Column | Feb. 12

The role that rivalries play

My brother recently sent me a photo of a bathroom stall at his school, the University of California at Berkeley, and over the toilet seat dispenser, someone had attached a sign that read “Stanford diplomas, take one.” Naturally, I was tempted to replicate the idea at Princeton, replacing the school name of Stanford with the name Harvard, of course.

Yet at the same time, I questioned the ultimate role that rivalries play in academia. Some of the more famous ones, of course, include the intra-Ivy League triumvirate of Harvard, Princeton and Yale, but there is also the UC Berkeley — Stanford face-off (next time you have the chance, visit stanfordrejects.com), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – Duke University, University of California at Los Angeles — University of Southern California, Boston College – University of Notre Dame, University of Arizona – Arizona State University and countless others. The rivalries, understandably, most often hinge on sports, and as long as they stay confined to the field, they can be good fun between neighboring or distant universities. However, when taken too far, rivalries can have demoralizing effects on the overall student population and in extreme cases can incite violence or else intense animosity.

At USC and UCLA for instance, students will organize squads to camp out in front of their two statues — Tommy Trojan and the UCLA bear, respectively — in order to ensure that no one from the opposite school has the opportunity to vandalize the mascots, particularly around game days. And at Princeton, the cannon buried in Cannon Green was the prize in a veritable game of tug-of-war between Princeton and Rutgers during the mid-1800s — it was finally implanted indelibly in the center of campus within a block of concrete to prevent any further thefts and counter thefts in 1875. Of course, those students have the right to spend their time as they wish, but it does come across as a waste — students choose to spend their time acting as vigilantes working to prevent vandalism. This vandalism, besides being illegal, is just downright disrespectful and costly to the damaged school.

Even worse than expending huge amounts of energy and inciting unnecessary tension, though, are cases in which students physically seek to injure students of opposite schools, whether athletes or fans. As far back as Roman times, riots would often erupt over the results of chariot races. More recently, in 1972 at a basketball game between Ohio State University and the University of Minnesota, an Ohio State player was violently assaulted on the field when an opposing player punched him in the face and kicked him. Then, another player stepped on his head.

What’s more, rivalries, when taken too far, only harm the schools’ own images, portraying the schools’ students as people who are aggressive, sore losers and perhaps even a tad unstable — after all, who in their right mind would beat up an opposing player because of the urge to win a rivalry? As college students at reputable higher education institutions, it is our responsibility, and indeed our obligation, to hold ourselves to higher standards — the standards of our school.

The question then becomes: To what ends do such rivalries serve? After all, at their base, rivalries stem innately from a sense of competition or a need to compare ourselves with others. Hence, the school that we compare ourselves to effectively becomes a metric against which we measure ourselves. In this way, such comparisons affirm our prowess relative to others and thus elevates others to the standing that we have or higher — since a comparison is tantamount to saying that we can be “as good” as someone else.

Rivalries have the potential to help bind together different institutions by introducing a common point of interest. Yet when taken too far, rivalries become sources of hatred and resentment and can even precipitate malevolent behavior or conflict. School pride is admirable, but rivalries should only be a source of camaraderie between peers — not a source of contention that breeds hate or fosters the need to feel better about ourselves at the expense of others nor a source of constant comparison in which competitors are reduced to perpetually one-upping each other.

Jason Choe is a freshman from Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. He can be reached at jasonjc@princeton.edu.

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