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History, Semantics, Sensitivity and Common Sense
On Saturday, November 27th, the Oregon State University Beaver Football Team will square off against the nationally-ranked Oregon Ducks at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon. As stated at the beginning of a wonderful book by the five-time winner of the Oregon Sportswriter of the Year Award, Kerry Eggers entitled, The Civil War Rivalry – Oregon vs Oregon State:
“Thirty-five years after Oregon reached statehood and fewer than 30 years after the end of the Great War between the Union and Confederate States, the University of Oregon and Oregon Agricultural College (OAC) met on the gridiron on a sawdust field in front of 500 curious observers….The Farmers beat the Lemon-Yellows 16 to 0…that cold, wet November day in 1894.”
It’s one of the nation’s oldest football rivalries and only three current competitions have lasted as long on the West Coast. It ranks fifth nationally with the most games played. Now, since I started this blog in 2011, I have carefully stayed away from political topics other than during the pandemic, strongly supporting vaccines and mask wearing – although I consider these to be public health issues rather than in the political realm.
That said, and at the risk of alienating and possibly losing some Beerchaser followers, I’m going to make a case for possibly an unpopular position on the nomenclature for this rivalry.
As reported by ESPN on 7/26/20 in an article “Oregon, Oregon State dropping ‘Civil War’ name for rivalry games.”
“Changing this name is overdue as it represents a connection to a war fought to perpetuate slavery,’ Oregon State president Ed Ray said in a statement. ‘While not intended as reference to the actual Civil War, OSU sports competition should not provide any misconstrued reference to this divisive episode in American history.” (emphasis added)
It should be noted, that a new name has not since been adopted and the primary suggestion to this point is “The Platypus Bowl.” (Yeah Right!). As Oregonian Columnist, John Canzano stated in his piece on 11/22/21 entitled, “Ducks-Beavers rivalry game doesn’t just need name — it needs a purpose,” “Get right on it. Because this no-name stuff is a no-win thing.”
I’m not sure that I concur with Canzano’s suggestion that the schools sell the naming rights to the clash. (* See external photo attributions at the end of the post.)
The Platypus Bowl?? Give me a break! *1
Now, I personally, would not suggest for a second that equating a football game between two State schools to the tragedy of the War Between the States would be appropriate. And other than some frothy and probably suds-induced rhetoric years ago at the start of the rivalry making the comparison, I don’t believe that analogy holds.
It’s antiquated and the controversy arose in 2020 because of divisions in the US. The discord has even caused rioters in Portland to topple an historic downtown statue of Abraham Lincoln – it hasn’t been restored to this date.
The State of Oregon has a troubled past when it comes to race, and the issues fomenting the riots (at least initially) are serious and compelling. By acquiescing, however, and renaming a “gridiron battle” as a symbolic gesture, do we exacerbate the split rather than putting this contest in perspective for what it is – a fun and exciting intrastate rivalry?
Can one really compare an annual football game between Beavers and Ducks from Corvallis and Eugene to the epic and tragic Battles of Antietam, Shiloh, Bull Run or Chancellorsville? It can also be asserted that “civil war” is a generic term referring to two or more fighting armies or competing entities from within the same country or nation.
I would suggest that putting forth this analogy is an inferential leap that if pursued further might suggest that the Apple Cup in Washington between the University of Washington and Washington State – a rivalry dating back to 1900 – be renamed because of inappropriate religious implications – The Garden of Eden and forbidden fruit:
“The (forbidden) fruit has commonly been represented as an apple due to wordplay of the Latin word for apple, malus, which can mean both ‘evil’ and ‘apple’….The term can also refer to something illegal or immoral to do.”
Ironically, that Biblical inference may be appropriate this year since both Jimmy Lake, the UW Football Coach and Nick Rolovich from WSU have both been fired since the season started. They may be using their resumes in lieu of fig leaves to cover their (employment) nakedness.
Of course, the trend in purifying semantics could go further – along the lines of school mascots – as has been the case recently throughout the country. While Ducks other than their obnoxious quacks are non-controversial, Beaver are not sacrosanct as documented in a Wildlife Services Fact Sheet:
“Beaver cut down trees for food and for building materials. On large trees, beaver will feed by removing all the bark within easy reach around the tree. This prevents moisture and nutrients from moving from roots to leaves and causes the tree to die. Other trees are lost due to rising water levels behind the beaver dam.”
