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Thanksgiving Day and Football: Traditions That Will Never Die

Thursday, November 27, 2014


Photo Credit: iStock

Remember the talk a couple months ago about the impending death knell for football in America?

The concerns about the sport were – and are – serious: long-term health questions for the men who play the game as well as all too many reports about high-profile players abusing their partners and/or their children.

And yet this Thanksgiving, college and pro football have proven as resilient once again as candied yams and pumpkin pie.

A glimpse at the Thanksgiving weekend TV schedule illustrates that resilience, with large crowds and big regional and national TV audiences for rivalry games in blue states (Oregon vs. Oregon State; Washington vs. Washington State and Seattle vs. San Francisco in our corner of the world), purple states (Virginia vs Virginia Tech, North Carolina State vs. North Carolina) and of course in the red states (Auburn vs. Alabama, Mississippi State vs. Mississippi).

Last Sunday night’s top-rated TV show nationally was the Dallas Cowboys-New York Giants game. And if all that wasn’t enough, here’s one other eye-popping fact that Sports Business Journal reported last week: more women ever are watching NFL games despite the domestic violence case involving Ray Rice and child abuse charges against Adrian Petersen.

This Saturday’s Civil War game between the Ducks and Beavers is as good a case study as any about why football continues to flourish even in the face of its recent troubles.

Oregon and Oregon State have played 117 times, which means Ducks and Beavers fans have inherited this passion and this tradition from their parents, their grandparents, their uncles, their aunts, their sisters, their brothers. 

What gets passed on from generation to generation are happy memories for Beavers fans of Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington throwing five interceptions in a 2000 OSU Civil War win, or for Oregon fans of Josh Huff catching the winning touchdown in last year’s Civil War. 

And for every happy memory, there is a corresponding unhappy memory for the fan of the opposing school. (There is of course the occasional shared crummy memory like the 0-0 Toilet Bowl in the 1983 Civil War.)

None of those memories gets thrown away easily, especially when there are an estimated 330,000 living alumni between the two schools – as well as uncounted thousands of others who grew up rooting for both teams even though they never attended.

On one hand, you may have general concerns as a fan about the long-term health effects for players or a nagging sense that not all of them are majoring in pre-med. On the other, you have the specific memories of thrilling games past and the anticipation of thrilling games future. Guess which prevails.

Now realize all that tradition is replicated and even exceeded in many other college football hotbeds nationwide and you get some idea of why Thanksgiving will again be wall-to-wall football despite all the problems plaguing the sport.

Those who forecast football’s demise often liken it to boxing as a sport that at one time was a huge part of the U.S. landscape before corruption and health concerns reduced it to the periphery sport it is today. 

The flaw in that argument is that while individual boxers certainly had their fans, the sport never had the unbreakable attachment between fans and teams that transcends individual athletes.  

That’s what you will be watching for the next four days—that and a lot of commercials.

A native Oregonian, Hank Stern had a 24-year career in journalism, working for more than a decade as a reporter with The Associated Press in Oregon, New Jersey and Washington, DC. He worked seven years for The Oregonian as a reporter in east Multnomah County, Washington County and Portland’s City Hall. In 2005, he became Willamette Week’s managing news editor and worked there until 2011.


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