Football, it scarcely needs to be said, is not war.
The sport has borrowed quite a number of terms from actual combat, to be sure.
But linemen, no matter how violent their collisions, are not actually “in the trenches.”
They are in no danger of being eviscerated by an artillery shell or picked off by a sniper.
Quarterbacks, regardless of how far they can heave the ball, do not throw actual bombs.
We understand all this implicitly.
Just as we understand that the term “Civil War,” which has been applied to the annual football game pitting the University of Oregon against Oregon State University for nearly a century, and more recently to other athletic contests between the two schools both built on the banks of the Willamette River, is not a literal reference to the American Civil War.
At least I thought this was patently obvious.
But recently U of O president Michael Schill and OSU president Ed Ray announced that the universities will no longer refer to their rivalry games as the “Civil War.”
In a statement, Ray acknowledged that the term was “not intended as reference to the actual Civil War.”
He said the universities agreed to drop the moniker anyway because it “represents a connection to a war fought to perpetuate slavery.”
This is perhaps the ultimate example of a half-truth. Those always fascinate me, but never more so than when they’re proffered in defense of a decision based on the flimsiest of logical foundations.
Ray could as well have said that the Civil War was fought not to perpetuate slavery, but to end that inhumane practice.
Which of course it was.
And which of course it did.
The good people won.
The bigots lost.
That’s historical fact.
But it’s also, according to Ray himself, an irrelevant fact when it comes to sporting events between two universities that are a couple thousand miles from the nearest battlefield of the actual Civil War.
The term “Civil War” is not the exclusive domain of the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy fought from 1861-65, after all.
In the case of the Ducks and the Beavers the name reflects that the universities are just 40 miles apart and that, besides the aquatic habitats their mascots prefer, they have much else in common, including thousands of Oregon families who over the generations have had members attend one of the schools.
I graduated from the U of O.
I’m not angry about the universities’ joint decision to end the “Civil War” tradition.
I’ll continue to use that term when I’m talking about the games, and I daresay a majority of fans will as well.
But I will also remain perplexed by the flawed premise behind the decision by Schill and Ray.
Most particularly I’m bothered by Ray’s comment about avoiding the term because it “represents a connection to a war fought to perpetuate slavery” even while he concedes that there is no actual connection.
That he qualified his statement by saying no connection was “intended” is, to me, irrelevant.
I sincerely hope that neither Ray nor Schill would condone altering their respective universities’ history curriculum to somehow sanitize their examinations of the actual American Civil War.
Yet Ray seems to contend that some people infer not only a connection to the real war, but that somehow the universities’ use of the term implies that they endorse slavery.
If applying the generic term “civil war” to sporting events is offensive to some, then I can’t see how teaching college students about the real war, in which one side fought to preserve the obnoxious practice of slavery, wouldn’t also at least have the potential to cause some of them discomfort as well.
I concede that there is a vast difference between two universities changing the nickname of their athletic rivalry on the one hand, and revising how they teach about actual, and immensely important, historical events on the other.
Which is to say, it’s much easier to justify the former than the latter. And as I said, I’ve heard nothing to suggest that either university is seeking to censor actual history.
Yet I also hold to the notion that the presidents of public universities have an obligation to apply sound reasoning to their decisions, even when those decisions involve something as comparatively trifling as games.
And in the case of the Civil War sports rivalry I find Schill’s and Ray’s premise far too flaccid to be persuasive.
Because to accept their premise I must believe not only that any reference to “Civil War” invariably means the American Civil War but also that this reference constitutes a defense, if not a celebration of, the cause of the Confederacy, even if this connection is merely inferred by an unknown number of people.
There I will not — indeed can not — go.
To do so, it seems to me, would be tantamount to concluding that we also ought to avoid references to World War II because, to borrow from Ray, those references represent a connection to a war fought to perpetuate fascism and to complete the extermination of European Jews.
Instead, of course, we celebrate World War II, and we honor those who fought and died during that terrible conflict, because our cause was just and because we were victorious.
The difference in the American Civil War is that both victors and vanquished were Americans. But that doesn’t change the basic equation, which is that the forces of good prevailed in 1865, just as they would do 80 years later.
But again, the key point here is that none of this military history has anything to do with football games between the U of O and OSU. I don’t believe there is now, or ever has been, a scintilla of evidence in the Ducks-Beavers Civil War series that suggests the term has anything to do with slavery, much less that it constitutes an endorsement of slavery.
The futility of this gesture by Schill and Ray strikes me as especially noteworthy because it stands in such contrast to another recent, and related, decision, this one specific to the U of O.
Schill announced earlier in June that the oldest building on the Eugene campus would no longer be called Deady Hall.
Quite unlike the civil war name, this connection, and the reason it is offensive, are explicit. The building was named for Matthew Deady, Oregon’s first federal judge and first president of the university’s board of regents.
Deady was also a blatant racist who advocated banning Blacks from settling in Oregon.
Removing his name from a campus building is appropriate — a recognition that the university ought not continue to bestow such an honor on the legacy of a man with such obnoxious beliefs, no matter that he also made significant contributions to the university.
But there is no parallel case to be made for doing away with a generic term applied to games in which bragging rights for alumni are at stake, but not lives.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.