Big Blue and Big Red: Sports, Collective Identity, and the Invention of Tradition

I’m going to be doing a bit of “thinking out loud” in this post. It’s an extension of a Twitter conversation I had with Paul Putz about a month ago. We were talking about college sports teams in predominantly rural states as a way for their residents “to explain ourselves to other Americans” as well as the use of their success to “stick it to perceived antagonizers.” Paul was referring mostly to the University of Nebraska football team, which for decades has had a strong tradition and national “brand” as the Big Red. I commented that this mentality could easily be applied to other states, particularly those in the Midwest. Likewise, many of them also use similar terms to brand themselves.

Since that original conversation, I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic. Pieces of that original conversation kept popping up as I worked through the first chapter of my dissertation, TAed a sport history course, and watched the recent backlash against the racist events in Oklahoma. Matt Hodler’s post last week, interrogating the different meanings of a “Real Sooner,” also hinted at many of these issues. In this post I want to interrogate the concept of Big Red (or Big Blue) to highlight its history and multiple meanings.

First, its important to understand how and why university sports teams developed these identities. Recently in the sport history course I work with, we discussed the creation of “booster” universities during the 1950s. These schools used sports to put themselves, and their states, on the map. It was a deliberate decision by administrators, politicians, and alumni to fund big-time athletic programs. Booster clubs formed to raise money, help recruit, pay coaches, etc. Legislatures joined in by appropriating funds to build bigger stadiums and arenas. Three of the most notorious of these “booster” schools, are Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Nebraska (though Nebraska followed later).

As a result of these “booster” universities, fans, who are predominantly alumni or citizens of those states, developed a large collective identity centered around athletic success. These collective groups and the teams they supported became known as the ”Big Red” or the “Big Blue.” Many teams have followed this tradition and have begun referring to their fans as a part of a “nation,” such as the Red Sox Nation. This, of course, causes everyone to immediately breakout their copies of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. To be sure, many of these “nations” and identities are imagined. But, I think in the case of those “booster” universities, which tend to be found mostly in rural states, Big Blue and Big Red are a bit less imaginary.

College teams possess a bit more permanence for communities than professional teams do, as Andy Linden explained last month in his post on NFL relocation. Public universities also tend to symbolize states, particularly rural ones, more than any given city or metropolitan area. To be sure, flagship universities do tend to create imagined communities of non-alumni fans who are former residents of the state. The communities of non-alumni, in-state residents, however, aren’t entirely imagined. In a world obsessed with microeconomics and the language of business, state universities belong to more than just the students and alumni. They’re owned by all residents and taxpayers of those states. And as such, many expect a good return on their investment (though that public investment has been rapidly dwindling for several decades) in the form of entertaining and competitive sports teams. Like the publicly owned Green Bay Packers, college sports teams become collective entities with both real and imagined community connections. They’re public utilities for mass entertainment and state pride.

While this is certainly a cynical perspective on the place of college athletics in our society, it gets at the question of collective identity and sports. It also hints are deeper meanings to the nicknames of teams and fanbases. Who or what is the Big Red? Why are they/it big? What does it take to be a part of Big Blue? The answers to these questions shed light on, to borrow from Eric Hobsbawm, “the invention of tradition.”

In his book The Invention of Tradition, Hobsbawm notes that there are three kinds of invented traditions, which rely on maintaining a continuity with the past to make them appear older than they really are. These types of invented traditions are:

“a) those establishing or symbolizing social cohesion or the membership of groups, real or artificial communities, b) those establishing or legitimizing institutions, status or relations of authority, and c) those whose main purpose was socialization, the inculcation of beliefs, value systems and conventions of behavior.”

Booster universities take part in all three of these in various ways. They establish and symbolize communities tied to their sports teams. They project the status, legitimacy, and authority of their university through its athletic success (this is particularly true in the age of online universities without sports teams). Finally, they are a remarkable force of socialization as they serve as the foundation for the interactions of their students, athletes, alumni, and supporters. These interactions project and display the values and beliefs of the universities and states through athletic behavior. This is precisely why the “character” and “sportsmanship” of fans and athletes matter to college administrators.

Equipped with this layered understanding of tradition, it is easy to see that what it means to be “big” is malleable and coded with multiple meanings. The term includes things like big players, big wins, big crowds, and a notion of being big-time. Big can also be understood as a synonym for the strength and toughness exhibited by these teams, these states, and their fans/citizens. Growing up, I often heard Nebraska fans proudly explain that Memorial Stadium became the third largest city in the state during a football game. Because many of these fanbases are tied to rural state, the Big Red and the Big Blue give them the notion that they’re relevant and matter. This in turn, makes them bigger than their population, or economic and political clout. Sports success provides the opportunity for them to transcend those issues and dominate national headlines as much as their competition.

