Ducks and Beavers Drop 'Civil War' Name from Historic Rivalry for All the Wrong Reasons
By Mark Schipper
THE CIVIL WAR
Squads of vandals set fire to freshly laid grass fields on the eve of games, while packs of saboteurs touched off belts of dynamite on missions to blow campus landmarks sky high. Cheer squads, in front of packed stadiums, were targeted with crass animal innuendos, while live mascots were kidnapped and held for ransom.
Melees followed by riots broke out during games only to burn throughout the weekend and into the following week. The rivalry has been cancelled for brawling only to return for several years at a neutral site to tamp down the fierce territoriality of the two camps. The emerald-green Willamette Valley, a north-south running, richly-watered agricultural plain that’s boxed in by mountains like sleeping giants on the horizon, is the territory for the perpetual strife.
These are the brand of the essentially good spirited but volatile skirmishes that gave the name to the classic Civil War game between Oregon and Oregon State, schools separated by forty short miles up old Route-99 along the valley’s floor between Eugene and Corvallis, and this is only a short list of hijinks.
An organic but sporting hate, built up and bestowed as patrimony over generations, set neighbor against neighbor and the state’s big universities at loggerheads on the field. Serious athletic competition was the relatively healthy outlet for the energy, and over the years coaches had analogized the all-out intensity of certain battles to ‘civil wars’ in miniature. Local newspapers ran with that metaphor, aggrandizing its breadth and meaning, while keeping history across the decades.
The rivalry and its name have exactly nothing to do with the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865, despite the bogus correlation and rationale used over the agonizing American summer of 2020—as protests and riots raged in many cities— to rip away the naming heritage from one of the sport’s great folk rivalries. It did not have to happen, and it shouldn’t have.
HOW AND WHY
In June the lightning-fast movement to eradicate the Civil War’s folksy name began behind the scenes with former Oregon Ducks’ star quarterback Dennis Dixon, by his own admission.
In a video Dixon made, and Oregon football posted to social media, the one-time quarterback attributed the entire idea for the movement to a single conversation with a friend he identified as Theresa Tran, a woman who has yet to emerge from the shadows to discuss her purpose or explain her rationale.
“The changing of the name just came from a simple phone call from my good friend Theresa Tran. She brought it to my attention and it just made sense,” Dixon said into the camera.
The context of the phone call and the substance of the conversation went unexplained by Dixon, though he did reveal a little more about the process he used to compel the change. The former Duck, who was born in Oakland, California, but attended high school to the south in the Bay Area city of San Leandro, said he wanted to “ladder up” the idea to former teammates and named both Garren Strong and Jonathan Stewart as his confidants.
According to the video, both Strong and Stewart told Dixon that current players, the athletic directors, and university vice presidents must be on board before anything could happen, but if they could do that, the change might be made.
While little has been made public about the process, and Dixon did not respond to several requests to discuss the situation for this piece, it appears that it took less time to reach the bogus conclusion that the rivalry somehow was affiliated with the events of the American Civil War than it did to get those high-ranking administrators at both schools to acquiesce to the group’s demands.
Within days, as protests and riots rocked several American cities, and the news media went wild with twenty-four hour saturation coverage and opinion shaping, the athletic director at the University of Oregon and the president of Oregon State University issued statements announcing the excising of the name. Each of their statements evinced a certain pride at the important change being made, and each implied a certain shame that something had not been done sooner to confront a term so larded with historical difficulties.
“Today’s announcement is not only right but is a long time coming, and I wish to thank former Duck great Dennis Dixon for raising the question and being the catalyst for change,” said Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens.
"Thanks also to our current student-athletes for their leadership and input during this process. We must all recognize the power of words and the symbolism associated with the Civil War. This mutual decision is in the best interests of both schools.”
Oregon State’s president, Ed Ray, was next.
“Changing this name is overdue as it represents a connection to a war fought to perpetuate slavery. While not intended as reference to the actual Civil War, OSU sports competition should not provide any misconstrued reference to this divisive episode in American history."
Dixon closed his video with a bit of praise for what he had seen happen.
“I am happy to see two universities coming together to drive change, and everlasting change,” he said.
There is no question Dixon and his cohort made their push with pure intentions. Like many others, they wanted to be seen in their communities as leaders for the right cause, and leave behind a legacy for positive change for those who followed in their path. This was their contribution. But, rather than give in immediately to a specious argument as the administration did, why didn’t the people in charge stand up for the truth and work instead on an alternative project that might have done some good?
