This year’s USC–UCLA rivalry game was bound to be bitter – when the last game’s final score is 50-0, someone’s feelings are going to get hurt – but it got a lot more antagonistic this week when UCLA banned the USC drum major from performing his pre-game tradition of stabbing his sword at midfield.
UCLA students, fans and alumni, led by a Bruins fan blog, condemned the practice of stabbing the UCLA logo as disrespectful and demanded that it be stopped.
Never mind that the Trojans stab their own logo when they play at home in the L.A. Coliseum. Never mind that the drum major does it before every game, home or away. Never mind that, like most traditions, it’s been happening for years and years with few complaints.
The UCLA administration heeded the cries of the fanbase and essentially gave the Trojans an ultimatum: if he stabs our logo with his sword, the USC Trojans Marching Band doesn’t perform at halftime. There was even talk that if the drum major went ahead and did it anyway, the band would be banned from the Rose Bowl next time around.
On Tuesday, USC agreed that the tradition would be suspended for this Saturday’s game, “in the spirit of cooperation and sportsmanship,” but let’s be real. How much cooperation and sportsmanship can we reasonably expect to see on the field after this week’s mess surrounding an already testy rivalry?
For that matter, how much cooperation and respect was in play when a blogger stirred up enough fuss about this to bring the UCLA administration into it?
The teams can trumpet sportsmanship all they like, but threatening a rival with future punitive action to get them to do what you want doesn’t sound much like sportsmanship. Demands that include an “or else,” spoken or unspoken, sound more like bullying. Or blackmail.
If you’re looking for the “spirit of cooperation and sportsmanship,” try the 2008 USC-UCLA game, when the Trojans restarted the tradition of wearing their home jerseys in the rivalry game, even though it broke NCAA rules and cost them a timeout. To even the figurative playing field, then-Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel immediately burned one of his timeouts.
That’s how you demonstrate class and respect for the rivalry and for its traditions – not by whining about long-standing rituals that suddenly seem unsavory or letting your opponent set your band’s agenda.
Dr. Arthur C. Bartner, who has led the Trojans’ marching band for more than 40 years, wrote a letter to the band’s alumni asking for their support for the decision:
“I will not jeopardize the traditions we have built together over 43 years, including traveling to the Rose Bowl and performing at halftime, by ignoring their request. Furthermore, I don’t want to threaten the future of our 25-year streak of playing at every away game. Our primary mission is, and has always been, to support USC football.”
Bartner wasn’t threatening that 25-year streak; UCLA was. But the band didn’t reach its current celebrity status without its esteemed director, so alumni and fans can probably trust that he knows how best to handle inane situations such as this one.
UCLA came up with a new storyline for everyone to talk about other than the last USC-UCLA game, when the Trojans absolutely pummeled the Bruins, 50-0.
The fanbase got itself all worked up about USC traditions, and the Trojans responded with a shrug.
Fighting for the right to stab the field might have been more satisfying for the USC community, but consenting to the Bruins’ request sends the message that the Trojans have bigger things to worry about.
After all, these teams can play all the rivalry-week games they want, but the win on the field Saturday is the only one that counts.