At my university, a war is taking place at the basketball court, and it's not the one between the home and visiting teams. The musical tradition of the school fight song is battling for survival. The enemy: the jock-jam culture in modern athletics.
Sure, fans still sing along in Madison when the band plays its popular fight song, "On Wisconsin." People still exhibit near-patriotic pride in South Bend, Ind., when the "Notre Dame Victory March" is played. But in the past, students cast more pride in their institution and team. The team's loss brought sadness. A victory brought collective joy.
Students today seem to want to keep pride intact regardless of what happens to the basketball team. Ardent lyrics promoting one's team, school, or state may be simultaneously too meaningful and too cheesy for today's chic fan.
At the University of South Dakota, we've had five fight songs in the past century. The one with the most staying power, "Hail South Dakota," is still played at each home basketball game. It seems fewer than 10 people know the words. The only person I've ever witnessed singing it is Nancy McCahren, the director of our alumni association.
Our fight song isn't bad. The tune is catchy. The words are easy to remember. But what happened to the flourish? Earlier this century, fans chanted at opponents in Latin, and students were not self-conscious about singing endearing or epic phrases about their school at sporting events.
Some colleges are still proud of their song. Students and fans at Minnesota, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, and elsewhere get excited when singing their rouser. But I think these places are exceptions to the rule.
The biggest culprit for the slow demise of the fight song is the changing culture of fanhood. Today, many students who attend sports events on campus find fulfillment in printing up T-shirts that are crude or that simply ridicule the other team.
At my school, a group called the Coyote Crazies, modeled after the infamous Duke Crazies, has perfected methods of psychologically intimidating the opposing team and creating high jinks and entertainment for other fans. They are participants in the game, not just spectators.
When it comes to music, students also seem to be a different breed than 20, 40, or 100 years ago. Students at my school would much rather dance to jock jams such as "Cotton-Eyed Joe" over the loudspeaker than listen to the school pep band play "Hail South Dakota."
Entertainment values are the driving force. A young person today wants to attend the USD basketball game to "have a good time," whether the team wins or loses.
Fight-song lyrics are meaningful, even if they are a bit cheesy. As time passes and the fight songs die, I hope students won't become disconnected from their institutions. They'd be missing out on a sense of purpose, meaning, and tradition - things school fight songs can bring to the basketball court and beyond.
- Paul Glader
*Paul Glader is a political science major and a rising senior at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society