*[When reached for comment, OSU President Ray referred the author to Beavers athletic director Scott Barnes, while Oregon Athletic Director Rob Mullens did not respond to a request to comment on the piece]
The problem with the trial and conviction of the Civil War game was that it was carried out on bogus indictments and zero evidence. The administrators agreed to a thing that not only could not have any tangible benefits to the lives of people who could use an extra hand, but might in fact engender resentment amongst a community forced to sit through a summary erasure of a piece of their heritage over a bit of prejudice that it was not in reality burdened with.
Based on the available articles and social media posts, no one involved in the process took even a week to conduct a cursory examination of the rivalry and its naming history. Nor was there a good-faith effort to show the players and Tran, who was the ostensible spearhead of the movement, the naming traditions had been local, not national, and began fully sixty-years after the war between the states had ended.
Even that war, a major moment in American history, was cheaply and shoddily described by high-ranking American university administrators. President Ray in his statement claiming the Civil War was “fought to perpetuate slavery” is categorically incorrect. The war was prosecuted on the United States’ end to reunite the country, and in the process of that bloody campaign slavery was abolished forever, an outcome sought by millions of Americans for generations.
But even if President Ray’s statement had been remotely accurate, the Civil War between Oregon and Oregon State has exactly as much to do with the American Civil War as it does the Russian, Spanish, or Chinese Civil Wars. By definition a civil war is internecine fighting between populations meant to live in peace, and they’ve been part of human civilization long before the United States existed, and will be forever afterward. The long history of the Ducks and Beavers includes a litany of internecine incidents on its docket.
That the phrase Civil War in some minds automatically refers to the United States is the type of American narcissism, and abject failure in education, that has caused trouble in the past and appears poised to cause more in the future.
“The game has absolutely nothing to do with the American Civil War,” said Kurt Liedtke, an amateur Oregon Ducks historian and local newspaper reporter.
Liedtke has founded, co-founded, and run multiple websites covering UO sports. His father was a professor at the university and he has been immersed in the culture of the rivalry throughout his life.
“I am constantly trying to get people to study the history, but people have to want to understand the history. At a certain point I realized some people are going to understand it, and others are not,” said Liedtke.
Because OSU President Ray took a moment in his statement to make clear the name never was intended as a reference to the American Civil War, (despite acquiescing to the change under a nebulous belief in a greater good), what we are left with is the ludicrous idea that the proper noun, Civil War, is somehow racist or problematic in itself.
“I don’t think anybody thought of racism when the name Civil War came up,” said Kerry Eggers, a long-time Oregon sports writer whose father was a Sports Information Director at Oregon State. Eggers in 2014 published a literal book on the game’s history, titled simply: The Civil War Rivalry.
“It’s just an example of political correctness run amok,” Eggers continued. “There’s nobody waving Confederate flags, or espousing racism involved in this thing. It’s just a sports name that picked up organically and I think it was a unique name, and I don’t think anybody ever thought of anything racist when referring to it.”
Ken Goe is another local factotum who could not match the rationale with the game he knew and covered. Goe wrote forty-three years for The Oregonian newspaper and had the Ducks football beat over several stretches.
According to Goe, the suggestion one team would represent the Union and the United States, and the other the Confederacy and the Confederate States, over the course of this game never was part of the culture.
“Those of use who aren’t college age who spent years around the game have always seen this Civil War as completely separate from the battlefields of Antietam or Bull Run. This was just a football game, there was no equivalency,” said Goe.
It does not appear that some long push to rename the game had been underway, either. This was not like the Washington Redskins or Cleveland Indians, where certain activist groups rallied across generations demanding a change to suit their preferences. Instead, in a moment of national strife, with both legitimate protests and destructive riots underway across the country, a group of administrators caved in to the first application of pressure under the apparent notion that to do so would keep them on the right side of history and out of trouble.
“They didn’t do what had to be done because it didn’t have to be done,” said Eggers. “I would say that they buckled to what would be a minimal amount of pressure to do something like this. There wasn’t much thought put into it. It was, ‘yep, that sounds like a good thing, Civil War sounds racist, let’s get rid of it.’ I just never understood the need to do that, and nobody has been able to explain to me, to give me a valid reason, why that nickname should’ve been abolished.”
The issue and the moment in the United States are bigger than just the Oregon vs Oregon State Civil War game. In a moment where hand-picked aspects of United States history are being put on the scales by a collection of ultra-political activist groups for re-judgement against a set of contemporary beliefs, it’s not just unfair but reprehensible that the complete histories aren’t being heard and weighed. The honest conversation isn’t being had. Those pieces that fit a specific narrative are being spotlit, while those that contradict it are being left out or actively suppressed. The Oregon-Oregon State Civil War renaming is a microcosm of confrontations happening across the country.