Questionable Analogies Continued…..
As Eggers writes in his fascinating history of the historic contest, former Oregon Coach, John “Cap” McEwan, who had been an All-American as a West Point cadet and went on to become head coach at the USMA is the source of the appellation:
“(McEwan) was the one who first labeled the Oregon – Oregon State football game as ‘the great Civil War’ in the lead up to the 1929 game in Eugene.”
And it’s understandable how athletic coaches in pre-game speeches, use battle metaphors to motivate their players – especially in football. But let’s examine the thought process to see if the connection deserves some scrutiny in the case at point – especially for those who are literalists.
Take this excerpt from a wonderful and scholarly blog (“Skulking in the Holes”) in a post entitled “That Old Sports as War Metaphor” published by Dr. Jamel Ostwald, a Professor of History at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is qualified to opine on the topic since his teaching interests include Early Modern European History, History of Religion, and War Military History. He also has several books to his credit.
Interestingly enough, although the Eastern Connecticut Warriors (hmm..) have a robust athletic program, it doesn’t include football although students can join the Football Club.
Rumor has it, however, that Dr. Ostwald’s undergraduate and graduate alma mater, where he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in Early Modern European History, does have a football program —The Ohio State University!
“The angle I’ll talk about today is one that appears again and again – the comparison of football (or sport more generally) to war. Given the physical and mental damage caused by throwing bodies around after a pigskin, it’s no surprise that football players and coaches will, in unguarded moments, refer to their contest as ‘war,’ with the linesmen ‘fighting it out in the trenches,’ with the need to ‘defend this house’ [from assault apparently], and so on.”
“War is phenomenon which is essentially coupled with destruction, devastation and sorrow and there exist no exception. It is often considered evil and gloomy, too. On the contrary, sport is usually perceived as something that builds character and that it keeps one healthy and is a grand source of positive energies.”
Note: The excerpt above is from a 4,678 word -19 page essay published on May 1, 2017 and seemed to add to the discussion. I can’t cite the author, however, because upon further investigating, I discovered that the site is an “essay mill” – a hot topic in England. These are sites where one can purchase college papers and even dissertations from professional writers.
This topic could be a blog post in itself, and the internet reviews and articles on the various options available to British university students were fascinating (and troubling). At least there’s a thread of connection since we are talking about colleges…….
Before abandoning the war vs sports topic and continuing to justify my position about why the comparison between the US Civil War and the Oregon vs. Oregon State game is not intellectually valid and abandoning the traditional title is misguided, I want to further my point a bit more.
After college and the Navy, my employer was Clackamas County for seven years. I worked closely with County Counsel who were my legal advisors when I worked for the Elections Department and then the County Commissioners. I was about the only OSU grad, since most of the lawyers went to the University of Oregon for undergrad or law school or both.
Each year I had a bet on the Oregon vs OSU game with the late Mike Montgomery, who was the Chief Deputy DA. The loser had to wear a tie to work and buy the winner lunch the Monday after the game and be the brunt of sarcastic comments from co-workers. I still have the tie – probably because I was the one who usually had to wear it……
For the last twenty-five years of my career, I worked in an outstanding large law firm (Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt) and two of our five offices were in Portland and Seattle. Since both UW and U of O have law schools, the Washington Husky vs Duck rivalry was almost as heated as OSU vs Oregon.
Before the rivalry games, many lawyers who had onerous production goals would temporarily abandon the billable hour to research and e-mail stupid jokes, make individual wagers and organize firm betting pools (of course, without violating any statutory prohibitions…).
Each year, one would see the same inane jokes such as the following:
Q: What do you call a Duck Fan with half a brain?
A: Talented and gifted.
Q: How do you keep Beavers from infesting your yard?
A: Put up goal posts.
Q: What is the difference between an Oregon State football player and a dollar?
A: You can get four quarters out of a dollar.
The e-mail traffic would be frenetic reaching a crescendo until some of the lawyers who went to Ivy League Schools and were above the fray, would admonish their colleagues to return to more cerebral (and profitable…) topics such as the Rule Against Perpetuities or drafting Daubert motions. (Besides, who can get pumped up about the Harvard vs Yale rivalry.) This type of revelry is typical of companies throughout the entire State of Oregon in the week preceding the game.
