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You might call it humility. Or maybe it’s the ultimate sign of elitism. Whatever the reason, graduates from Harvard, the top-ranked university in the world, have a very difficult time telling you where they went to college.

Instead of giving a straight answer, Harvard alums often evade the college question with an overly generic response like “I went to school just outside of Boston.” A few of these people are begging for the follow up. They want you to know that they went to Harvard, but they don’t want to be the one to say it. But most hope that such a vague response will dissuade follow up questions. There are literally dozens of schools “just outside of Boston” do you really care which one I went to?

For these people, figuring out how and when to “drop the H-bomb,” as Harvard people call it, is a required skill for navigating the real world. “If you say you went to Harvard right off the bat, you can seem too eager. But if you’re too insistent on avoiding saying it, then you seem even worse,” one alum told me.

Harvard alums are the only graduates in the country who face this struggle. Everyone has heard of Harvard. Everyone has an opinion of Harvard. Across the country, Harvard is respected as a great bastion of research but also reviled as a symbol of elitism and entitlement. People often even mockingly pronounce Harvard in an aristocratic British accent, puffing out their chests as they emphasize each syllable: “Hahh-vahhd.”

To many, Harvard is where the rich go to get richer – where the haves learn how to retain their position over the have-nots. Harvard’s endowment of $36.4 billion is larger than the economies of half the countries in the world. The average starting salary for a recent Harvard graduate is $55,300, which is less than the same statistic at Stanford, Princeton, and Caltech, but still higher than the median household income in the US.

When a student or alum announces their Harvard affiliation, they know that they are not just stating where they went to college; they are inviting criticism of an entire capitalist system. “People visibly look at you differently when they find out you went to Harvard,” one alum told me. No matter that 60% of Harvard students are currently on financial aid. Or that, when financial aid is taken into account, Harvard is actually less expensive for 90% of Americans than their local state school. “I’ve had to stop wearing my Harvard sweatpants to the gym because I would get honked at and have people say rude things to me,” said another.

And so the Harvard masses go into a pseudo-hiding for much of the year – dropping the H-bomb when its advantageous, making sure not to talk too loudly about Harvard memories in public, keeping their Crimson apparel tucked away in the bottom drawer.

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I was fourteen when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. As a born and raised New Englander, that October is one I will never forget. Eighty-six years of frustration released in the most improbable of fashions. Facing a 3-0 deficit to the mighty Yankees, the Sox climbed out of a hole that only two other professional sports team had ever managed to overcome. With each successive win, Red Sox fans faced a growing sense of hope matched with an equal sense of impending doom. People across the state were afraid to sleep or eat for fear of messing with some cosmic power that was altering the series. They expected defeat. They were used to defeat. More than defeat, they were used to soul-crushing, championship-teasing defeat. Bill Buckner defeat. Or Aaron Boone defeat.

I remember going home each day from school wondering whether I’d have to face the gloating of my Yankee friends the next day. Trash talk filled the hallways and grocery stores of my New York-Massachusetts border town. For a week, everyone was a baseball fan. Even teachers wore jerseys to school.

On the night the Red Sox won the championship, finishing a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, I remember thinking that I would never experience something like this again. I was watching history. A generation of Red Sox fans had lived and died without seeing what I was seeing. In sixty years, I would tell my grandkids where I was when the Sox reversed the curse.

In the midst of the celebration, nostalgia began to creep in. The curse was gone. “Next year” was now a childhood memory. The Sox could win again, but it would be just another banner. The chance of being a part of something truly historic was gone forever – or at least for as long as it takes for the Red Sox to sell away another game-altering player and plunge into a century-long championship drought.

For me, baseball has never been the same.

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It’s a little after seven o’clock. The temperature in the stadium has plummeted to just above freezing, and fans around me are huddled in small groups fighting to stay warm. Smoke from a nearby tailgate wafts over the field. Winter in New England is fast arriving, but on the field, one last vestige of fall is in its final stages.

 

Ask any college football historian about the sport’s best rivalries and Williams and Amherst is sure to make it into the top 5. The rivalry’s roots date back to 1821 when Williams’ President left the school, took a significant portion of the professors, students, and books with him, and founded Amherst just sixty miles down the road. To this day, some Williams faithful refer to Amherst as “The Defectors,” and during a football game a few years ago, Williams students offered the Amherst President a bill for over a billion dollars in library fees for the “stolen” books.

Since Amherst’s founding, the two schools have followed nearly identical paths, emerging as two of the most prestigious liberal arts schools in country. They attract similar students, offer similar coursework, and send graduates to similar companies. Outside of New England, many people view the schools as interchangeable and often define Williams and Amherst by their relationship to each other. “Oh, Williams and Amherst not William & Mary.”

On most days of the year, the rivalry is cordial. In 2011, Williams President Adam Falk even received an honorary degree from Amherst. But on the second Saturday of November, the football rivalry that first began in 1884 – six years before Army first played Navy and sixty-four years before Florida first played Florida State, is renewed.

