Editor's note: Since we published this story in 2006, a few things have changed: Cal is now coached by Justin Wilcox, for example. But the divide between Us and Them has grown—and not just in football.
I have covered approximately 300 college football games over the past 20 years. My work has taken me to about 85 major college campuses and not a few minor ones, where I have performed field study on the great rivalries of the sport. I watched a retired music professor teach the University of Michigan freshmen football players how to sing the school’s fight song. I stood with the Ohio State team in the end zone as it sang its alma mater to the student body after beating those same Wolverines. I have been in the pregame locker room at Alabama as it prepared to play Auburn, and in the postgame locker room as USC reveled in a victory over Notre Dame. I cross borders with impunity, and learn the customs of indigenous collegiate tribes of every stripe. It’s as close as a sportswriter comes to working in the United Nations.
In my maturation as an adult and as a journalist, I thought I had left my allegiances behind. I thought my experience and my professionalism had eradicated any vestiges of fandom in my soul.
And then Jeff Tedford offered me a T-shirt.
In his five years as head coach of the Golden Bears, Tedford has transformed UC-Berkeley from a football backwater into one of the most talented teams in the Pacific-10 Conference. On my most recent visit to interview him, Tedford discussed the 2006 season, star running back Marshawn Lynch, and the nature of Cal’s 114-year-old rivalry with Stanford.
As I got up to leave, the Cal coach motioned to the black leather couch along the front wall of his small office. On the cushion nearest the door lay a stack of gray T-shirts that said “California Football.” Would I like one? Tedford asked.
“No,” I said. “I can’t take it.”
“Oh,” he replied. “Do you have some sort of rule against that?”
Tedford probably assumed my employer prohibits the taking of freebies. But that was not the rule I cited. Twenty-five years after graduating from Stanford, professional pride took a powder. My response came from someplace other than my mind, as if my body was responding to invasion by bad shellfish.
“Yeah, I do,” said Mr. Professional Journalist. “I went to Stanford, and I don’t wear anything that says ‘Cal’ on it.”
Tedford, God bless him, responded with a laugh. Out the door I went, leaving behind a little dignity and an extra-large T-shirt.
There is something about the nature of rivalry that can buffet an otherwise rational adult with waves of untamed emotion. It drenches our culture, as if you needed to be reminded of that in an election year. In an era when our 50 states are identified as either blue or red, in an era when sectarian strife is spreading across the world map, it’s a good time to look at the notion of rivalry.
No one will insult your intelligence by comparing the conflict in the Middle East to a college football grudge match, especially those with comically combative names like Red River Shootout, which the universities of Texas and Oklahoma call their annual game. Yet, as embarrassing as it may be to admit for someone like me who loves college football, the feelings of loyalty and identity that the sport engenders can reduce otherwise normal adults to depression, anger and even violence.
And let’s not even talk about the abnormal adults.
Stanford alumni and fans seem to understand that Big Game, scheduled for Memorial Stadium in Berkeley on December 2, is one of the more benign manifestations of a rivalry, and that statement is made in full and complete knowledge of the painful fact that Stanford is in danger of losing its fifth straight Big Game to Cal for the first time since 1923.
But take each of those three words—college football rivalry—and deconstruct them, and perhaps it is possible to understand why Big Game remains so damn important.
Rivalry. Peel away the layers of history and of tradition in any rivalry—athletic, political, religious or otherwise—and at the core is a simple truth: there can be no Us unless there is a Them. It has been that way since the dawn of humankind, and probably earlier. I’m sorry to burst your feeling of superiority over the ursine Berkeley folks, but anthropologists insist that people who identify themselves as California Golden Bears are no different than those of us who cheer for a tall tree. It’s all in our heads.
The way we identify ourselves, says Michael Wilcox, an assistant professor in Stanford’s department of cultural and social anthropology, is mostly our own invention. We choose our school. We choose our sports teams. We choose our political party. In most societies, he says, we even choose our family. In some parts of the world, the father’s surname is used. Others are matrilineal.
