What’s the point of a rivalry?

Nov. 16, 2022, 6:50 p.m.

In ‘Essays on Essays,’ columnist Sam Waddoups riffs on another author’s essay. This week’s essay is inspired by George Orwell’s “The Sporting Spirit.”

I grew up in Boston at the height of the Red Sox renaissance. Everyone at my elementary school wore their baseball caps inside out and backwards every October to reverse the curse that had deprived us of a championship for nearly a century. And the only thing fans felt more strongly than our curse was a hatred for the New York Yankees.

One weekend, my family drove down to New York, and my sister bought a Yankees cap. She was seven. It wasn’t a conscious decision; she just liked the pale yellow color. She thought the signature NY monogram was the logo of the city, not the brand of the rival. So she bought the cap and wore it around town.

One day, we were walking past the town bookshop, my sister with her yellow cap on. A group of high school boys walked past. Someone said something under their breath to my sister — half coughing, half talking — and they all laughed.

“What does ‘Yahoogula’ mean?” she asked.

“What?” my mom said.

“They just said it to me, and then they all laughed. ‘Yahoogula.’ What does it mean?”

“Yahoogula? Yahoogula… oh, no it wasn’t that, they said ‘Yankees suck.’”

That’s a rivalry. A grudge that you’ll insult a seven-year-old for.

Compare that to a scene from a Stanford classroom earlier this year. My professor stood up at the front of the room and confessed, “You know, I did go to grad school at Cal…” She looked up, smiling nervously. “Don’t kick me out of the class or anything!”

The class stared blankly. No reaction.

“You know, because of the rivalry, Stanford-Cal, Big Game, all that?”

No one cared. No one in the class could muster a fake ‘boo,’ let alone a coughed “Cal Sucks.” We moved on to the lecture.

I went to the very first football game of my freshman year. It was New Student Orientation, so the student section was filled with frosh. There was a palpable thrill. We’re really here, I thought. We’re really college students at our school’s football game.

I excitedly explained some rules to confused students around me: first downs, field goals, that kind of thing. We stood and cheered — for about ten minutes. By halftime, half of the students had left. We don’t exactly have a diehard fan culture. Our stadium attendance is regularly half of our Pac-12 rivals’.

I won’t sell Stanford short; we get our grudge on every year, for about a week. We yell and scream at Gaieties, the constructed onstage melodrama of triumphing over Berkeley. We cheer and chant in the Red Zone, and boo all the calls against Stanford, even when they’re reasonable.

And I know people who really care about the games, who show up every time. A few weeks ago, when I was biking up Santa Teresa, a golf cart came careening down the street. The cart was filled past capacity with people who looked like they’d gone to the gym that day and every day. “WE BEAT NOTRE DAME!” they yelled. “WE DID IT! WE BEAT THEM!”

If golf carts had a horn, they would have been honking it. I think they’re in the minority of fandom, though. For my part, I’d forgotten there was a football game that day in the first place.

During the World Cup, people care about their teams way more than we at Stanford do, and even more than Bostonians. At the stadium, you see face paint, body paint, costumes, crazy hats. In the streets, crowds gather around TVs at bars, grocery stores and public squares. It’s the topic of conversation for weeks. And they’ll scream, they’ll throw things, they’ll cry.

I’m not immune to this. I think the only time I’ve unironically chanted “U! S! A!” was watching the 2014 World Cup. We jumped up and down and yelled. I didn’t do it at my favorite Supreme Court rulings, elections where my candidate won or at the season 4 finale of American Idol. Only for a soccer match. I guess sports get you into a frenzy.

These international frenzies show an underbelly of sports rivalries — even worse than insulting a 7-year-old. Sports become like war, or at least a proxy war. The Miracle on Ice is so mythologized because of the Cold War looming just outside the rink. Same with the 1936 Olympics and the 21st century ROC Olympic contingent. Football teams blitz, battle and barrage. They run drills, they get into formation. The US military solemnizes every championship game and advertises at halftime.

George Orwell wrote that organized sports fall prey to the “lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.” In-group chauvinism is what makes us care so much about our team winning, and demonization of the other is what makes us want a certain team, city or country to fail.

What do we gain from buying into the competitive prestige? What’s the point of a real, fruitful rivalry? It’s nice to have something to talk about in November, at least (and for the Daily to write about). But beyond that, if we really cared about beating Cal across the board, it could result in a frenzy of academic and athletic progress to stay ahead of them. It would result in gleeful pranks, like the theft hijinks of the Axe or the Caltech-MIT Hacks. It would mean people wouldn’t want their kids to go to their opposing school.

It’s fun, but it has its costs. Real rivalries make us less likely to help a fan of the opposing team. They result in fights outside the stadium. They result in racist slurs being yelled from the stands.

So it’s not a bad thing that it takes a big push for the average Stanford student to get into the rivalry. You know, I’d like to have the option of going to Berkeley for grad school without my friends razzing me. Maybe we’re better off leaving it alone for most of the year.

If you don’t really believe in the rivalry, though, why do you have to perform it? And it is a performance — I only really get into it when I’m playing a role as an audience member or fan at an event. When the Oski mascot comes out at Gaieties or we’re impaling the bear on the Claw, I perform a fervent hatred that I don’t have. I give in to the emotion of the crowd. That’s not an impulse that’s encouraged at Stanford other than in that specific situation.

I find myself doing it because it’s the thing you do at college. If you can’t put your open-mindedness aside, you can’t participate in the rivalry. Joining in the fun means booing: this in-group tradition needs an out-group to target. It’s the only day of the year that I do it, but I do it.

I’m not asking that anyone rename TAP, boycott Big Game or give up on sports rivalries. But the next time you’re yelling against a team, a school or a city, you might stop mid-scream. Think about that emotion. What emotion is it? Do you believe it? Do you care?

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