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!
PPS. Following up the week’s series, one more ongoing Cville history and story to highlight: http://www.dailyprogress.com/opinion/letters_to_the_editor/city-needs-to-own-up-to-its-history-of-slavery/article_25e7b946-2f7e-11e4-ad24-001a4bcf6878.html?mode=jqm. ]