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Saturday, September 13, 2014

September 13-14, 2014: Robert Greene II’s Guest Post on Sports and Society

[Robert Greene II is a PhD student in history at the University of South Carolina, where he’s studying 20th century American and Southern history, African American intellectual history, and a lot more. He’s a frequent contributor to the U.S. Intellectual History blog, and one of the more prolific and engaging Tweeters I know. And I’m very excited to share this Guest Post on another of his lifelong interests, the social and historical meanings and impacts of sports.]

On College Sports Rivalries

Growing up in the Deep South, and attending two institutions there (Georgia Southern University and the University of South Carolina), it occurs to me that a major part of the college experience is, well, hating another college. There are times when I think about such rivalries as being trivial—what has someone from Furman University or Appalachian State ever done to me (as a GSU fan)? No one from Clemson or the University of Georgia has caused me any harm; why should I get red in the face when I see their colors (as a graduate student attending South Carolina)? Yet, I cannot think of the college experience without that element of irrational hatred.

I think the scholarly examination of sports, which has grown by leaps and bounds (and now includes a fantastic blog on U.S. Sport History) can gain much by interacting with American Studies, and vice versa. Considering sports rivalries, in part, can be helpful in looking at the broader implications for sports on society. I’ve also found myself thinking about different types of rivalries, as I hesitate to say that all college and professional sports feuds are created equal.

There’s something to be said for a greater examination of college sports overall among academics. Already, much has been written about race, gender, and college sports, but I think an examination of just a handful of college rivalries would offer a great deal to chew on. Some of these rivalries—South Carolina versus Clemson, for example, are reminders of deep, long-festering intra-state divisions that go beyond the gridiron or basketball court. For scholars, such rivalries can be used to examine deeper fissures in society.

The difference in passions involved in college and professional sports—with some exceptions, of course—is also worth noting. I find myself talking to plenty of people who prefer college football or basketball over the professional versions because of ideas of “purity” or, simply, because the college versions seem to have far more at stake for the average fan. I’d go so far as to say that, in the South especially (but this can also apply to some of the old feuds in the Midwest and on the West Coast) college sports and the rivalries that go with them offer something missing in most of the professional variants nearby. I think my father, as big of an Atlanta Falcons fan as he is, probably cares just a bit more about Georgia-Florida than he does about Falcons-Saints.

With that said, let’s not make the mistake that rivalries stay the same over time—or even that the fanbases do. The intersection of sports and the media matters here. How did the growth of television broadcasting of games affect fan support for teams in the second half of the 20th century? I’d venture a guess and argue that some of the big rivalry games—think Michigan-Ohio State, Auburn-Alabama, and so on—acquired a lot of casual fans on the Saturdays when they played. Of course, that’s not scientific, but the broadcasting of games on television, and before that radio, at least offered the chance for groups of people across the country to start caring about games not in their region. And think of Americans today adopting English Premier League teams, or fans in China adopting NBA squads—the imagined communities of fandom are something scholars can begin to consider more as part of understanding the relationship between society and sports.
Not to push the imagined communities aspect too much, but there is one last idea surrounding sports rivalries I’d like to consider—race and rivalry. Specifically, thinking about the inclusion of black athletes in the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference in the 1960s and 1970s—how did black fans gradually become part of Southern fanbases? What were the thoughts of black sports fans towards such college programs before their integration? There’s a lot that can be done with fandom, rivalries, and American Studies. I usually do intellectual history—but a part of me does, someday, hope to explore such questions.
[Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? If you’d like to contribute a Guest Post, let me know!


  1. Good stuff, Robert! Rivalries have always been fascinating to me too. I'd love to see someone (or maybe do it myself) do a sort of anthropological study where they attend various rivalry games and learn the traditions from the "student section" sort of view. I think rivalries are experienced in a lot of different ways, imagined or not.
    Richard O. Davies wrote an interesting book on rivalries in 2010. In his introduction he asks "what makes a rivalry" and "what makes a good rivalry." In the age of expansion (in both professional and collegiate sports) there has been many forced rivalries (think interleague) that don't stick. We need to explore how and why a rivalry starts before we can truly understand the "hatred" that they extend.
    Davies also uses both college, professional teams, and individuals in his examination. Personal rivalries are among the clearest examples of "narrative making" in sport, which I think is really what we're studying (after all most sports historians use close 75% newspaper sources). Translating those study of narratives and of rivalries to the Television age seems very exciting (if not difficult). Just loo at ESPNs legion of "debate" shows.
    I'll stop here before it becomes my own 1,000 word response. There's lot of angles scholars can take, and even more questions to consider.

    1. This is absolutely great! And I think you make some good points, there's a great deal more to be asked about forced sports rivalries! And, like you said, media coverage plays a major role in all of this.

  2. Thanks so much for the comment, Andrew! If you decide you can't resist your own 1000 words, there's always room for more weekend Guest Posts!

  3. Dear Ben and fellow bloggers: The following was written by me to discuss with members of my weekly book Study Circle which meets Monday nights at the Fitchburg Public Library.

    We were discussing violence and sports; specifically, professional football.
    Roland A. Gibson, Jr.
    Sat, Sept. 27, 2014

    “This might turn out to be a very strange and unpopular perspective, but I think that – in the long run - violence in our society has to start being seen as part of the problem… and not part of the solution.”

    ref: September 29 2014 TIME magazine article:
    “He Died Playing This Game: Shortly after this photo was taken, 16-year-old Chad Stover suffered a traumatic brain injury. He never got up” article by Sean Gregory

    I want to borrow your imagination for a little bit. See if you can picture this imaginary scenario in your mind: There is a Sunday night NFL football game in progress, right here in Boston, MA. September, 2014. New England Patriots vs. some other team… doesn’t really matter, for the story. Just outside the stadium, a woman is getting physically assaulted and robbed by man wearing a New England Patriots Football Rob Gronkowski jersey. Nobody is around to hear her cries for help – they are all too busy watching the action on the football field.

    How might one explain this tragic scenario to a small child? “Oh… well the man in the football jersey attacking the other person was obviously violent… but – in our society – this is considered the wrong or unacceptable ‘kind’ of violence. Does this make sense to you?”

    Well, I can tell you one thing: It makes no sense to me, and I’m a full-grown adult. Rob Gronkowski’s average yearly salary is $9,000,000. Really, now? What kind of messages (or mixed messages) is this sending to our kids about the value of violence in our society? Why is this guy such a widely accepted hero and role model? What – if anything - is he doing to make this world a safer, better, more caring place for the rest of us? Do we know ourselves well enough to know why it is so important – and so lucrative – to see conflict and violence on TV and see it live in the football stadiums?

    I'll stop, now.
    Roland A. Gibson, Jr.
    FSU IDIS Major