Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sacred Groves and Unholy Rivalry

I often extol how athletic competition and team loyalty provides a reference point for individual and community identity in the United States.The rabid and wondrous outpouring of interest at March Madness illustrates how deep and wide this can be.  For a country of immense mobility and strained family, local and work loyalties, these ties of loyalty and identity to our teams helps anchor selfhood and keep us whole as we traverse the fractured landscape of our country.

This identification with teams has many upsides, but a dark side always lurks. We are mortals, and we can turn any good into bad. The ugly vandalism of the Auburn tree grove three weeks ago reminds us of that. Some adults, not kids performing pranks, murdered the trees and we can only guess why. On the phone the alleged perpetrator said, "roll Tide, roll." 

I have never been to Auburn but lived on several campuses that had sacred trees and groves. These tree created places of haven are a remnant of the Greek origins of our universities. These groves provide places of respite and peace and reflection. Many of us remember moments of joy, refuge or even love and insight in those groves. They provide a locus of identity for the community.

The groves may be a place to celebrate victories, but more deeply, they celebrate the world of university. Living, growing trees carve out a space that commemorate the world of the minds and relations and the emotions we cultivate there.

So the wanton destruction in the name of sports rivalry should horrify all of us who value the communal aspects of sports.

I spend way too much time around grown adults, successful strong people, who find their lives rent by anger and depression or pure joy depending upon weekly fate of their college teams--no these are not the senior administrators or coaches, these are the boosters.

Too many of us live out our own lives through our teams rather than seeing them as aspects of our individuality who bring us joy and sadness in a community with others.

In college sports we talk about “rivalry games.” Most often we mean the intra-state games between the major universities. At Michigan we all loved the UM—MSU rivalry. Here at Washington, the UW--WSU  rivalry brings spice and week long frenetic activity before each game. The rivalries are both good-natured and intense. Oddly enough  many of the athletes are from out of state and don’t quite understand the intensity of the fans until they experience the games. The games provide bragging rights and lots of other social aspects before and after. Our neighbors to the south in Oregon call their rivalry “the civil war.”

The civil war metaphor taps something truer and more dangerous here; this illuminates the Auburn destruction. I have lived at schools where lots of pranks and stolen symbols or painted symbols surround the rivalry week. They are usually “pranks” and even the vandalism or theft of symbols is not permanent. But this destruction of living things strikes deeper. An abiding rival of Auburn, Mississippi State expressed its condolences given its own grove that served as a place of contact, celebration and party.

This speaks to a rivalry that has degenerated into hatred. I think of blood rivals. Children are born into schools. Kids can find themselves in trouble with their family and relatives if they go to the hated rival school. As in Alabama, the blood rivals may reflect class or geographic or status resentments. But the blood rivals linger deeper and meaner. Often the teams find themselves both confused by and caught up in the rivalries.

I think the moral worth of sports is desecrated when it inspires and reinforces this type of mean resentment. I remember Damn Yankees where a man sells his soul to help his beloved Red Sox beat the Yankees. I respect and admire sport, but it is not worth or worthy of selling your soul or destroying the sacred. 

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