THE STRONGEST ARGUMENT FOR THE CHANGE
Ironically, in the error made by the Dixon-led group, and the administrators who acquiesced without a word in defense of their own history, are the foundations of the strongest argument for the name change. This showdown is only a specter of what this American culture will face again and again going forward so long as there are prominent groups being allowed to advance emotionally-incendiary narratives at the expense of factual history.
In essence, the argument goes that if the name has been misconstrued over time, or misused and turned into something else, and the actual history is so little known that the only reference anyone can make is to the American Civil War, then it has outlived its purpose and is no longer a viable nickname.
“The Civil War takes on bigger bragging rights, bigger meaning, and because there’s been so much of our political conversation tied in with racism over the last several years,” says Liedtke, the amateur Oregon historian, “it makes sense to a certain extent that the game would be associated by proxy, or perceived to be associated by proxy with the Civil War, [the South’s] Jim Crow Laws, and a piece of the history of the United States.”
This is by far the best case that can be made in defense of the name change. While the history and culture of the game endure far beyond any single class of athletes, it is in fact the athletes who write the histories on the field from autumn to autumn, and if they don’t understand what they’re playing for, then what it is the point, after all?
“So, if the players feel like the name Civil War is inappropriate because people have misconstrued it from its origins to thinking that its affiliated with the 1860s war, then get rid of it, because they’re the ones who bleed in the battles year to year,” says Liedtke, unintentionally using the most obvious battle metaphor available.
The players who now come from across the country to play at Oregon and Oregon State are not educated in the cultures they’re playing for, partially as a result of the national corporate narratives swallowing up everything whole, as well as the game’s regionalism being wiped out by the all-consuming television schedule. Because of this the athletes often are left with no other association to make, and they don’t like what they see.
But in the end the best case is weak, because it’s not supported by factual history. In an era when the rallying cry has been, “honest conversations about the past,” this was a dishonest exchange from the outset. There is, in addition to the truncated exchange, an uncomfortable coddling element to what happened to the Civil War name that suggests a level of disrespect, rather than respect, for the intelligence of the group that brought up the issue. It was a failure at a level where educational achievement is, in theory, high enough that rational thought, as opposed to appeals to emotion, should carry the day.
“Over time perception of history can change, and the more you study history the more you realize what is commonly taught is not actually the whole story,” says Liedtke. “This is something where people didn’t grasp the full story.”
NOT THE FIRST TIME
While the Civil War was the first time in recent history that former players and an outside advisor have compelled administrators to change their culture, it has happened twice before with television and corporate sponsors bringing similar pressure to bear on university bureaucracies.
The Florida-Georgia contest, known as The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party after the teeming revelry along the banks of the Jacksonville River; and the Texas-Oklahoma game—called The Red River Shootout for geographical and historical reasons—were forced to stop identifying their games with those well-established and historically relevant monikers.
In the Florida-Georgia game, the cry from ten-thousand feet was that the branding might encourage irresponsible drinking amongst two already raucous fan bases. The drinking and revelry have lived on, unchanged, and so has the name everywhere save corporate television broadcasts.
With Texas and Oklahoma, the claim was that a name that tipped the proverbial Stetson to a quasi-mythical era of American history did too much to valorize gun play and violence. As if a football game played once yearly at the Texas State Fair had any literal connection with old-west style shoot ‘em ups along the borderlands.
The poison pill of this big-TV money era has been some combination of the television networks and their corporate sponsors, the always reactionary and terrified NCAA, and timid elements within each university’s administrations that acquiesce to the demands while citing a greater moral victory for the country. At the back end of this the fans and camp followers who invest significant parts of their lives in these cultures are force-fed the bad news.
The pattern of events at each showdown has been similar. A dubious but lurid rationale is rolled out publicly as though it’s the only moral direction forward; then social and corporate pressure—often small-scale but extremely intense—are brought to bear on administrative people living and working in a culture separate from the game itself. The implied threat behind the pressure is that, in addition to lost revenue for the game, severe professional consequences are near at hand.
These are individuals ensconced in big, swanky offices and sat behind the desk imbued with final authority. The buck, as far as the media and culture are concerned, stops with them. Often they are outsiders to the folk traditions they’re picked to oversee and operate in a well-heeled club of professional bureaucrats, with high-priced yearly gatherings in places with palm trees, and big salaries connected to prestigious titles that would be an agony to lose. That is why they most often fold to the push with alacrity, spooked by what might happen if they stood up to it, and write off the exchange as a victory for their administration specifically, and the sporting culture, generally.
