so I was glad you linked to wiki so I could laugh along with you instead of trying to figure out who was named after a horse.

Andrew said...

Great post.

Ru said...

Your posts have been inspiring me to think about this for awhile, and I finally came up with a "comment." :)

The rivalry is amazing, and the more heated it gets, the more fun it is. Everyone loves to smack talk about football, whether it be about two BCS rings or a National Championship that's older than I am. ;)

The problem is not the Holy War, it's when people take Utah v. BYU beyond football. (Or basketball, or whatever other sport.)

Why do people hate Max Hall so much for declaring that he hated all of us?

Because it was personal. It had nothing to do with football. (Ditto that if you believe in the legend of the Beer Ninja and his propensity to pour libations on the Hall family, be they in Rice Eccles or Arizona ... uh, sorry for the tangent.)

When Utah v. BYU starts being about religion, or alleged scholastic superiority, or whose girls are the cutest, that's when it stops being a rivalry and starts being straight-up nasty.

But honestly, I wouldn't get rid of a fun, happily contentious tradition just because 10% of fans on either side are too obnoxious or arrogant or immature to be able to handle it.

Sidenote: Glad to see you updating this blog, sir :)

ebv said...

Thanks for commenting, all.

@Marie: I will attempt to hyperlink to footnotes. It's experimental at this point. Oh, and you should chuckle at my writing. I try not to be too serious all the time.

@Ru: Thanks for your input. I completely agree. I would never get rid of the rivalry (I would actually hate to see it go). I just wish that the ratcheting up of non-sports issues would go away or calm down or just simmer for a bit.

Maybe being in different conferences for a bit will make fans of each team realize that their team is as dependent on the other for their identity as anything.

But that would take some rational thinking. We'll see what shakes out...