Monday, November 24, 2008

A Rational Assessment of the Rivalry with Illinois

Northwestern's rivalry with Illinois is the worst rivalry in all of college football.

A good rivalry rests on the twin pillars of stakes and hatred. The stakes in the Illinois-Northwestern battle have been historically low thanks to a shared heritage of football ineptitude. The last two years may have been the biggest two Sweet Sioux games in the history of the rivalry and both involved one team attempting to pad its bowl record and another scraping for the possibility of spending a December evening in Detroit. Even when one of these two teams awakens from its slumber to throw its weight around the Big Ten, the other team usually is having the type of season that would require several Sinbad-led montages to even approach the fringe of mediocrity.

The low stakes contribute to the embarrassing lack of hatred in this rivalry. A good rivalry should transcend football and reach levels of enmity traditionally associated with hillbilly blood feuds or the inexplicable hatred of Armenians by virtually every Eurasian people. I simply cannot muster up the passion to hate Illinois the way I hate other Big Ten teams. For example, after the victory in Ann Arbor, I was disappointed that the Northwestern fans did not raze their stadium, burn their crops, and capture the surviving children to be sold as entertainment for warlords and bandit captains in far flung lands as a traveling troupe of acrobats and gladiators. I also find most Illinois fans to be civilized unlike Iowa fans who actually travel in hordes, eat all of their meals in haunch form, and live in stone caves from whence they have chased lesser Iowans by threatening them with stones and crudely-fashioned clubs. I wish the Illini well when they are not playing Northwestern. Even their coach looks like a sort of benign muppet.

Ron Zook demonstrates his natural
gaping-mouthed muppet posture

Of course, this is all for football. As soon as basketball season rolls around, I hate the Illini for showboating around our coterie of clumsy Croatians who are forced to alliteratively stand around stiffly and watch the baskets rain down upon them.

Perhaps it makes sense to look to Europe for a proper sense of rivalry. I was thinking about Italian rivalries earlier this week when I saw the Il Palio horse race in Siena prominently featured in the new James Bond movie. The race consists of horses representing any 10 of the 17 traditional districts in Siena.

The best part about the race is that the riders (who ride bareback) are allowed to use their whips to attack other horses and riders. I'm personally coming out in favor of any sporting event that encourages competitors to give their competitors a face full of bull penis. Incidentally, in the movie, Bond chases the villain out from a sewer grate into the massive, teeming crowd that you can see pictured above. Instead of merely removing his jacket and disappearing, the villain inexplicably draws attention to himself by shoving helpless passers-by out of his way and then firing his pistol indiscriminately into the crowd, hitting everyone in his way except for James Bond. This has to be the lowest moment in villainy since the evil biotech CEO in "The Sixth Day" kept sending clones of his dead henchmen to kill Arnold Schwarzenegger. Personally, after the third or fourth time a henchman died in the line of duty, I'd consider mixing it up and give a few new heavies an opportunity to be flung into bottomless pits, or vats of caustic chemicals, or heavy machinery involved in the manufacture of rotating helicopter blades.

Unfortunately, the one time I saw Il Palio, the race looked almost civilized, instead of the Ben Hur-like bloodbath I was hoping for.

For a true Italian rivalry, one has to turn to the pugni, a series of Venetian street battles in the Early Modern period where local neighborhood organizations would gather on the city's bridges from time to time in order to beat each other in the name of something. Armed with sticks and canes, the two sides would battle until one gave up, the light ran out, or the showdown turned into a festive street riot. Robert C. Davis's The war of the fists: popular culture and public violence in late Renaissance Venice decribes the pugni as a particularly fertile ground for nicknames such as "World Eater," "Eats the Dead," "Man Killer," and "Destroyer of Boldness." I'm just going to go out on a limb and suggest that any time the eating of the dead is suggested, you've got yourself a viable rivalry.

But the account gets better. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Council of Ten had tired of the chaos resulting from the pugni. As a result, factions found other ways to compete without necessarily destroying large segments of the city. I'll let Davis explain:
"Such traditional rivalries were more likely to be expressed in the so-called forze d'ecole, another form of competition which required both great strength and considerable agility. Here twenty or more costumed participants from each side would attempt to amaze or shame their opponents by building the tallest and most elaborate human pyramid possible."
To sum up: The Illinois-Northwestern football rivalry is terrible because Illinois is traditionally lousy and the fans do not live in caves. The rivalry should ideally be strong enough to involve attacking opponents with bull penises or building human pyramids, but probably not shooting at James Bond.

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