“It’s part of a bigger trend,” says Goe. “This splintering of rivalries is happening everywhere because the corporatization of the sport, and particularly the emphasis of television on the sport and the pursuit of university administrators for television dollars, has really taken a lot of what was organic and special about college football away from it.”
Just losing the names will not bring the sport to its knees, but the game belongs rightfully to the people who pass it down from generation to generation, and these names are theirs. College football is a folk sport that carries on its back American history as well as many of her regional grassroot traditions. They are what separate the game from the pack and make the culture of the sport unique.
Losing the local history is slow death by a thousand little cuts. The sport is being confronted, charged with offenses both real and imagined, and forced to surrender itself piece by piece, whether to social or corporate television pressure makes no difference in the end. The colorful mosaic is a little less after every edit and re-write.
THE NAME AS IT TRULY WAS
The name for the Civil War game was created, in actual fact, by the local people as a natural outgrowth of lived history and local lore, like the best things in college football often are. Players and classes of recruits come and go seemingly overnight, but it is the rivalry and its traditions that endure across the generations.
The history of the Oregon-Oregon State game rolls back into eras so contrasting in their day-to-day realties they can be regarded as almost different worlds.
The first edition of the game was played in 1894, near the end of the Victorian era, and the record book preserves outcomes for 124 meetings across the epochs. It is the fifth oldest rivalry in major college football and the oldest west of the Mississippi River. While there are no official histories for its naming, the year 1929 often is cited for the genesis of the Civil War, but even that is more best guess than fact.
According to historians like Liedtke and Eggers, somewhere in the middle 1920’s, when the rivalry was moving into its third decade, there were instances in local papers of coaches saying the violent on-field battles had been “like a civil war” in their intensity. The name began to catch on as a quick reference to the game—and this claim makes sense when one considers the campuses are just forty miles apart in the same Willamette Valley, and many players on both sides come from the surrounding areas.
The annals of the rivalry preserve a panoply of college-esque outrages off the field. There were multiple attempts by Oregon State engineering students to dynamite the giant “O” off Skinner’s Butte on Oregon’s campus. In another year, Oregon State’s royal court was kidnapped and held ransom by students from Oregon. Puddles, Oregon’s live-mascot duck, was taken hostage in return. The goal posts have been hijacked from the field before and during games, and multiple massive brawls have broke out between the warring camps. This back and forth across generations was a hallmark of the competition between the schools, and sometimes things got out of hand.
The game was cancelled in 1911 after a massive donnybrook was touched off in the gloaming of the 1910 game. And when it did return the schools relocated to a neutral site in Albany, Oregon for both the 1912 and 1913 editions to bleed some heat off the proceedings. The name could have come to life in those years and without doubt those incidents filled the background when it finally did.
But for all the skullduggery and tomfoolery that has animated the rivalry, the 1937 edition has a strong case for the most insane in the history of the series, while being also generally representative of why the Civil War moniker was branded onto the game.
*Photos courtesy of University of Oregon Special Collections
That incident, which began the night before with Oregon State students searing their school’s initials into Oregon’s brand new grass field, and ended the Monday after with an invasion and brawl that led to a group of Oregon State students having their heads shaved before being thrown into the Millrace alongside the Willamette River, was the rivalry at its chaotic peak.
The next morning the Eugene Register Guard ran a full front-page headline in bold type: “OSC INVADES EUGENE: WAR FOLLOWS,” to describe those events. The headline announcing the outbreak of World War II could not have been any bigger. The details of that incident can be read in a sidebar story attached to this article. It was removed from this piece in the interest of length and time considerations.
This is the brand of incident and the nature of the artifacts that made the Oregon versus Oregon State Civil War rivalry. This is the history that should have been stood up for when the bogus indictments came down. The rivalry grew up organically across generations in the Willamette Valley and to somehow tie it to the Lost Cause of the defeated Confederacy, claiming it was a reminder of racism and slavery in those long ago times, was not just factually and historically incorrect, it was wrong. The game and its culture deserved an honest defense.
But now the name is gone, and while one small group presumably is happy with what they’ve done, another larger group is confused and upset after a trial and conviction without witness or defense. What was solved here? What was made better? How does the country use this example to keep improving, day by day, going forward? The entire incident leaves behind far more questions than answers, and the prospect of a future made up of far more conflict than harmony if the people in charge aren't willing to stand up for the truth.