In the United States, particularly in the postwar era, sports have become embedded in our national culture. They’re central to our identities as American citizens and patriots. In the Cold War context, football, fitness, and other athletic competitions proved our strength and discipline. For rural states mired in relative obscurity, or even worse, characterized as backwards and unsophisticated, sports, and the invented traditions of Big Red and Big Blue, were an important way to push back. They acted as a political technology to redefine previously held views by offering corrective instruction.

One of the central themes I explore in my dissertation is how the University of Oklahoma used college football to alter the state’s imagine and create pride for its citizens. Following the publication of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, his “Okie” label offended many Oklahomans. In 1945, Oklahoma had the opportunity to hire a new coach. Lloyd Noble, a member of the Oklahoma Board of Regents, thought developing a winning football team would help restore pride in Oklahoma and attract positive attention to the state. He proposed using the opportunity to select a new coach as way to start this process. Indeed, throughout its history, college football has proved to be an effective public relations tool. One of the first actions of University of Chicago President William Rainey Harper was to hire Amos Alonzo Stagg as the school’s football coach. Harper hoped to build a championship team that would attract publicity for the new college. Noble was perhaps aware of this story, and hoping to emulate it at OU to boost both the university and the state.

The “Big Red” football team at OU allowed Oklahoma to explain and demonstrates its real cultural values as well as confront its detractors. The Sooners dominance over the football world during the 1950s asserted that Oklahoma was tough, disciplined, and hard-working. It proved Steinbeck was wrong. State Senator Bill Logan offered proof of the effectiveness of the“Big Red.” Writing to OU Head Coach Bud Wilkinson from his hotel, while attending a meeting of the Council of State Governments, he explained, “more compliments came to Oklahoma because of our ‘Big Red’ boys and more than anything we’ve done.”

Despite these clear examples of boosterism and the deliberate actions taken by politicians and university leaders to create pride using sports teams, it remains difficult to determine the extent that these communities are imagined. The ambiguity and multiple meanings of terms like “Big Blue” underscore their evasive nature. The concept of membership or citizenship is rarely defined by these groups, and neither are the groups themselves. Hobsbawn argues that concepts such as “patriotism” and “school spirit” maintain significance because of their “undefined universality.” Illusive yet universal terms hint at shared traditions and collective behaviors without needing to describe them. They also suggests a shared past which is crucial for the establishment and success of invented traditions. Alumni, booster club members, the residency of taxpayers, fans inside of stadiums, and members of teams are some ways that people might tangibly be connected to the Big Red or Big Blue. Yet, there are likely still fans who fall outside of these categories.

Likewise, there are many similar programs, such at the University of Kansas and the University of Indiana, whose teams have come to symbolize their states and assert their importance without using “big” phrasing. The terminology of these other schools, however, relies on similar concepts of collective identity, citizenship, and state-patriotism. Like the Sooners in Oklahoma, people from Kansas and Indiana are known as Jayhawkers and Hoosiers. How and why are Kansas and Indiana different? One answer to that question is that I think they were less deliberate in the creation of their sports programs. The invention of their tradition is less obvious. There isn’t a clear moment when they decided to emphasize big-time sports and use them to project a certain view of their universities and states. Whereas in Oklahoma, they were very deliberate.

Another difference is the presence of rivalries. Nebraska and Kentucky are both the largest universities in their states and their states’ land-grant institution (KU and IU aren’t land-grants). This allows them to escape the common white-collar versus blue-collar divide that often manifests itself in fanbases. This class divide is evident in the Indiana-Purdue rivalry. Being able to avoid these rivalries gives the University of Kentucky and the University of Nebraska more status and more authority to represent their states. Oklahoma, on the other hand, is rivaled by Oklahoma State. Under Hank Iba Oklahoma State had a terrific basketball program, but still never developed into a booster university or created a “Big Orange” collective identity. Why then was OU chosen over Oklahoma State? The blue versus white-collar divide is one explanation. The clearest difference, however, is that Oklahoma belonged to a major athletic conference (Big 7) while Oklahoma State did not (Missouri Valley). You can’t build a booster university with nationally prominent big-time athletics without being in a big-time conference. Thus, like Kentucky and Nebraska, the University of Oklahoma held a higher status.

The concept of a “booster” university and the “Big Red” or “Big Blue” explored here, I believe differs from other notions of collective identity because of their relationship with invented traditions. Big Red and Big Blue refers to specific instance where a tradition was invented for a particular purpose. They encapsulate the view of big-time college sports teams as publicly held entertainment entities tangibly connected to taxpayers. They also underscore the traditional status and authority of their universities, initially within their states but now more broadly in the sporting world.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. His dissertation explores the impact of Bud Wilkinson and college football on the image of Oklahoma. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter: @admcgregor85

One thought on “Big Blue and Big Red: Sports, Collective Identity, and the Invention of Tradition

  1. Pingback: The Curious Case of College Football | Sport in American History

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