On Thursday, Brandon made the case that UNC Basketball fans and certain players have been making since the mid-2000’s, when Roy Williams’ tenure was in full swing: NC State is not our rival. It’s fun to say and even pretend to believe, not least because of the reaction it elicits from a significant segment of the NCSU fanbase for whom hating UNC might be more important than supporting the school they’ve chosen to back. And it’s easy to get suckered into it when the gold standard for rivalries in all of American sports is sitting right there, in the form of the UNC-Duke. But that just means we’re spoiled. A brief look at the most intense rivalries across the sports landscape shows us that it’s very rare that a rivalry of any kind is as balanced and storybook-like as UNC-Duke. Just 8 miles separating the two, Public Ivy vs private elite, in-state affordability vs transplants paying over 60K a year in tuition, light blue vs royal blue, two basketball teams with higher profiles than the the schools’ football teams that are near neck-and-neck over the past 100-something meetings, you just can’t script it better, and that’s why it’s the greatest rivalry in the country.
But look at some other fierce rivalries that aren’t disputed: The NFC East, in professional football, nowadays consists of two teams that are usually decent and two that are a surprise when they’re any good, but those fanbases all hate each other and get geared up for games even when they’re not expecting to compete (disregard this article from Big Blue View that investigates exactly this phenomenon, please). The Boston Celtics absolutely dominated the Philadelphia “Process” 76ers in the 2010’s, but that didn’t stop that rivalry. And my personal favorite and most relevant example, I think, is tennis, where Wikipedia has articles for such rivalries as Sampras-Agassi, which was dominated 9-3 by the former while both were at their peak; and, most bafflingly, Federer-Roddick, which mostly consisted of Roddick finding ways to play Federer in Grand Slams and then losing. By the time of Roddick’s retirement, he was 3-21 against The Maestro. And yet, because of nationalistic fervor, each of those matches got enough hype to merit the name “rivalry.”
The throughline through all of those examples is that sports rivalries are really only secondarily about what actually happens on the field/court/whatever. First and foremost, they are about fandom and representation. About regular people uniting behind some sort of shared idea, whether that idea is a place (usually the case), a philosophy, a culture, whatever, and then putting themselves in low-stakes conflict with other unities. Celtics-Lakers isn’t just about two teams, it’s about Boston vs Los Angeles, industry versus Hollywood, East Coast vs West Coast. UNC-Duke, like I said before, isn’t just about the uniforms, but about public, accessible education versus private and prohibitively expensive, representation of a state versus an isolated campus. We as fans assign moral value to our teams and the ones they clash with. We’ve already established that sports are political, but something else we have to grasp is that sports are metaphorical. We use them to make sense of our own lives, in micro and macro ways. This only gets clearer once we zoom out from the United States and look at international and worldwide sports rivalries: India and Pakistan have been cricket rivals for decades; is it even possible to think that’s because their teams have been well-matched rather than because of the bloody histories of Partition, Jammu/Kashmir, and Hindu/Muslim tension? In the minds of fans, each match is a referendum on which side is on the right side of history. It has to be, because that’s the only way that assigning as much importance as we do to the regimented actions of a few people around a ball (or puck or disc, you get the point) makes any sense.
Okay, so with all that established, let’s talk about NC State and what it represents against UNC. As part of the UNC system, it’s a public school just like UNC with even more affordable tuition, so the class tension that’s integral to the UNC-Duke rivalry isn’t really a thing, but State fans have found a way to replace it. State fans will tell you that their university, with its Agricultural school and less prestigious reputation, represents Americana in a way that a liberal arts university with a Public Ivy reputation like UNC doesn’t, regardless of the fact that both schools aim to educate the working class. If UNC-Duke is a working class-upper class rivalry, UNC-State is a rural-(sub)urban one, a division that’s much more artificial and yet no less real than the former in our United States, given how often we hear successful political messaging to rural areas of the country that spiting urban centers is in their favor regardless of the truth. Additionally, with State’s well-regarded engineering college compared to UNC’s lumping of all undergraduate majors under Liberal Arts and Sciences, NCSU markets itself as the college to go to for people who want a job, rather than UNC’s liberal artsy MO of education for education’s sake (to be clear, this is image, not reality). State’s not a trade school, but its fans treat it more or less like one - a place that’s separated from the ivory tower that is academia, where its graduates have learned marketable skills rather than been “indoctrinated” the way students apparently are at universities.
There are, of course, politics bubbling under that entire previous paragraph, thanks to the anti-intellectualism that pervades a subsection of modern-day America. Here’s as good a place as any to say that I’m not saying anything about the political affiliations of State fans as a whole or as individuals - Steven Muma over at Backing the Pack just wrote this, and even if his statement runs counter to the ideas I’ve been talking about, I think that’s fine. But it’s foolish to pretend that politics aren’t part of this rivalry, and that’s captured no better than by the recruitment of Payton Wilson, a linebacker who just played his first season for NCSU. He committed to UNC pretty early on in the 2018 class (with Dyami Brown), then flipped to State, reportedly saying among other things that he didn’t fit the vibe on UNC’s campus and preferred State’s, that he was a “country boy,” and that he was excited to play “hard-nosed” football. He encapsulated the rivalry so perfectly that UNC fans to this day believe he was playing a long con to get fans as mad as possible, with or without coaching.
And then, of course, there’s the scandal. I’m not going to spend a bunch of time on it, but UNC’s academic scandal might have been, in my lifetime at least, where UNC-State went from a rivalry charged from one side to one charged on both sides. Before 2014, UNC fans knew their side was right - that universities are more than vocational schools (nothing against trade schools!), that the rural-(sub)urban divide is a political invention designed to keep oligarchs in power, that all Americans are true Americans, and the sports results proved it: Roy owned them in basketball, football was more competitive but things were looking up with 2 straight wins. And then, suddenly, that moral ground wasn’t so stable, and State fans had a new angle of attack that focused on the optics of Black athletes being enticed by African American Studies and being defrauded of an education because of it. It’s the height of hypocritical virtue signaling, with everything else State fans claim their fandom represents, but it’s effective. So regardless of the truth, UNC fans now had something to prove in this rivalry, and with turning fortunes in football and a suddenly slightly more competitive basketball scene, that’s the way it’s been since.
History doesn’t matter so much here, because we’re living in the history we’ll remember. What’s going on right now is a series of ideological battles waged between the sports teams of two universities that meet often, and the results of those sports matches are the lowest-stakes results in play here. That’s why we get up with a special kind of fervor for State games, why it feels a little sweeter to beat them and a heck of a lot more sour to lose to them. For all of its problems, and as an alumnus I know there are plenty, UNC represents the best of public education, and it’s absolutely worth defending, both from the interests of old-money private institutions and from those who would say that education and academia are useless and that money should be the ultimate goal. It’s only right that we have fierce rivals from both oppositions, and I think it’s time to embrace it. State can’t be “not our rivals” just because they don’t compete with us much in men’s basketball, because UNC and State are so much more than men’s basketball. Sports rivalries have never just been about sports, and when it comes to colleges, the fiercest rivalries are about the colleges as a whole. UNC-State has undeniably become that, and it’s okay to admit it. It’s not UNC-Duke, but it is yet another rivalry that’s between two sharply opposed sides, and another that we are on the right side of.