In many ways the day is less about football and more an excuse for two schools who share so much to stake out their differentness. Most students and alums are modest football fans at best – a good portion of them will emerge from the tailgates that line the field just long enough to watch a play or two – but the pride these people feel in their school is as strong as you’ll find anywhere.

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IMG_2741Sports fans love to complain. When things aren’t going well, hardly anyone is safe from their wrath. Coaches didn’t game plan properly, players didn’t play hard enough, refs missed obvious calls. Usually, at least the PA announcer emerges unscathed. Not so in Ann Arbor.

Early in the fourth quarter of Michigan’s 34-10 victory over Indiana, the PA announcer performed one of his daily tasks: announcing the game’s attendance. “Thank you for your support of Michigan athletics. Today’s attendance is 103,311.” From every corner of the stadium the remaining fans booed. “Did they count every pregnant woman as three people?” a man sitting next to me asked.

The mighty stadium was a shell of its former self. Huge sections sat empty. The student section, which just a few years ago consistently drew well over 20,000 people, had been reduced to little over a thousand. The remaining students huddled close to the field. Above them sat an ocean of empty blue bleachers.

The attendance announcement used to be a source of pride in these parts. The PA announcer used to follow up his statement by saying “Thank you for being a part of the largest crowd watching a football game in America.” No matter the score, that fact was always met with cheers. At least Michigan had that. A full Big House was a reminder of Michigan’s rich tradition, of its rightful place in the college football pecking order. The team might lose, but the Michigan spirit remained.

But now, two-thirds of the way through a forgettable season, the mood in the stadium was one of disgust and resentment. Many of the fans who did show up seemed to do so out of obligation. They had no celebration left in them. They were looking for something to complain about and seemed disappointed that Michigan’s solid performance was depriving them of that. After big plays, the 100,000 fans offered a smattering of muted applause. Up 10-0 midway through the first quarter, Michigan ran the ball for no gain on first down, and people around me started to boo. Even quarterback Devin Gardner’s first touchdown pass was met with grumbling that he didn’t throw the ball sooner.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been to many schools with struggling football programs. At all of them, I’ve seen hope. In Texas, people are convinced that a competitive team is a year away. In Tennessee, people still crowded into the stadium hours before kickoff despite enduring nearly a decade of losing seasons. When the Volunteers came back to beat a mediocre South Carolina team in overtime on Saturday night to improve to 4-5, hundreds of fans greeted the team bus when it arrived back on campus at 3:00 in the morning. Michigan has none of that. The joy is gone, and the optimism for the future largely rests on Michigan’s ability to hire Jim Harbaugh as their next head coach.

Outside observers might claim that the current state of Michigan football is a result of subpar on-field performance, but the real story of Michigan’s demise is not about losing seasons – it’s about greed and the loss of tradition, and it offers a cautionary tale to the rest of the sports world.

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Rocky Top Tennessee

Rocky Top Tennessee

“Isn’t this fan base incredible? We’ve had losing seasons six of the last seven years. Nobody believed we had a chance to win tonight. We lost by two touchdowns. And it’s 1 in the morning, and the phone lines are jammed with people wanting to call in.”

Two hours ago Alabama quarterback Blake Sims took a knee to give the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide a 34-20 win over Tennessee. Now, I’m sitting 15 miles north of the stadium in the basement studio of Tony Basilio, a local talk-radio personality. Basilio is in his element – Lynyrd Skynard shirt on, hair pulled back under a grey cap, smiling as caller after caller chimes in to complain about the coaching staff or offer their opinion on the quarterback situation. Behind me a small television is playing highlights of the game. “This is beautiful. You don’t see fans like this everywhere. We’ve still got thousands of people listening.”

For the past twenty years, Basilio has hosted “The Fifth Quarter” – a call-in show about Volunteer football that begins immediately after the game and ends whenever the callers go to sleep. “After the Florida game, we had people calling until well after three in the morning. If Tennessee had won tonight, we were honestly planning on going until morning.”

 

If Tennessee and Alabama were high schoolers competing for the same girl, Tennessee would be the nice, respectful boy – the guy who the girl’s parents would approve of and who you, as an outsider, would be rooting for. In this scene, Tennessee’s had a crush on the girl since grade school, and he’s just now working up the courage to ask her out. Tennessee is Forrest Gump trying to convince Jenny that they are more than just friends, which is ironic because Forrest Gump played football for Alabama.

Alabama would be the muscular jock – the guy who hit puberty three years before everyone else and was hell-bent on convincing himself and everyone else that high school never ends. He walks around like he owns the school – he’s the star athlete, the Homecoming King. He started drinking beer before anyone in his grade. He probably doesn’t write his own papers, but hell, who needs to write papers when you’re destined for the NFL?

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