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Paranoia sets in during Rivalry Week

Michigan coach Lloyd Carr has closed practice this week. No broadcast crews allowed. No strange people allowed on the practice fields of Ann Arbor. I know because Gary Bender, Dave Ryan and I are heading up there for an ESPN assignment. I would not be surprised to learn that there are similar policies in the following cities:

• Columbus, Ohio.
• Tuscaloosa and Auburn, Ala.
• Blacksburg and Charlottesville, Va.
• Eugene, Ore., and whatever town Oregon State is in (OK, I know it's Corvallis).
• Clemson and Columbia, S.C.
• Berkeley and Stanford, Calif.

When I was a head coach, I did precisely the same thing during rivalry moments. The engines that drive preparations for this week's in-state tilts are the basest fears of coaches, players and staffs. When we begin preparations for these contests, each of us competitors is reminded of the anonymous wag who penned the wonderful aphorism: "Just because you are paranoid does not mean they are not out to get you."

There it is, the enemy is at the gates, and to be conquered in these games is a fate worse than death. Rivalry contests are not about football, they are about tribes. I have always been embarrassed by our foolish passions at these times, especially my own when I was responsible for the performance of one of the teams.

I have looked with disdain on fans who harass, cajole, threaten, gesture, bark, cluck, waddle, flap, paint their faces, puncture their bodies, take their clothes off (with bodies that cry out to remain permanently covered) or otherwise humiliate themselves. Since I walked away from coaching almost a decade ago, I have had little sympathy for coaches who take this rivalry thing so seriously that they live in a constant state of mild hysteria. Never mind that I had done the same not long before.

But now -- on Nov. 17, 2005 -- I am thinking about our nation with its deep political divide and our planet with its horrific daily carnage, and I'm beginning to think I might have been hasty.

Maybe tribalism is a fundamental facet of our personalities and our fun football fantasy version is relatively harmless when contrasted with the real thing.

The best definition I have seen of the word tribalism is simple: "Tribalism is a double standard. What is OK for my tribe is not OK for anyone else's tribe." The dictionary version only indicates strong loyalty to one's group, but that does not describe the virulent forms we see today.

Real Tribalism
Carolyn Curry, Ph.D., is a scholar, the kind who delights in dragging her not-so-scholarly husband to academic lectures on college campuses. On one such occasion in the early
'90s, we were privileged to listen to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the eminent historian and author. Schlesinger captured his audience, even the jock, when he discussed the real horrors of tribalism around the world.

His vivid language lingers. He said, "The virus of tribalism has the potential to become the equivalent of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the next century." We in the United States did not begin to understand until Sept. 11, 2001. We are still learning, as we look on in horror at the images from Israel, France and Iraq, wondering whether we are next.

When Lloyd Carr or Bill Curry worries about someone swiping a snap count, the coach's paranoia is of the sort that poses no threat to others, and it makes our childish games a little more intriguing for the sporting public. It is possible that fans deserve a break from the current reality and coaches' shenanigans offer a reasonably healthy respite. Maybe one worthy outcome of our culture's obsession with sports is that we can play out our tribal rivalries without real casualties … most of the time.

At worst, there is a cathartic value to ranting and venting our frustrations at our stadium of choice on Saturday afternoons.

The Huddle
On Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001, I made a strange odyssey. Summoned by ESPN to Birmingham, Ala., we were to broadcast the Alabama vs. Southern Mississippi game if the Southeastern Conference decided to play games that week. Conference officials around the country were gathered to decide whether football should be played that weekend in the aftermath of the events of Sept. 11.

ESPN had provided games within driving distance for as many broadcasters and crews as possible so air travel could be kept to a minimum. I was embarrassed that we were even thinking about something as trivial as sport when our nation was reeling from the unthinkable.

As I approached Attalla, Ala., I received the call to turn around and go home. I was relieved and began to focus on why football is so very important to so many of us. It dawned on me that there is at least one reason that has merit.

The football huddle is a metaphor for our culture, and rivalries draw particular attention to one's preferred huddle. I know the analogy isn't perfect, but it fits in many ways. Our huddles include folks who are black, brown, white, red, yellow, liberal, conservative, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and atheist. We are slim, fat, short, tall, fast and slow. We are analytical folks and impulsive folks. We have some of the finest people on Earth, and heaven knows we have some wild horse riders. We have been through the fires of Bobby Dodd, Vince Lombardi, Don Shula or some other coach who knows exactly how to extract every ounce of our energy.

Americans see all of that, and it resonates with them. They crave its community. Consciously or unconsciously, they take it -- and its members -- into their hearts.

The men who earn a place in the huddle have experienced the miracle of team. The training camp experience is unbelievable. It is day after day, week after week, two-a-day, three-a-day practices in the heat, often in 14 pounds of equipment. Many drop out, are dropped or are injured. Numbers thin, and everybody thinks about quitting; trust me, everybody.

For those who stay, there is the opportunity to participate in the greatest team sport ever devised. It is the only sport in which every player needs every teammate on every play, just to survive.

We learn, ever so slowly, that our differences do not matter in the huddle. When we trudge in after each interminable workout, we sense that the sweat smells the same on everybody. When we get busted in the mouth, the blood that trickles is the same color. Everybody is tired. Everybody is hurt.

It is in this process that the miracle occurs. Men who have been raised to hate each other's guts become brothers. I have seen racists reformed. I have seen the most unlikely hugs after victories … or losses. Tribal lines blur. Our players become brothers … for life.

It is what America is supposed to be, could be, might be, in our best dreams.

At best, this constitutes the shattering of tribal barriers. Wishful thinking? Foolish idealism? Maybe, but the next time you see a gutsy, stirring comeback by a college team with players from all kinds of backgrounds, the next time you sit teary-eyed while they celebrate their diversity by embracing in the end zone, consider this question: Where else in our culture do you see such unvarnished affection between folks from different tribes?

I've decided I like most everything about our rivalries, as long as my team wins and the really bad bodies remain covered.

ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. His Center Stage examinations appear each week during the college football season.