A Utah _____ Am I

I attended the University of Utah between the years of 1998 and 2000, earning a Bachelors degree in English. it was the culmination of a life long dream-attend the U, earn a degree. I toyed with the idea of attending other universities, but my heart was always with the crimson and red up on the hill.

As a boy, I loved watching Utah sporting events, often pretending I would one day write my name along those of other great Utah athletes. I was never talented enough to fulfill that dream, but it contributed to my life long affection for the university. For good and bad, sports are deeply intertwined with university life. Money is spent on them, money is earned from them, and scholarships are awarded for excellence in them.  Fight songs are sung because of them.

Part of my University of Utah experience was attending football and basketball games. Like almost every other school, the University of Utah has a fight song, meant to pump of the crowds and excite the students. The song is played at almost every opportunity at the games-when the players come on the field, at almost every big play, every timeout, every touchdown. While it plays, the majority of the crowd stands and claps along, many of them singing the words. It is a unifying experience.

I know the first two verses by heart, and count myself among those who sing the song with terrible voice and infinite passion. The song carries with it more than just the meaning of its words. It is a feeling, a sense of being part of something beyond allegiance to a team or jersey color.  When I stand up with other people who share the same connection, I feel a part of something larger than myself. It’s silly and it’s a bit childish, but the sound of the fight song gets my heart excited. It makes me happy.

That song was written in 1904. It is not perfect, and recently, some of its words and phrases have come under fire. Here are the words to the song.

At issue are two particular phrases-The use of the word ‘Man’ in the chorus and first verse (the chorus is sung as a second verse, no one sings the third or fourth, but certainly they would object to the use of ‘Man’ in them as well), and the phrase, “our coeds are the fairest”.

Some are calling the song racist and sexist, saying it is not inclusive and that they feel the song contributes to institutional racism and sexism. I cannot dismiss their arguments and complaints out of hand. The song can be interpreted that way. By using the word ‘man’, the song does seem to exclude those who make up more than half the population of the university. Also, saying the female students are beautiful, is certainly a shallow way to look at the contribution of women to the campus. The song is old, antiquated, and to be honest, a bit ridiculous. That is the case for most university fight songs. They are silly, filled with words most would never use in daily conversation.

But ridiculous or not, for some, the Utah fight song has some particularly troubling elements.

What concerns me is the accusation of institutional racism and sexism. Yes, the song was written in a different time, when universities were vastly different places, but that song does not represent the current climate on campus. The university as an institution welcomes those of all colors, gender identities, shapes and sizes. Events on campus do not exclude anyone on the basis of sex or race (though I would point to the Greek system as one that is institutionally exclusive and more divisive than a fight song, but that is another argument). A student is not denied access to any place on campus because of how they appear. In fact, my experience at the University of Utah was one of the most diverse and inclusive experiences of my life. When I sang the fight song at games, my thoughts were not, “yeah, take that women. This song is only meant for me. Get off my campus,” and I doubt most in attendance were thinking anything along those lines.

The allegations of racism startled me. Some implied that the word “fairest” could imply Caucasian. Sure, I guess it could. It also could mean free from bias, dishonesty or injustice. Words mean many things depending on context. To remove a word because it might mean something is to remove every word from every sentence. Words can and do mean things, but to rush about washing them all away because of what they might mean is a futile exercise. There is no evidence in the song that the word “fairest” suggests anything but the best of meanings. If it is a legitimate argument that “fairest” implies white skin, I can argue that the next line in the song implies that all the women at the University are literally shining stars, dehumanizing them even further.

I am also bothered by the lack of ideas coming from those wanting to alter the song. It is one thing to shout for change, but without some concept of what the change should be, it feels like self serving posturing. Our culture is filled with examples of removing gender specificity from common words. The changes made sense and better defined the world they represented. Fireman-firefighter. Policeman-Police officer. Mailman-Mail carrier. These were good ideas and after time, have become part of our daily vocabulary. In the case of this fight song, one suggestion (the only one I have heard. I am open to more) is to change “Utah man” to “Utah fan”. I can’t get on board with this one. Fan implies something completely different and no definition of fan touches on the concept that Utah man embodies. It is more than being a supporter of a local sports team. It is being part of the group, part of the experience that is attending the University of Utah. Offer me something that embodies that same tone and I will sing it loud.

Things change all the time in this world. I am not rigid in my belief that something as irrelevant as a university fight song should be above reproach or change. I only ask that those wanting the alterations consider their own motivations and biases. Where are the ideas, or are you just thumping your chests, hoping to be noticed? It is important to offer a constructive solution when creating a divisive situation, which is what this has become among alumni and students.

 

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About fenster

There are some who call me, Tim?

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