The Idolatry of College Football Rivalry Week: Ohio State vs. Michigan

Christopher Benek

The Ohio State/Michigan rivalry game may be good for ratings but, in many ways, it’s bad for community and worse for morality. Many people won’t like this post, but at least consider the implications and the alternatives.

I really enjoy college football. It’s fun, exciting and can be used as a way to relationally bring people together. But there are a lot of things that surround college football that bother me and, if you think about it, I hope they bother you too.

At the first Ohio State game I ever went to I remember being somewhat shocked at the amount of profanity surrounding the tailgating festivities. Personally, I think that the concept of tailgating is a good one. There is something community building about hanging out, eating good food, having a beer (if you are of age), and throwing the football around in anticipation of your teams coming performance on the field. That is all fine with me, but what I noticed instead was that the tailgating experience had been infiltrated with a message of hate guised in the spirit of “unity.” This creates an atmosphere that I personally don’t feel comfortable inviting most people into.

For instance, take the number of “Muck Fichigan” or the “Ann Arbor is a Whore” t-shirts that people were wearing. I saw a bunch of these being worn and I wasn’t even at a rivalry game. I mean think a minute about what is actually being communicated by these shirts. I am pretty sure that we can assume that Michigan doesn’t want the implied statement to happen. So isn’t this tantamount to advocating rape? The two statements together are equivalent to saying it’s permissible, acceptable, or worse yet, that one should rape a whore. That’s beyond, good spirited fun, that’s criminal.

Now don’t get me wrong, the majority of the good fans of Ohio State or Michigan would say: “of course, we don’t mean or want that – that is unacceptable.” But by simply allowing those shirts to become socially acceptable in the community we are permitting a mentality to arise that such behavior is indeed tolerable. And these types of comments aren’t limited to apparel either.

Such remarks are prominent during rivalry week in Facebook posts, tweets and Instagram posts with teens, college kids & adults saying “Expletive Michigan” (or the Michigan alternatives toward Ohio State). Maybe they are just expressing their teenage angst – but are those the kind of expressions we want our college, universities and culture to exude? Or let me be even more direct about the issue; In the wake of the college sexual abuse scandals (like at Penn State), how could anyone think that these kinds of statements, in any form are acceptable, ethical or moral?

They aren’t. It is that simple.

When does free speech, at any level - sports included, cross over into hate speech? There are undoubtedly certain phrases or words that have been made culturally unacceptable in society. These phrases are generally believed to not foster community building. So why then do we tolerate such hatred in the realm of the academy?

What ever happened to: Love one another as I have loved you? (John 13:34-35) I don’t hate Michigan, or Michigan fans, or Michigan football players and coaches for that matter. I am just from Ohio, I like Ohio State football, and I want to see my team and its players and coaches do well. Rivalries are not meant to tear down the other team that you are engaging. Rivalries are meant to help us to respect our opponents in order to inspire a higher caliber of performance. They are to show and challenge us to become better.

The worse years in the Ohio State/Michigan rivalry have been when one team is drastically overmatched. Those games aren’t nearly as fun. Why? Because collectively we must acknowledge that the point of the rivalry has been missed. We have not sought to help our competitor to be better. We have not helped to fashion community on the field or in the stands that can work in cooperation and excellence. We cannot marvel at their and our accomplishments and achievements and know that, only in the pursuit of excellence, will one team win the game. The victory in such a game comes simply in its playing not in its final score. Those are the games in which everyone wins.

Great football is when we see God’s gifts revealed in miraculous play after play – both on and off the field. But, that is not what I see happening in recent years in this rivalry. I see a misused concept of rivalry occurring. I see slander, divisiveness, dishonesty and anger. So, again, why then do we tolerate such behavior in the realm of the academy?

I think the answer is: because it is simple easier to look the other way than it is to confront the problems. So we look away. We look away from the rampant underage use of alcohol; we look away from the rule breaking; we look away from the care for the players, we look away from the systemic abuse. And we do so for what? - Financial gain for the university and social loss for the community? - So that we can say that we are the “winners”.

Folks, that isn’t winning.

It is easy, in the name of “team spirit” and “unity” to go down routes of abuse and dysfunction, but those are sophomoric understandings of the game. Football is a great game. I believe that is can be very community building. But when we “look away”… well that isn’t college football anymore – that’s simply idolatry.

Reality Changing Observations:

Q1. What do you enjoy and dislike most about rivalry games?

Q2. Why do you think people look the other way instead of addressing easily correctable social ills?

Q3. What is one thing that you personally can do to promote ethical behavior at rivalry games?