The last weekend in November brings the last regular season college football games and features some of the nation’s most historic rivalries. Michigan and Ohio State play in what is probably the most storied college football rivalry. The antipathy between the two Midwestern states goes back centuries to the mostly bloodless Michigan-Ohio War, which Ohio won and received the city of Toledo as reward. Sometimes when you win, you lose. The U of M-OSU rivalry had its hayday in the 1960s and 1970s when legendary coaches Woody Hayes (Ohio State) and Bo Schembechler (Michigan) squared off. This was transcendental stuff, and Hayes was a devoted if not particularly trenchant reader of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Of course, Hayes’s career would meet an ignominious end when he punched an opposing player in the throat, which is very un-Waldo even if it initially seems like a self-reliant act.
Alabama and Auburn square off in the Iron Bowl with national title implications and the torn allegiances of supermodel Katherine Webb who attended Auburn but whose beau quarterbacks the Crimson Tide. Hunky boyfriend or alma mater? Thank goodness for that poor Jewish woman who had to choose which son would be sent to a concentration camp or we’d be without adequate analogies to describe Ms. Webb’s predicament.
But where are the ridiculous trophies, you ask? Where are the fetish objects? Well, here are the fetish objects.
Wisconsin-Minnesota, Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Even though this game took place last week (Wisconsin won, 20-7), it bears mentioning that the axe was only instituted after the original fetish object, the Slab of Bacon, vanished under mysterious circumstances. The slab of bacon wasn’t an actual slab of bacon but rather a “black walnut slab with the word ‘BACON’ carved at both ends.
On one side is a football with an ‘M’ or a ‘W’ depending on how it is displayed.” Questions still surround the sudden reappearance of the slab in 1994 in Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium, but the Axe has remained the contested token of choice.
Washington-Washington State, Apple Cup. This contest used be called the Governor’s Cup but was changed to the Apple Cup in 1962. Washington is famous for apples. Boring.
Oregon-Oregon State, the Platypus. This is kind of a cool trophy because the platypus is sort of a combination of a duck (Oregon’s mascot) and a beaver (Oregon State’s mascot). But that’s where the intrigue stops. The game is known famously as “The Civil War” because of the reserved, sophisticated temperament of the participants. West Coast people complain about East Coast bias all the time, but this is why it exists: East Coast people know something about savagery and animosity—you know, the stuff of entertainment.
South Carolina-Clemson, the Hardee’s Trophy. No one really seems to care much about this trophy, even the supposedly devoted fans of these teams. Regardless, it’s good to know that when they aren’t paying Paris Hilton to eat a hamburger in the most disgusting way, they’re sponsoring the Tigers-Gamecocks rivalry.
Ole Miss-Mississippi State, The Golden Egg. (Actually played Thanksgiving night, Mississippi State won 17-10 in overtime). If you’re imagining that the egg in question comes from some duck or goose purloined during Reconstruction, well your imagination has run wild. The egg atop the trophy is just a football, which happened to be more oblong in shape in the 1920s. The trophy was invented was to put an end to the pandemonium that tended to erupt at the end of the games, most famously when Ole Miss fans rushed the field in Starkville to tear down the goal posts in 1926. As a result, the Golden Egg serves as a means of social control to keep property destruction to a minimum.
Indiana-Purdue, the Old Oaken Bucket. This is the fetish object par excellence, especially since neither team has been very good at football since, like, forever (the Drew Brees era at Purdue excepted). In 1925, a committee of alumni from both schools agreed that an old oaken bucket was “the most Hoosier form of trophy,” which is so true it’s almost not even funny. Thus commenced the search for the ideal bucket whose bucket-ness would represent the spirit of this Hoosier state rivalry and of Hoosierness in general. The bucket was found on the Bruner family farm in southern Indiana, and we are all better off because of it. Is there bad poetry involved? Yep.
Other notable games that have already been played this year but which bear mentioning because of the novelty of their trophy and/or tradition:
Northwestern State-Stephen F. Austin, Chief Caddo. It’s easy to forget that some traditions honoring Native Americans actually do just that and don’t try and cloak their racism in lame-ass rationalizations and more racism. This is no cigar store Indian. Chief Caddo commemorates the Caddo tribe for helping French and Spanish settlers along the Louisiana-Texas border lo these many years ago. There are some fascinating origin myths and stories associated with Chief Caddo, too.
Concordia (MN)-St. Olaf, The Troll. The troll is proudly known as the “ugliest traveling trophy in college sports.” The troll has beenfashioned (if that’s the word) “from moss which was harvested from pine trees in Norway about four decades ago.” Finally, a college football tradition Rose Nyland would be proud of.
It’s worth mentioning that some historic and notable rivalries. (Missouri-Kansas, Pittsburgh-West Virginia, Texas A&M-Baylor) have gone the way of all flesh as a result of conference realignment, itself a consequence of capitalism’s stranglehold on collegiate athletics. And college football has done amazing work trying to obscure the fact that the student-athletes competing against one another receive little financial compensation, thus allowing universities to earn record profits while the actual people who compete (the labor, as it were) cannot themselves profit. So it’s not too much of an overreach to draw some dispiriting connection between this system of exploitation and the frenzied storming of Wal-mart at 4am on the day after Thanksgiving. (Or you could just read Marx and watch the Schwartzenegger-Sinbad holiday classic, Jingle All the Way).
But don’t wallow in alienated misery, friends. This weekend’s college football rivalries offer temporary transport to a more primitive economy in which the fans of the teams have some measure of control over the value of the objects. As silly as these trophies and tokens may be, their value is merely, gloriously symbolic because it’s limited to only those who care about the schools and about the game The players may be victims of exploitation in the larger NCAA system, but this weekend their labor actually seems to matter in this more sentimental economy. So rejoice in the fact that there is no use-value: Paul Bunyan’s axe chops no wood, the apple cup carries no apples. All of these fetish objects conveniently provide those of us gluttons who may end up watching ten (or more) hours of college football on Friday and Saturday with opportunities to rationalize that gluttony by harkening back to a pre-capitalist system where value has yet to be commodified and that old oaken bucket becomes simultaneously a worthless and priceless object.