Friday, November 23, 2007

Just a Game | by Jay

Football is a sport resplendent with warlike terminology -- battles of the gridiron between two squads fighting over territory; aerial attacks; bombs, blitzes, advances and flankers; veterans in the trenches; field generals who throw bullets from shotgun formations.

Football isn't war, of course (well, unless you're Nick Saban), but sometimes it comes close, symbolically speaking. Take an innocent game between two teams, stir in a liberal helping of deep-seated regional hatred or nationalistic pride, and suddenly you've got a proxy for all kinds of latent, provincial anger and animosity. It's not just two sports teams trying to win a game; it's England and France reliving the Hundred Years' War in every soccer match between the two national teams; it's Cold War brinksmanship played out between the Americans and Soviets on an Olympic basketball court; it's Michigan and Ohio State fighting a war over Toledo (a war that Michigan surely won, Lou quipped last night, because who would fight to gain Toledo?) In an extreme example, it's La guerra del fĂștbol, with soccer riots escalating an actual shooting war between El Salvador and Honduras.

The "Border War" tomorrow night between Kansas and Mizzou is a prime example of a game taking on historical dimensions. In the 100+ year history of this matchup the stakes have never been so high: it's a battle of top-five squads, and both teams having a legitimate shot at the BCS Championship. But it's much, much more than that. The Jayhawks versus the Tigers is a proxy for a simmering state feud that goes back to the Civil War, a rivalry that throughout history often erupted in armed conflict.

Adam Thompson in the WSJ had a great cover story earlier this week on the Border War and all the latent ill will it's stirring up. This is what makes college football so vibrant, visceral, and sometimes terrifying: it can awaken a century-old feud and get people hopping mad like it happened yesterday. Everything comes spilling out; tempers flare; the blood boils. The game is no longer just a game.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- As the universities of Kansas and Missouri prepare to play the most important football game in their 116-year-old rivalry, trash talking is rampant here in a metropolis that straddles both states.

Yet this isn't just the usual back-and-forth about which quarterback or defense is superior. Nor is it centered on the inevitable jokes about how many Kansas (or Missouri) students are needed to change a light bulb. Rather, this trash talking is focused on which state's residents behaved more abominably amid the Civil War.

Fans "go back to the history books and start calling people names for things that started 150 years ago," says Kevin Worley, a Kansas City-based documentary filmmaker who isn't immune to that tendency himself. A die-hard Missouri fan, Mr. Worley suspects that "there's this ancestral hatred of Kansas bred in me" by a lineage traceable to soldiers who marched with Confederate general Jo Shelby.

To most of the nation, the showdown Saturday between second-ranked Kansas and fourth-ranked Missouri will most likely determine which team will play in the national championship game. (To reach that final, the victor Saturday would need to win one subsequent game.)

But to many here on both sides of the state line, the game is merely a proxy for a war that never really ended. Perhaps no other football rivalry in the nation pits against each other states that once fought as brutally as did Kansas and Missouri...