To Gbenga Okubadejo, the “Muck Fichigan” T-shirts he sees students wear around campus are a playful poke at his college’s rival.
But the University of Illinois sophomore acknowledges that the pokes can go too far.
“I think it’s healthy to have rivalry and competition, but when you get to the point where you’re getting hurt or disrespecting other schools, you’re pushing the line,” he said.
And many believe that line may have been crossed with an Ohio State University fan T-shirt that reads “I’d rather shower at Penn State than cheer for the Wolverines,” referring to the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.
A photo of the shirt went viral Wednesday after being posted on Jezebel, a popular women’s blog.
Okubadejo said the T-shirt was an example of students going too far in the name of rivalry and competition.
“I feel like sports are just meant to be enjoyed. It’s entertainment,” he said. “It should just be a social activity to have fun. You don’t need to bring hate to the game. It puts unnecessary unease around the schools.”
Gavin Kilduff, professor of management at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business, has researched the causes and consequences of rivalry and competition by focusing on the NCAA and other sports teams.
He has found three factors that influence the formation of rivalries: similarity, repeated competition and evenly-matched past competition.
Schools that are in the same geographic location tend to have stronger rivalries, Kilduff said.
“When it comes to university rivalries, geographic location is the biggest determinant,” he said. “But that by no means explains everything.”
Ultimately, schools that are similar in any way can be perceived as threatening to each other.
“People who are similar to us can pose a greater threat to our sense of identity and self-worth,” he said. “How they perform relative to us gives us more information about our own performance.”
When it comes to repeated competition, Kilduff said research has shown that the more you experience something positive or negative, the stronger your feelings toward that experience get. That means repeated wins or losses against the same school can cultivate strong feelings of rivalry and competition.
“If you’re repeatedly competing against another school or team, you build the competitive intensity slowly but surely,” he said. “When you compete against a rival, there’s more at stake than just that specific contest. There’s this whole history that’s driving the motivation to win.”
And evenly matched-competitions are the kinds of contests that are apt to live on in the minds of athletes, Kilduff said, and push that motivation further.
But rivalry and competition don’t just mean fights and mean glares — the effects can also be positive.
In an analysis of long-distance runners, Kilduff found that when runners competed against rivals, they tended to run faster, increasing their average speed by five seconds per kilometer. Looking at the NCAA, there was a higher level of defensive intensity when rivals competed.
“It’s consistent with the idea that a rivalry can push us harder to succeed,” he said. “Just thinking about rivalry puts you in a competitive mindset, pushes you to perform.”
Brock Spack, head football coach at Illinois State University, said rivalries between schools make college football what it is and increase morale and pride in school.
“I think college rivalries are fun as long as they’re handled right,” he said. “The players and coaches seem to handle it pretty well. It’s pride in college, pride in school.”
Athletes of rival teams even get along well, Spack said, contrary to what most might think.
“Even when I was a player in rivalry games, you tend to respect the opponent,” he said. “We understand that we both went through the same things, same experiences.”
It’s the fans who don’t always have that same respect for the players and fans of opposing teams.
“I think when fans get a little out of hand sometimes and do mean-spirited things to players and other fans, that’s not what we want in athletics,” Spack said.
Kilduff said individuals can become dysfunctionally preoccupied with rivals. Cheating and lying are examples of the unethical behavior that is a negative consequence of competition and rivalry.
“The interesting thing about rivalry is that it’s double-edged,” he said. “Rivalries, in addition to promoting greater effort, can also promote unethical behavior in the pursuit of success and victory.”
And the Ohio State T-shirts can be seen as a display of that unethical behavior, Kilduff said.
“It’s definitely a part of the dark side of rivalry,” he said. “You can probably call it unethical behavior. It’s a low blow. It’s an example of rivalry gone awry.”
But Spack said that kind of behavior from fans is the exception, not the rule.
“It’s a rare occurrence when that happens with fans,” he said. “Sometimes one game is just huge for everybody.”
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