[On July 24, 1847, a weary group of about 150 migrants founded Salt Lake City. So for the city’s 175th birthday, this week I’ll AmericanStudy Utah histories, leading up to a special weekend post on that founding community!]
On ambiguities in both sports and the state revealed by three of its most beloved teams.
1) Real Salt Lake (RSL): In many ways, the MLS franchise RSL reveals some of the fundamental complexities of how soccer has developed in America. Even the name is an echo of a famous Spanish team, but (presumably) pronounced by most fans and commentators with the English version of the first word, making the whole thing sound a little silly. And of course the overarching idea of a professional soccer team in one of the whitest states in the US is itself a reflection of the sport’s complex relationship to many local communities. But at the same time, the franchise has over its 15+ years in existence been fully embraced by that community, as embodied by the team anthem “Believe,” written by the drummer for the band Rancid as a fan tribute and now played before every game. Soccer might not ever fully be the national pastime, but it can most definitely be on the short list, as RSL nicely illustrates.
2) The Utah Jazz: The Jazz present an interestingly similar ambiguity to RSL, one that reminds us that the fraught sides of sports aren’t limited to soccer by any means. The franchise started in New Orleans as an expansion team in the 1974-75 season, and of course the team name makes all the sense in the world for a team in the Big Easy. When original owner Sam Battistone decided to move them to Salt Lake City after the 1978-79 season (due to financial struggles but also, as usual when teams move, greed for a better deal), he wanted to change the name as well, but there was not time before the new season started. So the Jazz they remained (keeping the team’s Mardi Gras-themed colors in the process), and the Jazz they’ve been ever since, in a city and state that could not be less associated with jazz music. But as with soccer in the city and state, the past and existing associations can’t and shouldn’t limit how communities evolve—and the Utah Jazz have certainly become a Salt Lake City landmark, name and all.
3) The University of Utah Utes: To a significant degree this most popular college sports program in the state—and certainly the most popular football team as well, since there’s no professional franchise—bleeds into the subject for my weekend post, as the University of Utah was founded by the Mormon church as the University of Desert in 1850 (just three years after Salt Lake City’s founding) and has been influenced by that powerful entity (probably the most powerful in the state still) ever since. But at the same time, the University of Utah is a public institution of higher education, and so those enduring Mormon influences, present as they undeniably are, are overtly opposed by both public funding and ideas of academic freedom and diversity. I can’t speak to what that combination might mean for either athletes on or fans of the Utes, but they’re undoubtedly there, one more sports and state ambiguity.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other Utah histories or stories you’d highlight?