As the semester winds down, Columbia football ends its season, and we all head into the last few weeks of the fall semester after a much-needed break, it seems appropriate to reflect on how sports play into one of the United States’ favorite holidays: Thanksgiving. Although the Ivy League football season ends before the holiday, football games have become a common component of this country’s collective turkey day celebration. The marriage of football, a violent sport by most measures, and Thanksgiving, a holiday commemorating a peace between white settlers and Native Americans, seems a bit odd at first. Football is full of fanfare, spectacle, and fierce competition. On the other hand, the chief ingredients of Thanksgiving include relaxation, eating, and feelings of home or community. The contrast between the two is stark at first, but it quickly becomes clear that Thanksgiving can harmonize with football—and other sports—to augment the holiday cheer.
In the United States, Thanksgiving-day football games, sometimes referred to as “turkey bowls,” have been around for a while and often feature competition between two historic rivals, especially at the high school and collegiate level. This past weekend, including the Thursday of Thanksgiving, was one of the last rounds of games in the non-Ivy college football season, and fans enjoyed a slew of major rivalry matchups: Oregon-Oregon State, Alabama-Auburn, UCLA-USC, Ohio State-Michigan, etc. The actual Thanksgiving-day game this year was between Texas and Texas A&M (which Texas won in the final seconds). So, why schedule some of the most hotly contested games of the year on a holiday celebrating a peaceful gathering? I think that the contrast between the on-field ferocity and the at-home tranquility is a mechanism that allows us to further relax and mull over the good parts of our lives.
Part of the reason for scheduling rivalry games on Thanksgiving and that weekend is that they reinforce feelings of home, feelings of identity. Many of us feel a connection to a certain sports team because that team represents a part of our respective identities. As a fan of a given football team, for instance, one is a part of a larger community. During Thanksgiving, a time when we appreciate the communities we belong to, rivalry games increase solidarity among fans. I believe that each sports fan has a sports identity, and the Thanksgiving holiday is a good time to revel in the sense of that camaraderie.
It is natural for people to enjoy watching their team and their players battle those of another group. Yes, overly violent on-field competition and equally vicious fandom could corrode bonds that go beyond sports (like one’s national identity or family ties). However, Thanksgiving sporting events are always tempered with references to the importance of family, friends, and, of course, food. Also, competition between regionally emblematic sports teams serves as a way for fans to blow off steam, maybe directing their animosity for another group of people toward a sports team instead and ultimately dispelling that tension.
Despite the fact that football frequently dominates talk of sports on Thanksgiving, there are other sporting events taking place. The NCAA basketball season has started and, along with an assortment of games on Thanksgiving Day, the Columbia men’s and women’s basketball teams both had games over the holiday weekend. These games were a chance for those of us staying here on campus for the break to use sports as a means of bolstering community.
That all being said, there were also several major NFL matchups on Thanksgiving Day that were certainly opportunities for some of us to use on-field conflict to achieve at-home fraternity. I sat and rooted for the Cowboys along with my friends back home in Texas—although I wasn’t at home, I felt a sense of home through the game.
I don’t insist that sports need be inextricably linked to every Thanksgiving celebration. The holiday is fundamentally not about sports. However, if you like sports, particularly football, Thanksgiving break is a great time to sit down, watch a game, and feel a kinship with many others. And, if you missed sports on this past holiday, the NBA finally ended its lockout and will deliver a triple-header on Christmas Day!
Benjamin Spener is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in economics-mathematics and Latin American and Iberian cultures.