For generations, the football game between BYU and the University of Utah brings out a flood of color matched only by the leaves turning.
Fans bedeck cars, yards and kids in red or blue signs, flags, paint and shirts. On game day, the freeway clogs either northbound or southbound. Fans and former players argue about the superiority of their team. Friends make bets, offices hold pools and pranks abound. Teams ignore media and painfully try to find something nice to say about one another. It is rivalry week on the Wasatch front.
In totality, the rivalry brings out good-natured competition. But at times it also seems to harrow up the worst among us.
Descending to our worst
As a fairly recent Utah resident, I became aware quickly that in many cases, the BYU-Utah rivalry hung over individuals and families like a poison cloud.
I've listened to local radio programs jockeying for ratings pitifully foster inane, divisive and damaging banter. The noxiousness then oozes into a vortex of anonymous message-board insults and mockery. Fans run to their corners and mock one another with stereotypes like the following:
Utah fans cry, "BYU fans are pinched-face prudes pointing a gnarled finger of scorn at heathen lifestyles as a contrast to their shining virtue."
BYU fans alternately paint Utah followers as "profaning, mulleted, drunken boors who mock local codes of conduct and religious heritage."
Two personal experiences taint my own feelings about where this rivalry has gone. Several years ago, my mother served as a hostess to opposing fans and player families at a BYU game. Before one game, a BYU fan leaned over from his seat above the opposing locker room and screamed insults with his face twisted in anger. My mother rounded up her 98-pound frame and gently reminded him, "we don't need to do that here!" then turned away.
Within a few moments, the fan had surprisingly descended the stairs and began screaming at my 70-year-old mother, "This is football lady, I can do whatever I want!" It actually isn't football, it is a fan using an athletic contest as an unhealthy excuse to emote. And his behavior more likely resembled a clown college graduate than a BYU alumnus.
Two years ago, my father and I attended the rivalry game with University of Utah fans. On my way to the game, I alternately received welcoming comments from Utah fans as well as liberal offers of alcohol with snickers. When the game began, we were showered with a stunning array of insults and profanity by a 20-something, otherwise attractive young woman a few rows behind us. Utah fans around me initially just shrugged and encouraged me to just ignore her, which turned out to be impossible. How could fans around us allow her to taint the image of their alma mater?
Heralding the best among us
Let's reframe this whole rivalry in a new light. Let's shine a light on what unites us and let the games be, well, games.
First, we need to acknowledge that the BYU and Utah alumni and fan bases are quite possibly the most interwoven in the country. It seems nearly every household, no matter how strident their red or blue fandom, has family, friends, neighbors and co-workers of the other hue. Childhood friends end up at separate schools. Husbands and wives love each other despite their tinted or tainted past!
Second, many already hold events to build bridges. Fans and institutions hold food drives, charity races and other events to do good together. BYU and Utah fans alike have come together to raise funds for a scholarship in honor of a young Utah football commit, Gaius Vaenuku, who tragically died in an auto accident this summer.
Third, a recent KSL TV story highlighted neighbors engaging in good-natured pranks. They have found ways to make the rivalry fun — with an emphasis on fun. Jokes and one-upmanship, when tastefully done and well clear of stereotyping, keep the rivalry in the right tone. If biting, they will result in offense and hurt.
Fourth, we love our kids. Ultimately, these contests are played by kids who have sacrificed and worked to develop their abilities to play the game. Likewise, the stands are filled with students whose dedication to their education qualified them for their respective schools. We should encourage and laud their achievement, no matter where they choose to attend.
Given our blended communities, neighborhoods and churches, we have much to lose if we let offensive behavior and habits infect us. So, here is to a more chivalrous rivalry. Here's to our collective devotion to community, family and faith in Utah taking hold of this contest in a civil and more dignified way. If we can get this right, we all win in this rivalry, despite who has more points on the board at the end of the game.
Matthew Sanders studied economics at Brigham Young University and business and government at Harvard University. He is a GM at Deseret Digital Media where he oversees Deseret Connect and Deseret News Service. firstname.lastname@example.org or @Sanders_Matt