“This inconsistency made anthropologists realize that most kinds of kinships are fictive kin, which means we make it up,” Wilcox says. “It’s something that human societies generate on their own. It’s very unstable.”
Identities change, Wilcox says, depending upon circumstances. None of us, even President John Hennessy, is all Stanford all the time.
To illustrate, Wilcox notes “that little game where heads pop up” (Whack-A-Mole, for the carnival-challenged) mimics our shifting identities. “What social situation you’re in [determines what] thing (or head) is going to pop up.” Every identity—father, professor, Libertarian, vegetarian, contrarian—carries with it the implicit feeling of belonging. Every identity is a different Us.
“It’s a way that we have of connecting ourselves to something, and differentiating ourselves from another thing,” Wilcox says. “That seems to be a universal impulse, to feel a part of something identified as being different from another thing.”
It may be more than an impulse, according to Robert Sapolsky, the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences and professor of neurology and neurological sciences. Sapolsky spent years observing baboon tribes in Kenya, work he described in A Primate’s Memoir (Scribner, 2001). “All I know,” he said in an e-mail interview, “is that Us/Them dichotomies run really deep in us (including many, but not all species of primates), and have neurobiological underpinnings. A fear/anxiety/aggression part of the brain called the amygdala activates when you see a different face, a scary face.
“Baboon males are very bristly with other new males, whether within their troop, or when encountering someone from elsewhere,” Sapolsky says. “Baboon females are pretty much the same. They have Us/Them written all over them. Chimps are somewhat similar. So, we have our evolutionary legacy written all over us, especially since we share 98 percent of our DNA with chimps.”
However, this tendency toward liking those in our tight, familiar circle and disliking those outside of it is not an inevitable primate characteristic. Bonobos (pygmy chimps) show none of this behavior, Sapolsky notes. And we share 98 percent of our DNA with them, too.
Every species has its own standards for determining what is “different.” For many readers of this magazine, it might be blue and gold clothing. That, Sapolsky says, is where things get interesting.
“Studies also show that it is very easy to manipulate someone into what they consider to be a ‘different’ face,” he says. “In other words, we’re very hard-wired as a species to dislike the Them and like the Us, but we’re very malleable as to who counts as which.”
That may explain why generations of Stanford undergrads have learned to belt out obscene lyrics for the Cal fight song, only to later embrace Cal alums as friends, neighbors, co-workers or even (gasp!) spouses. A number of football coaches have worked at both Stanford and California. In every case, their new “kin” accepted them regardless of their old ones.
“I’ve learned to appreciate the rivalry for being good-hearted, if that makes any sense,” says Tedford, who came to Berkeley from the University of Oregon and its Civil War with Oregon State. “There are so many people and so many similarities to two institutions that are so good academically, and there’s so much respect for that. There are so many mixed households. You run into a lot of husbands and wives, where they went to Stanford and Cal, and one of their kids went to Stanford and another went to Cal. I don’t sense that there’s a lot of hatred in the rivalry. It seemed like Oregon-Oregon State was a little more heated. There are a lot of parties where Stanford and Cal people get together; it’s about the wine and cheese.”
College. Okay, fine. Cal and Stanford fans get along; Duck and Beaver fans don’t. But why even bother with college rivalries? What is it about Big Game that grabs us? It has to do with, as Wilcox describes it, identity and kinship. Universities are where we take our first steps as adults.
“Colleges have a super, loyal, big story to which their particular [people] adhere,” says the Rev. Scotty McLennan, dean of religious life at Stanford. “For a lot of kids, it’s the first time leaving home. Precisely because you’re leaving your parents, you think about, ‘Who am I? Whom do I identify with?’ That can mean the relationship with Stanford. ‘That’s my place.’ After that, identity gets fixed for you in a way that’s much longer term.”
