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Dan Liljenquist: Politics and the BYU vs. Utah rivalry

University of Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak talks about his decision to stop the Utah-BYU basketball games for the time being, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, in Salt Lake City.
University of Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak talks about his decision to stop the Utah-BYU basketball games for the time being, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, in Salt Lake City.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

As I watch the drama unfold over the University of Utah’s decision to cancel the annual BYU vs. Utah basketball game in 2016, the words of former major league pitcher Bob Wells come to mind: “Look around. There are no enemies here. There’s just good, old-fashioned rivalry.”

Rivalries are the heart of our sporting culture, and there is no bigger rivalry in this state than Utah vs. BYU. It has lasted well over 100 years, and it should continue — uninterrupted — as long as collegiate athletics are played in this state. Does the rivalry occasionally get out of hand? Yes! Do emotions run hot? Absolutely! Does the rivalry excuse violent conduct? No way! Should we be concerned over the health and safety of the players? Of course!

But anyone who tuned into Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak’s and athletic director Chris Hill’s Monday morning press conference can discern that the canceling of the 2016 BYU vs. Utah basketball game had much more to do with the exercise of power than it did with player safety. These two canceled the 2016 game against BYU because they wanted to and felt they could get away with it. I found it particularly absurd that Krystkowiak tried to draw a distinction between the many punches he threw during his basketball career and the one thrown by a freshman BYU player that somehow justifies the canceling of a historic rivalry by saying that he, Krystkowiak, “never threw a punch that wasn’t provoked.”

The Utah vs. BYU rivalry is part of our shared heritage, and I’m not surprised one bit that our state’s political leaders are upset. You can bet that Gov. Gary Herbert, Speaker Greg Hughes and other influential leaders were listening very closely to Krystkowiak and Hill’s press conference. I suspect that they came away as unimpressed as I was. Hill might scoff at the prospect of legislative intervention — he called such talk “a joke” in his press conference — but Hill’s political naiveté is astounding. The surest way to get the Legislature all over your business is to tell them your business is none of their business. This is especially problematic when your lobbyists are asking those same legislators to appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars to your institution.

I believe Gov. Herbert means it when he says, “Play the game!” Speaker Hughes is deadly serious about preserving the rivalry, saying last week, “[The cancellation] is interrupting something bigger than a simple basketball game. That game existed long before any of us were here on the planet and it should exist long after we leave.”

One thing is clear, the Hill and Krystkowiak’s decision couldn’t be more poorly timed. In less than two weeks, the Utah Legislature will begin the 2016 legislative session. It is an election year, and sports fans all over this state — both Utes and Cougars alike — are calling their legislators, asking them to restore the game and preserve the rivalry. The Legislature will get involved, not only because the state has an interest in both overseeing the university and in continuing the tradition, but also because it is very good politics as legislators seek to respond to their constituents in an election year. I’m glad I’m not in charge of the university’s government relations efforts this year.

The University of Utah should immediately reverse its decision to cancel the 2016 Utah vs. BYU basketball game. It should also commit to play the other instate schools each year. These rivalry games don’t belong to a particular coach or athletic director. They belong to the people of the state of Utah.

Dan Liljenquist is a former Republican state senator from Utah and former U.S. Senate candidate. He is nationally recognized for work on entitlement reform.