Ohio State, Michigan! Michigan, Ohio State! The most storied rivalry in college football comes to Columbus on Saturday. This year both squads are undefeated, ranked first and second in the country. This has created an intensity so high-pitched that the cities of Columbus and Ann Arbor threaten to spontaneously combust into clouds of scarlet and gray, blue and gold.
A century ago, W.E.B. Du Bois spoke out against “king football” and its potential to cause the “vulgarization of campus life.” If Du Bois were alive today, he would not be amused. OSU-Michigan rivalry transcends vulgarity: This is sports as occupier; sports as the all-consuming Moloch bent on ingesting anyone trying to read a book on the quad or toss a frisbee.
Not even the body politic is immune to this demon in a varsity T-shirt. One of the most closely watched Congressional elections in the country, between Ohio Republican Deborah Pryce and Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy, still has no declared winner. At this writing, Pryce leads by roughly 3,600 votes with 18,000 absentee and 9,000 provisional ballots still to be counted. The count was supposed to begin November 18, but that is game day, so it will be delayed until Sunday. As a Chicago Tribune headline writer noted in its coverage of the race, “No contest: It’s Ohio State-Michigan in a landslide.”
But Saturday’s insanity is highlighted in fears that this friendly game of pigskin will end in an orgy of junior-league sectarian violence. The student newspaper The Lantern contains a plea to Ohio State students to “use your passion tactfully, not criminally, because…the Columbus and university police will be out in full force before and after Saturday’s kick-off. I would imagine spending all day and night Saturday at the Franklin County jail is not the memory OSU fans want to have.”
The paper also reports that the police have taken steps to remove the temptation of car-burning around the campus area by prohibiting parking on a number of local streets.
Fire is a real fear in the game’s aftermath. I heard a local sports radio announcer joke uneasily Sunday about how people should make sure they burn their old couches, not new ones–a reference to the more than fifty fires that took place after Ohio State defeated Texas earlier this year.
But for those who can’t wait until after the game, a Friday night “Hate Michigan” rally was planned in Columbus, headlined by local band the Dead Schembechlers (The band, named after former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, who died suddenly on Friday, announced that it would disband in honor of the coach and donate any proceeds from the rally to charity. To the organizers’ credit, after Schembechler’s death, the rally was re-named “Beat Michigan.)
The mood in Columbus has caused enough concern that University of Michigan dean of students Sue Eklund, along with the head of the Alumni Association and the student body president issued official warnings to students about traveling to Columbus.
Some of the advice they give includes:
–Try carpooling to the game; if possible, drive a car with non- Michigan license plates.
–Keep your Michigan gear to a minimum, or wait until you are inside the stadium to display it.
–Stay low-key; don’t draw unnecessary attention to yourself.
And then there’s the drinking. Ohio State has threatened to suspend students under 21 caught with the demon rum, but The Lantern writes with ironic restraint, “If the university were to kick out each student arrested for underage drinking, we would not have as many students.”
This is farce carrying the threat of tragedy. The game should be an invitation to have some fun. Instead it becomes a backdrop for a raging bouillabaisse of testosterone and alienation. To the people of Columbus, and a university with a proud tradition of student organizing and solidarity, cheer yourselves hoarse for the Buckeyes on Saturday. But save your anger for the people who deserve it: the administrators who hiked your tuition while spending hundreds of thousands on stadium upkeep; the politicians who interfered with your right to vote in 2004 and the corporations that have created a Rust Belt state whose once-proud assembly lines are increasingly idle.
As OSU assistant professor and Buckeye fan Pranav Jani said to me, “In our drive to create an inclusive, safe and progressive environment on this campus, Wolverines are the least of our problems.”