Oregon and Oregon State Drop 'Civil War' Name from Historic Rivalry for All the Wrong Reasons
By Mark Schipper
THE CIVIL WAR
Saturday melees between fans of the Oregon and Oregon State football teams have escalated into mini-riots that rolled into the following week. Vandals have torched freshly laid grass fields on the eve of games, while saboteurs ignited belts of dynamite in an effort to blow campus landmarks sky high. Cheer squads, performing in front of packed stadiums, have been targeted with lewd animal innuendos, while live mascots were taken and held for ransom.
The rivalry has been cancelled for brawling only to return at a neutral site to undercut the fierce territoriality of the two camps. The emerald-green Willamette Valley, a north-south running agricultural plain that’s boxed in by mountains like sleeping giants on the horizon, is the venue for the perennial strife.
An organic but sporting hate, built up and passed down over generations, set neighbor against neighbor and the state’s premier universities at loggerheads on the gridiron. Serious athletic competition was the relatively healthy outlet for the energy and, over the years, coaches would correlate the intensity of certain battles to ‘civil wars’ between the two encampments. Local newspapers ran with the metaphor, adding color and context to the rivalry, while documenting the wild encounters between the schools every autumn.
At their core these were good spirited skirmishes between backers of the Ducks and Beavers, two competitive universities separated by forty miles up Route-99 between Eugene and Corvallis, but there was a measure of volatility to them as well. What's above is only a taste of the skullduggery and mischief between the warring camps, but it's more than enough to give the classic Civil War game its name.
The rivalry and the name have exactly nothing to do with the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865, despite the false equivalence and spurious claims over the agonizing summer of 2020—as protests and riots raged in many American cities— to rip away the naming heritage from one of the sport’s great folk rivalries. It did not have to happen, and wouldn't have had the highly-paid administrators at both universities stood up for the historical record rather than caving to what is accurately described as a bogus crisis.
HOW AND WHY THE NAME WAS TAKEN AWAY
The lightning-fast campaign to eradicate the Civil War’s folksy name began behind the scenes in June of 2020. It was sparked, by his own admission, by Dennis Dixon, a mid-aughts star quarterback for the Ducks whose collegiate eligibility expired in 2007.
In a video made by Dixon, which Oregon football pushed out across its social media channels, the former Duck attributed the entire idea of dropping the name to a friend. That friend, who Dixon identified as Theresa Tran, has not emerged or been called forward to explain the rationale or purpose behind the idea. In fact, she has not made a public statement of any kind, and it does not appear she'll be expected to. Tran convinced Dixon it was a good idea and Dixon used his clout as a former player to take the plan public, according to the available information.
“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.
Neither the context or substance of the conversation have been expounded on. Dixon, who was born in Oakland, California and attended high school in the Bay Area city of San Leandro, arrived at Oregon in 2004 as a 19-year-old multi-sport athlete with limited knowledge of the university's cultural traditions. Dixon's commentary almost fifteen-years later, with its narrow scope and lack of historical depth, suggests a continued lack of familiarity with the game's heritage.
Apparently unconcerned with any goal beyond seeing Tran's plan brought to completion, Dixon decided to “ladder up” the idea to cancel the name to former teammates Garren Strong and Jonathan Stewart. According to the video, both Strong and Stewart told Dixon the current players, along with both schools' athletic directors and university vice presidents, must be on board before any action could be taken. If those parties could be won over, they surmised, the change might be brought to fruition.
While little has been revealed about the ensuing process—and Dixon did not respond to multiple requests from 5th Down College Football to discuss what transpired for this piece—it appears to have taken less time to erroneously connect the Oregon/Oregon State rivalry with the American Civil War than it did to force the unconditional surrender of those high-ranking administrators to the group’s demands.
Within days of broaching the topic, as protests and riots over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis rocked several American cities, and news media provided frenzied, twenty-four hour coverage and opinion shaping over events that had not been investigated or adjudicated, the athletic director at the University of Oregon and president at Oregon State University issued statements announcing the excising of the rivalry's name.
Each of their statements evince a certain pride at having the name stripped away from the game, as if something of substance had been achieved, and both express a certain amount of shame that something had not been done sooner to confront a term apparently 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.”
Mullens grew up in West Virginia and attended college at West Virginia University in the early 1990s. He served as an account specialist at the investment firm Ernst and Young in Raleigh, North Carolina before taking jobs at the Universities of Miami and Maryland in the middle 1990s. Mullens was hired at Oregon in 2010 from his post as a deputy athletic director at the University of Kentucky. Mullens entire life and professional career had been at or near the eastern seaboard prior to the job at Oregon.
