Thursday, October 13, 2011

Wal-Mart Wolverines, Juggalo Spartans, Privilege, and Class.

Between my office and a major freeway interchange, there is a Wal-Mart. I think it’s the “Super” kind, too. Normally I shop at Meijer, but every once in a blue moon I need to get from my office to the freeway and buy something they don’t sell at gas stations; Super Wal-Mart is there for me.

On one of these excursions, I was waiting in line for the U-Scan when I heard noises behind me that sounded like talking but not like words. I turned and found myself face to face with a person staring at me with wide, unblinking eyes.

He was holding a 30-pack of Busch, the kind that comes in the collector camouflage box with blaze orange letters. He had on light-wash blue jeans with epic holes in the knees. On his head was a plain black baseball cap bearing the word “JESUS” in white capital letters. Under his nose was something that might have been alive but was probably a moustache. On his torso was a University of Michigan T-shirt.

I stared at him.

He stared at me.

I stared at him.

He stared at me.

I turned around, paid for my merchandise, and left.

This was the legendary “Wal-Mart Wolverine,” encountered in his natural habitat. I was too close to the beast to pull out a camera and take a picture, but like James Audubon I returned with this detailed accounting of the animal for academic enlightenment.

I am a sports fan at the crest of the Web 2.0 wave. My personal passions and professional skills pitch me right into the wheelhouse of the sports blogging demographic. I am thirty years old, white, male, college-educated, and see all things with a critical eye and a burning desire to know. I have a balanced life with wife, children, and white-collar career—but make time for all of my various hobbies and interests, because I’m just a geek like that and all this crazy has to go somewhere. I will sleep when I am dead.

I am incredibly privileged.

I count amongst my privileges that I was able to attend Michigan State University, as did my mother, and her father before her—not to mention my wife, both her sisters, both her parents, my stepmother . . . we are privileged. We don The Only Colors as symbols of our pride in and loyalty to the school that helped us become the people we are, and to which we paid a hell of a lot of money for the privilege.

We love and cheer for our school and its sports teams. When I was in school, I knew many athletes (I was in Case Hall), and it was incredible to see the people I hung out with all week don the armor and the livery and take the field to battle our “enemies.” It’s what’s incredible about college athletics: it’s our students against your students, and may the best team win.

We take that rivalry from the stands to the streets, and take turns jawing with family, friends, coworkers and strangers over whose lyceum reigns supreme. Sometimes it’s all in good fun. Sometimes it gets heated. Sometimes it turns ugly.

Sometimes you’re sitting in your Wolvie boss’s living room with all of his friends watching Michigan State lose 49-3 on his six-foot projection TV and you’re the only MSU fan there and they’re all giving you the business and even though what you really want to say is “Look, dude, you went to U of M Flint” you can’t so you mutter something about basketball season and know that someday the shoe will be on the other foot.

Sometimes that Wal-Mart Wolverine sees your team colors and starts jawing at you and telling you you “suck” and you want to know where in the hell he gets off telling you you suck when he’s never even been to Ann Arbor and his only connection to the football team that beat your football team is the T-shirt he bought here at Wal-Mart two years ago.

This is where we take a step back and talk about class.

The Wal-Mart Wolverine does not have Michigan’s two-deeps memorized. The Wal-Mart Wolverine does not know which crucial recruits M is vying for. The Wal-Mart Wolverine may only be dimly aware that Rich Rodriguez is no longer the coach. The Wal-Mart Wolverine brands himself a Michigan fan because it’s a cheap and easy way to feel like a winner. He feels like a winner when Michigan wins on Saturday, and he feels like a winner during the week when he talks shit to some ponytailed fag wearing an Spartan polo and Tweeting on an iPhone.

Look, I didn’t graduate from State. I worked in the trades on a per-hour, sometimes-cash-only basis until I figured out who I wanted to be when I grew up. I spent a lot of time working side-by-side with guys who had precious little going for them besides a strong back, a permanent tab at their favorite bar, and a Michigan T-shirt.

So it is with the Juggalo Spartan. I cringed at Brian’s description of the State fans in Ann Arbor last year:

That was Saturday: financial mathematicians screaming at Juggalos, and the Juggalos winning. The State meathead directly behind me literally said "bitch! fuck you!" whenever MSU tackled Denard Robinson for less than five yards. On Friday, Tim came back to his apartment to find a trail of blood leading to a passed-out State meathead who'd broken in. The same guys who clumsily spray-painted a bedsheet in 2008 to declare their glorious victory over the worst Michigan team in 50 years reprised their genius. As I walked home every glassy-eyed Stiffler that passed me upped the amplitude of my anger/depression cocktail. Jesus, they were everywhere. They came to Ann Arbor cocky and stupid and left cocky and stupid. Enduring it was brutal. In their eyes, that was probably the point.

I brand myself with that the same Michigan State fandom that those a-holes do, and it kills me—kills me—to hear that people who call themselves Spartan fans would say and do those terrible things. But Brian hit something else on the head: those probable-Juggalos “almost certainly didn't even go to the game because they couldn't afford it.” They’re poor. They’re definitely ignorant, and probably stupid. They didn’t go to State, or likely any college. They didn’t earn their fandom with tuition and classes like he did his and I did mine.

So first, let’s call a spade a spade: the phenomenon of Wal-Mart Wolverines and Juggalo Spartans is a whole lot more about the struggle of class against class than between Michigan and Michigan State. They didn’t go to the big fancy school in the town where they grew up—but by cheering for the rival they get to lord it over those who did. They don’t represent their fan bases any more than the twisted Alabama fan who poisoned the oaks at Toomer’s Corner knows Violent J from Jay-Z.

Let’s let the common person who just wants a weekend escape have their escape without demanding to see their qualifications, and let’s hate the thugs and vandals on either side for their thuggery and vandalism, not their alignment. I’m not going to spray paint somebody’s car with “STATE” misspelled any more than Brian’s going to kill a 30-pack of Busch during the next UFR.

Second, let’s remember how awesome this rivalry is. My grandfather sat in the Spartan Stadium stands and hated Michigan—just as my mother did and as I do. We have the Internet now; we have computers that fit in our pockets and talk to the Internet everywhere, and we can interact with each other at any time of day or night all year ‘round. We can steep ourselves in the tradition and the vitriol and the misery and the triumph and all day every day for as much as we can stand. That’s a privilege; let’s treat it as such.

I stand with my Wolverine-loving iFriends as fans of Big Ten college football, and I want our annual battle to be played for the highest possible stakes every single year. I want our rivalry to be a marquee contest that draws national attention, and has national implications. I want to hate and taunt and mock and deride and seethe at each other with the respect, dignity, and yes—class—that befits ladies and gentlemen of privilege and higher education.

Also, I hope we kick their ass.

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