What Tedford said about the relative lack of enmity may be true at the adult level. As we mature and acquire different identities in, say, the workplace or the neighborhood, the distinctions we once drew between Stanford and Cal blur. As newbie loyalists, students cling to the identity their school affiliation confers. We are Us. They are Them. The consequences of those feelings, mixed with alcohol, irresponsibility and other accoutrements of college life, can get ugly.
“At Big Game at Cal my freshman year , I went with some friends to get a hot dog during the game,” recalls Lindsay Mecca, ’06. “While I was standing in line, hungry and wearing a Stanford sweatshirt, a group of Cal students started yelling obscenities and crowding my friend and me. We even got pushed out of line. Later in the day, on the walk back to the bus, Cal students were throwing cans of food and pieces of fruit at the crowds of Stanford students passing. I just figured that Cal took our rivalry a bit more seriously than we did.”
Prior to a lecture he gave to a big classroom of UC-Berkeley students, Wilcox recalls, “all the students hissed at me. I had no control over how I was going to be perceived. It was right around Big Game.”
Perhaps we never really leave the comfortable haven of Us and the dark halls of Them. The feelings they produce just lie dormant, awaiting the trigger that will bring them to the surface. For some, it may be the offer of a Cal T-shirt. For others, it may be the replay of Bears radio broadcaster Joe Starkey’s immortal call of The Play in 1982. (If I have to identify it as anything more than The Play, you have my permission to reread Class Notes).
Some Stanford grads still react to The Play as if it had happened yesterday, not 24 years ago, a permanent injury to their sense of humor. They are like a Margaret Dumont character in a Marx Brothers movie, uncomprehending the comic mayhem that’s apparent to others. To those so afflicted, just remind yourself: it’s in the wiring.
In addition to the natural evolution of such feelings, universities have proven adept at promulgating a strong sense of loyalty. The word alumnus derives from the Latin word alere, which means “to nourish.” Once upon a time, perhaps, that meant that the student gained nourishment. Now it’s a two-way sustenance. The alumnus also nourishes the university with financial donations, recommendations, volunteerism, you name it.
Which brings us to the sport most closely associated with collegiate rivalries. There’s a reason that class reunions are not held around a January basketball game, or a baseball weekend at Sunken Diamond.
Football. Bear Bryant, the legendary University of Alabama football coach, once said he gave his exams in front of 50,000 people every Saturday. If you are a devotee of the game, you understand the magic that occurs just before kickoff. The players bounce and bump, eager to shed their restless energy and the noise swells as fans in full throat try to will their team to victory.
There is also the ritual of Football Saturday. Tailgating long ago ceased to be a quick pregame picnic. Football coaches are usually too focused on the task at hand to notice tailgating, but at Stanford coaches can’t miss it—they walk with their team through Chuck Taylor Grove, where diehard Cardinal faithful congregate before every game.
At Big Game, recalls University of Washington defensive coordinator Kent Baer, who has coached at both Stanford and Cal, “Tailgating would start at 7 a.m. Really, it would start Thursday night. It was a competition to see who would wear the nicest sweaters, use the nicest tablecloths and [serve] the best white wine from Napa Valley.”
This pregame ritual is an integral part of the alumni experience, of reconnecting to the alma mater (again, from the Latin, meaning “nourishing mother”).
“At some institutions, football is much more important for the institution as a whole,” McLennan says. “It’s not what puts Yale or Harvard on the map. It’s probably not what puts Ohio State and Michigan on the map, although there’s a little more to it there. Football still has that ability, as it does here, to drive the whole group together. We can pack the church for Easter and for Christmas. We can get 1,200, 1,500 people. The stadium can get 50,000 for a football game. . . . Football, in many ways, is the new church. It’s been replacing the church for a long time.”
Football as religion. Football as lighthouse, showing us the way home. Football as community, bringing Us together in the mission to vanquish Them. There’s a lot more to Big Game than beating the Golden Bears.
As if that isn’t difficult enough.