So viewing the above pictures of the school mascots and the vacuous dialogue in the examples, go ahead and argue that continuing the name “Civil War” has broader social implications or invites inappropriate recollections of the Monitor and the Merrimack at the Battle at Hampton Roads or is any way equivalent symbolically or otherwise to Sherman’s March to the Sea.
Since I was in legal management and responding to 150 lawyers who taught me to anticipate questions, I would also suggest that in the future when contemplating such actions, the decision-makers carefully consider the following rather than reacting more viscerally:
- What problem will the proposed solution attempt to solve?
- What individuals and/or groups will be affected by the proposed solution?
- Will it have just a short-term impact or effectively accomplish the intended goal for the long term.
- What, if any, will be the unintended consequences?
In my own family, the emotions over the rivalry are present since I’m a Beav, my wife of forty-one years is a Duck and our older daughter, Lisa and her husband, Jamie, are both Huskies – they met at UW. In fact, Jamie is a third-generation Husky whose grandfather had season tickets for sixty-two years.
His dad, Jon Magnusson, the former CEO and Chair of the Magnusson Klemencic Associates firm in Seattle did the structural engineering for Husky Stadium, the resurrected Hayward Field in Eugene, Martin Stadium at WSU and will be involved with the $325 million renovation of Reser Stadium in Corvallis starting next month.
The picture below is from Beerchasing two years ago where we traded Beaver-Husky barbs while drinking cheap beer at The Caroline a great Seattle dive bar. (In the picture, I had just asked “How many Huskies does it take to change a tire?” Answer: “Two. One to hold the wine spritzers and one to call Dad.”)
Jamie traveled from Seattle to Corvallis to watch my reaction in 2015 when the Huskies trounced the Beavs 52 to 7. He agreed that we should leave in the fourth quarter.
I’m concerned about our country (and the world) and pray about topics ranging from climate change, social justice and discrimination, poverty and economic inequality, drug addiction, homelessness, access to health-care, voting rights, educational policy, the plight of refugees and other seemingly insurmountable issues we face.
But I would suggest that each of us do something tangible about the above crises by contributing our time and money, further educating ourselves about the causes and having a constructive (and civil) dialogue with others who have different opinions. These are more constructive than symbolic gestures of questionable effectiveness.
However, this Saturday – one of the few where the Duck I love will allow me to have Reser’s Chips and Creamy Ranch Dip while drinking a PBR Tallboy, I’ll be watching the civil war game (where the Beavs are bowl eligible for the first time since 2013) and celebrating the joy of intrastate athletic competition.
Cheers, Have a Wonderful and Safe Thanksgiving and Go Beavs!
External Photo Attribution
*1 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Platypus-sketch.jpg This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer. Author: John Gould – 1864.
*2 Wikimedia Commons (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statue_of_Abraham_Lincoln_(Portland,_Oregon)#/media/File:Abraham_Lincoln,_South_Park_Blocks,_Portland,_Oregon_(2013).JPG) Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Author: Another Believer – 27 September, 2013.
*3 (https://www.opb.org/article/2020/12/28/portland-oregon-statues-protest-black-lives-matter-elk/) Author: Sergio Olmos.
*4 Wikimedia Commons (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garden_of_Eden n the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer. Author: Peter Paul Rubens – circa 1615.
*6 Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_McEwan#/media/File:John_McEwan.jpg) This media file is in the public domain in the United States. Author: Brown Brothers – Photographer – 1916.
*7 Eastern Connecticut State University Website (https://gowarriorathletics.com/index.aspx)
*8 Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BennyBeaverPhoto.jpg) Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Author: Flickr user “VRC Jeremy” – 2 March 2008.
*9 Wikimedia Commons (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Oregon_Duck#/media/File:The_Oregon_Duck_in_2011.jpg) Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Author: Ray Terrill – 19 November 2011.
*10 Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Hampton_Roads#/media/File:Battle_of_Hampton_Roads_3g01752u.jpg) Artisit: Kurz & Allison.
*11 Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherman%27s_March_to_the_Sea#/media/File:F.O.C._Darley_and_Alexander_Hay_Ritchie_-_Sherman’s_March_to_the_Sea.jpg) Artist: F.O.C. [Felix Octavius Carr] Darley, (1822-1888).