How much Mullens knew or knows of Oregon's unique history is a matter for conjecture. He made certain in his statement to call it a "mutual decision" on the matter of the Civil War name, ensuring the public understood there were other people to blame beside himself. Mullens did not respond to multiple emails from 5th Down CFB seeking comment for this piece.
Oregon State’s president, Ed Ray, was up next with his statement.
“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."
President Ray retired at age 75 less than two weeks after signing off on the name change. Ray was born in Queens, New York and took his bachelors degree from Queen's College in 1966. He would go on to earn a masters and doctorate at Stanford University before moving to the midwest to work on the economics faculty at Ohio State University. Ray was hired out of Columbus, Ohio in 2003 to take over as president at Oregon State.
When reached for comment, President Ray recommended athletic director Scott Barnes as a source for answers regarding recent changes to the Civil War name. But Mr. Barnes had not authored the university's statement on the matter and was deemed an inappropriate contact for this piece.
Dixon closed his video with a line of praise for the campaign:
“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 decent, honest intentions. Like so many others they wanted to be known in their communities as leaders for a just cause, and to leave behind a legacy of positive change to inspire those who might follow in their path. That was the Dixon groups' move and they were free to make it, no matter how well or poorly informed they were on the cultural institution they were attacking.
It is on the administrative side where the dereliction of duty occurred. The question is why, rather than surrender immediately to a demonstrably specious claim, didn’t the people protecting these cultural brands stand up for the truth? There could have been any number of projects between the schools that could have done actual good in the real world, but instead, most plausibly as a consequence of a lack of moral courage amongst the overpaid, excessively privileged bureaucrats that run American universities, they settled for what was easy over what was right.
WHAT IS ACTUALLY PROBLEMATIC
The essential problem with the trial and conviction of the Civil War game is that it was executed on bogus indictments and zero evidence. The administrators agreed to remedy a false claim that not only could not have tangible benefit to the lives of people they were trying to support, but would in fact engender resentment amongst another community forced to sit through a summary erasure of their heritage based on a spurious claim of inherent prejudice.
Based on the published articles and social media posts on the showdown, no one involved in the process took even one week to examine the rivalry and its naming history. Nor was there a good-faith effort to show the players, or Tran, the ostensible spearhead of the movement, the naming traditions had been local, not national, and began around sixty-years after the war between the states had ended.
Even that war, a crucial moment in American history, was shoddily described by high-ranking university administrators. President Ray, who holds a doctorate from Stanford University, claimed the Civil War was “fought to perpetuate slavery." That statement, in the way Ray phrased it, is categorically false when you're talking about the United States.
The war was prosecuted on the United States’ end to reunite the country after a collection of southern states seceded from the Union, attacked it with the engines of war, and formed their own, separate nation-state. In the process of a staggeringly bloody campaign to destroy the government and military of the Confederate States of America, the institution of slavery was abolished forever, an outcome sought by millions of Americans for generations. The United States won that war in a rout and it is arguably the most important triumph in the history of a great nation. The Civil War itself is not an embarrassment to the United States.
But even had President Ray’s statement been remotely accurate, the Civil War between Oregon and Oregon State has 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 citizens of a country that would otherwise live side-by-side in peace. Civil Wars have been part of human civilization for as far back as written records go, and then further back to the time before records. The long engagement of the Ducks and Beavers in athletic and off-the-field competition includes a litany of citizen-on-citizen incidents, giving it a highly-defensible claim to a civil war of its own kind.
That the title Civil War in some minds automatically refers to the United States is a type of American narcissism, and abject failure of the educational system, that has caused trouble in the past and appears poised to cause more trouble 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 Liedtke 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.”
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—while none the less 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 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 writer and factotum who could not match the rationale for destroying the name with the game he knew and covered. Goe wrote forty-three years for The Oregonian newspaper and was on the Ducks' football beat over several long stretches.
According to Goe the idea one team would represent the United States and Union forces, and the other the Confederate States and Confederate military, and then play the game as a referendum on the war with a new winner and loser each season, was incoherent.
“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 there was some long behind-the-scenes push to rename the game, either. This was not like the Washington Redskins or Cleveland Indians, where activist groups rallied across generations demanding change to suit their preferences. Instead, in a moment of national strife, with both legitimate protests and destructive riots burning across the country, a group of administrators caved at the first signs of discord under a belief that to do so would keep them 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 issues in play and the historical moment are bigger than the Oregon vs Oregon State Civil War game. At a time when cherry-picked features of United States' history are being judged against a set of broadly unpopular contemporary claims it is both reprehensible, and unjust, that the complete stories are not being entered into the record. The proverbial honest conversation is not being had. The Oregon-Oregon State Civil War renaming is a microcosm of confrontations happening across the country.
