Growing up in Toledo has a way of making you painfully aware of whatever Ohio State-University of Michigan sports rivalry is dominant at any particular moment. There used to be a whole chain of stores in Toledo devoted solely to clothing and other merchandise from the two colleges; it’s down to one location now, but it’s still a testament to how Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan is a real ground zero for every game between the two universities. Particularly given how many people in the area live in one state but work in the other, it’s almost impossible to go to any large gathering in the region without seeing both scarlet-and-grey and maize-and-blue clothing being worn.
Although I was born and raised south of the state line, my parents were both reared in Michigan. (Mom was born there, but my father was born on the Air Force base in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and only moved to Michigan after his father completed his military service.) My parents remained loyal to Michigan sports teams throughout their lives (except for Mom becoming a Pittsburgh Steelers fan due to — and I wish I was joking — her crush on Franco Harris), but things on the college side became complicated due to the fact that my Michigan relatives are almost equally split between how many of them went to the University of Michigan, and how many of them (including my father) went to Michigan State. Add in the fact that living in Ohio meant that a lot of people I knew when I was younger went to Ohio State, and the whole college sports thing became a real mess for me back in the day.
I had some loyalties when I was very young, but eventually I decided to be a full-on agnostic when it came to college sports. Even when I became a student at the University of Toledo, I didn’t pay too much attention to how the Rockets were doing, if only because I knew lots of people who were attending UT’s main sports rival, Bowling Green State University. (I was also driving down to BGSU a lot, since their Student Union had an arcade and UT’s didn’t.) As I was preparing to start teaching as a graduate student at UT, though, I quickly realized that I’d be a real jerk if I didn’t root for my student-athletes, so I began to identify as a Rockets fan, and I became loyal to every institution that hired me after that point.
Getting this teaching job here in Wisconsin has kind of made me uncomfortable again when it comes to the whole college sports thing, simply because for as far away as I moved from Ohio and Michigan, I’m still in Big Ten territory. Still, I feel a strong obligation to be supportive of not just my student-athletes, but also the place that enables me to do a job that I love (and finally get paid well for it), so I’m doing what I can to deal with that discomfort. I watched most of the Badgers’ first-round exit from March Madness a few weeks ago, and last week I finally bought my first University of Wisconsin t-shirt, as well as a Badgers blanket for my office. Buying that stuff felt kind of weird, and it reinforces the strangeness I’m still feeling here despite it being nearly eight months now since my move, but I’m committed to working through the issues here and rooting for what is now my “home” team.
When it comes to professional teams, though, I’m going to keep rooting for Detroit in all the major sports (although how “professional” some of those Detroit teams are right now is an open question), if only out of familial loyalties. That hasn’t been so easy, what with the Lions beating the Packers twice last season (despite the Lions having a horrible season), and now with the Pistons playing the Bucks in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Basketball is kind of big on campus here, and I’ve tried defusing things ahead of time by pre-congratulating the Bucks on getting to the second round of the playoffs (because there’s next to no chance of the Pistons advancing), but there have been moments since I’ve been here when I’ve wondered if I should have just shut up about sports altogether, even though talking about sports with my students has always been a reliable way for me to get discussions going and break down barriers that some students put up around themselves.
Maybe there will come a time when none of this seems so weird, but as this place goes even more basketball-crazy, I find myself wondering more and more just how I got to this strange new place. I’m still weirded out when I go shopping and see University of Wisconsin clothes on sale, instead of the familiar shades of red and blue that are endemic around the Toledo area. As glad as I am to be away from the craziness of the Ohio State-University of Michigan rivalry, at least that craziness was familiar, and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss it every now and then. Especially with my history, and the history of my family, the clarity of knowing which college to root for here is a real double-edged sword.