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Dispute Suspends 100-plus-year-old Basketball Rivalry

Sports inspires passion. A rivalry can further escalate feelings and lead, at least at times, to those emotions becoming overheated and lead to undesirable behavior and ultimately, consequences.

Such is the case between the men’s basketball programs at University of Utah and Brigham Young University in their in-state games, which have been called by many, the Holy War.

This season, a BYU player threw a punch at a Utes’ player, which led to a firm yet rare response.

What precipitated the anger, the loss of control and the act of aggression is unknown. Yet, that punch upset and concerned Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak, a former college (and professional) player himself.  He was alarmed enough to ask his athletic director Chris Hill to suspend the series between the schools.

While BYU coach Dave Rose disagreed with the request, his school will honor Utah’s wishes.

The decision between the schools means that for the first time in over 100 years, the programs will not play one another.

What could have the institutions done instead or what can they do now to engage in, manage or resolve the dispute?

Frankly, there is not enough info to really diagnose this conflict” say Bernie Mayer, Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Werner Institute at Creighton University’s School of Law.

He does examine the situation with questions that could get to the nucleus of the problems.

  • How much is this about identity issues for the two schools—and how much does it reflect the social divide in Utah between Mormons and non-Mormons? (The University of Utah) has traditionally been more dominated by the latter and BYU by the former. Is part of the concern that this is escalating in a way that that more general tension is also rising?
  • What about other structural considerations—the role of basketball and sports more generally in each institution’s financial, alumni relations, marketing and other structures?
  • What are the financial implications of this?
  • What is the message that each institution is trying to convey by their response?
  • What other values involved?
  • What pressure is being put on the AD’s by admin, students, alumni, donors, and others?

A question could be is the decision to end a rivalry that means so much to the state’s fans and possibly the players an optimal outcome?

Clearly this is not optimal but maybe it is the start of something better,” says Mayer.

“I think saying “stop—this is just a game, lets get our perspective back”–is not necessarily uninspired—but if it stops there, then not much will be accomplished.

“If however it leads to productive conversations in each school, and within each basketball program, and most importantly then, between schools and teams—that could lead to something powerful,” he says.

Mayer believes restorative justice, a process that continues to gain traction in healing emotions through actions taken to show accountability and need for recompense in damaged relationships, could be useful.

A model for discussion for how players could interact with one another, Mayer believes, is how Denver Broncos’ quarterback Peyton Manning showed sportsmanship after his team defeated the New England Patriots in this season’s AFC Championship game.

“I thought the story of how Peyton Manning went up to (quarterback) Tom Brady and (coach) Bill Belichick at the end of the AFC Championship game and told them how much he had enjoyed being their rival all these years and how much he respected them as people and as professionals was terrific (of course he was the winner) but that is exactly the right message for sports—and this could be turned into an opportunity for an important community discussion,” says Mayer.

“Sports can play an community building role—bringing together people who are otherwise divided by class, race, politics, religion, et cetera,” he says.

How would Mayer mediate such a dispute between the schools, generally speaking?

“I would be inclined to start by meeting separately with each team after appropriate discussions with just the players and help them talk about the meaning of this rivalry, and how it should be carried out, and more generally about the message they want to be giving to their fans, students, etc. about the relationship between the rivals.

“I would then want to consider a joint meeting between the teams, and maybe a restorative justice process between the two players involved.

“I would hope this might lead to some communication between students and alumni of the two institutions. It could be very valuable,” he says.

Mayer has another topic of discussion for those who involved in playing, covering and watching the series.

“Holy War is a bad name for this rivalry” he says.

“Under the banner of Holy War, millions of lives have been lost and many atrocities have been committed. It’s just as bad a term as Jihad in this context and suggests that something fundamental is at stake. It’s not.

“I wish they would find a way of migrating to a new way of characterizing it,” says Mayer.


Michael Toebe

Michael is a conflict management specialist, serving businesses and individuals in strategically, effectively gaining deeper understanding of conflicts and disputes and working through them more protectively and wisely. MORE >

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