THE STRONGEST ARGUMENT FOR THE CHANGE
The foundation of the strongest argument in favor of the name change, ironically, can be fleshed out in the fundamental error made by the Dixon-led group. If at some point an argument moves from the realm of fact and truth into a place where personal emotion and desire are leading the way, as they are here, then any anti-factual narrative can be legitimized by citing the level of personal commitment on behalf of the petitioners. 'Who are they and how important is this to them?' becomes the critical question.
In this case the primary argument can be tweaked to say that if the Civil War name has been misconstrued over time, or misused and turned into something else—and the factual history is so little known the only connection being made is to the American Civil War—then the name has reached the end of its natural life. At its heart it absolves the petitioners of learning the facts of the matter, and shifts the burden onto those they approach to validate their arguments based on how personally important they claim what they're doing is to their cause.
“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 in defense of the name change. While the history and culture of the game endure beyond any single graduating class of athletes, it is in fact the athletes who write the histories on the field from autumn to autumn. If they don’t understand what they’re playing for, then what it is the point, after all? I do not say I agree with this argument, because I most adamantly do not, but it is the strongest claim the name-change group has in its arsenal.
“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 effective war-based metaphor available.
It is in large measure true that contemporary athletes move across the country to play at top universities and often are not well educated in the cultures they are joining. The Ducks former quarterback, Dixon, for example, likely had no idea about anything that happened in Eugene prior to his first day in the city.
This partly is a consequence of the national corporate-media narratives, and the sport's shift toward a more national presentation, swallowing up the game and its heritage whole. Local and regional storylines increasingly are being left to rot on the sidelines while athletes themselves never get connected to the history they're becoming a part of.
But, in the end, even this strongest argument is weak because it’s not supported by facts or the historical record. The truth should not lose out to a feeling, no matter who is having the feeling. In an era when the rallying cry has been, “honest conversations about the past,” this was a dishonest exchange from the start. It is too bad no one in charge had enough courage to live by the alleged mantra.
As a wry topper to the careless dialogue between athletes and administrators, there was an element of condescension on behalf of the administrators suggesting a kind of disrespect for the intelligence of the Tran-Dixon group. This conversation, in theory, had gone on amongst a group of college educated individuals, where rational exchanges of fact and historical context, as opposed to the quick submission to an emotional but ultimately flimsy claim, should have won the day. That they did not is an indictment of everyone involved, but especially those who chose an easy capitulation and false victory over defending their traditions and suffering a minor shower of bad publicity.
“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 game was the first time in recent history that former players and an outside advisor have compelled summary changes to a university's traditions and culture, it has happened before with television and corporate sponsors bringing analogous pressure to bear on university bureaucracies.
Both the Florida-Georgia contest—known as The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party—and the Texas-Oklahoma game—called The Red River Shootout—were pressured to stop identifying their games with those popular monikers after corporate blowback claimed they had negative connotations that somehow did actual harm in the real world.
In the Cocktail game, named after the pre-game revelry along the banks of the Jacksonville River, the cry had come from timid elements within both universities and the game's corporate backers. The branding encouraged irresponsible drinking amongst two raucous fan bases, they said, and had to be cut out of the rivalry. This, of course, was a comical, almost Kafka-esque claim when one considers the name itself sprung to life as a consequence of that exact activity. There is no question which came first: 1) The Drinking. 2) The Name. The old question about the chicken or the egg does not apply in this case.
While the two universities completed the eradication of the name, citing a poor fit with the collegiate model, the entire cocktail culture has lived on amongst the people, unchanged, and so has its name, everywhere save corporate television broadcasts.
With the Longhorns and Sooners the beef came over a name that tipped the Stetson to a quasi-mythical era of American history. The protest from the game's corporate backers alleged that calling a game a shootout valorized gun fighting and violence, as if a football game played once a year at the Texas State Fair had some literal connection to old-west style shoot outs along the Red River. The name was purely metaphorical, it was the football game that was real.
But while the universities may have agreed to the change, and the stuffed suits running television have excised it from their broadcasts, the name is alive and well with the fans, and they judge each other based on who keeps it real and who takes marching orders from the money men. The pattern that plays out at these showdowns has been consistent. A flawed but strongly worded rationale for ending some tradition is rolled out from either a corporate or cultural power center as though it’s the only moral direction forward. Then the sport's financiers, without stopping to think but in instant terror of even a moment of instability, bring pressure to bear on university administrators who live and work in a culture separated from the grassroots of the game itself, frightening them with the prospect of lost revenue or an association with something unsavory if they don't make an immediate moral stand.
Sadly for fans who are the beating heart of this sport every weekend, the administrators being targeted are faint-hearted bureaucrats ensconced in big, plush offices, imbued with the dread responsibility of making final judgements. Frequently they are outsiders to the folk traditions they’re hired to oversee, operating instead amongst a national club of professional administrators with big salaries and access to power that would be an agony to lose. That is why they fold at the first sign of discord, spooked by what might happen if they stood up to it. Afterward their colleagues at other universities congratulate them for successfully navigating a cultural minefield, knowing their turn cannot be far off, and welcome them back to the clubhouse.
“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.”
Losing nicknames 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 those names had come from them. College football is unique for its place in American culture, carrying a measure of the nation's history and grassroots traditions on its back. Losing those pieces, even the small ones, eventually ends in death by a thousand cuts. Whether they're forced out by social or corporate television pressure makes no difference in the end. The colorful mosaic is a little less after every hostage situation that goes south.
THE NAME AS IT TRULY WAS
Ducks versus Beavers is the fifth oldest rivalry in major college football and the oldest west of the Mississippi River. The Civil War name materialized as a natural outgrowth of lived history and local lore. While there is no official date for its first use, the year 1929 often is cited as the earliest example, but even that is more best guess than fact.
According to the historians Liedtke and Eggers there were several instances of its use in the middle 1920s. Coaches quoted in the local papers had described battles as “civil war like” because of the intensity of the desire to vanquish the neighboring school. The dramatic title began to catch on as a quick reference—the Civil War game—which made sense with most of the athletes recruited from nearby high schools and both fanbases living side by side throughout the year.
While players and classes of recruits come and go seemingly overnight, a schools' rivalries and traditions, and the people who participate in them, are what endure across generations. The Oregon-Oregon State game has been a part of the yearly calendar of the Pacific Northwest for so long that people who've lived in parts of three centuries can say they've experienced its pageantry directly.
The first edition of the game was played in 1894, near the end of the Victorian era, when teams traveled for days by train while swells riding horse and carriage pulled to field's edge to take in the battle. The rivalry has lived into the 21st century, where the exploration of outer-space is a feature of society and programs go by jet across the continent in a matter of hours to meet the competition, and return home later that same night.
In addition to the actual games, which have run to 124 meetings as of this writing, the annals of the rivalry preserve a panoply of college-esque outrages off the field as well. There were multiple attempts by Oregon State engineering students to dynamite the giant “O” off Skinner’s Butte on Oregon’s campus. Another year Oregon State’s royal court was kidnapped and held ransom by a crew of Oregon students. Puddles, Oregon’s live-mascot duck, was swiftly 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 prank-war across generations was a hallmark of the competition between the schools, but some years the skirmishing got out of hand. The game was cancelled in 1911 after a massive donnybrook had touched off in the gloaming of the 1910 edition. And when it did return, in 1912 and again in 1913, the schools played at a neutral site in Albany, Oregon to bleed some heat from the assemblies.
*Photos courtesy of University of Oregon Special Collections
The Civil War name could have come to life in those years and without doubt those incidents filled the minds of everyone who lived them when it finally did. The game and the culture around the game added up to an in-state war of its own kind. But for all the impassioned, frantic madness that has animated the rivalry, the 1937 edition made a strong case for the most insane in series' history.
That year's game, and everything surrounding it, which actually began the night before with Oregon State students searing their school’s initials into Oregon’s brand new grass field, was the rivalry at its chaotic peak. The confrontation between schools rolled into the following Monday with an invasion and brawl that climaxed with a group of Oregon State students having their heads shaved as a prelude to being thrown into the Millrace alongside the Willamette River,.
On that Tuesday morning, three days after the game had been played, the Eugene Register Guard ran a bold-faced, massive front-page headline that read: “OSC INVADES EUGENE: WAR FOLLOWS,” to describe what transpired. The headline announcing the outbreak of World War II in Europe could not have been any bigger. If it wasn't a Civil War between the two universities and their fanbases it was the next closest thing. When you talk about true college football rivalries, this is the complex manner of historical exchange that gives them their weight and larger meaning, it is what makes them real.
Even if the outright madness died down over the decades, the Civil War continued to boil into the 21st century, with huge upsets and conference-championship clinching victories coming on that final weekend of the regular season. The game was attached to its ancient roots and thriving in a new era just as it ought to have.
That was the heritage that should have been stood up for when the bogus indictments came down. To somehow attach the Civil War's locally-conferred name to the Lost Cause romanticism of the defeated Confederacy, claiming it was a reminder of racism and slavery in those long ago days, was not just factually and historically incorrect, it was flat-out 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 carried out, another, larger group is angry that a kangaroo court of college administrators took it upon themselves to slice off a piece of their heritage. What was solved by burying the name? What was made better? How does the country use this encounter as an example to keep improving, day by day, going forward?
The entire incident leaves more questions than it does answers, and the prospect of a future rife with intensifying conflict over the past if the people in charge aren't willing to stand up for the truth.