Navigating Rivalries at Thanksgiving … and Beyond

NKU professor Joe Cobbs explains how to manage conflicts arising from the Ohio State-Michigan game as well as lifelong competition with your sibling.
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As Thanksgiving approaches, families across the nation come together in celebration and unite around dining tables and, of course, in front of televisions to cheer on their favorite sports teams. The holiday often coincides with some of the most anticipated college football games of the year, featuring famous rivalries that capture the collective imagination such as Ohio State-Michigan and Alabama-Auburn. Basketball rivalries like UC-Xavier and Kentucky-Louisville follow next month.

Rivalry, as complex as the intricate patterns on a Thanksgiving turkey, has the power to both unite and divide. It’s a force that can push us toward personal bests and team victories, yet it also has a darker side capable of stirring up discord and strife.

In anticipation of these spirited Thanksgiving weekend showdowns, where the stakes feel just a little higher and the cheers ring a bit louder, a conversation with Northern Kentucky University professor Joe Cobbs couldn’t be more timely. Chair of the department of marketing, sport business, and construction management in NKU’s Haile College of Business and an expert in the dynamics of rivalry, he provides insight into how these intense competitions can be navigated to enhance our holiday experience rather than detract from it.

NKU professor Joe Cobbs

Cobbs’s 10-ingredient model of rivalry—encompassing conflict conditions, social identity, and symbolic significance—delves into the essence of what turns a simple game into a storied rivalry. As families gather, often with loyalties split, understanding the nature of rivalry is key to enjoying the games in a way that fosters camaraderie and respect in the spirit of Thanksgiving.

What are the factors contributing to rivalry in sports?

Take the rivalry between the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville basketball teams. The conflict conditions are met because the two teams compete against each other every year in a highly competitive game [scheduled for December 21]. The social identity elements are met because Kentucky and Louisville fans are passionate about their teams and perceive each other as rivals. The symbolic significance elements are met because the rivalry has a long and storied history, the two schools are located close together, and the rivalry taps into fans’ deep-seated emotions.

You talk about the “Hell Is Real” rivalry between FC Cincinnati and Columbus Crew as a healthier competitive environment. What do you mean by that?

In places like Cincinnati, rivalries like this one have been embraced authentically by fans and the teams alike while maintaining a respectful competition that includes charitable collaborations and shared values. This exemplifies a healthier approach to rivalry, where common goals and mutual respect coexist with competitive spirit.

Healthier compared to Europe, I assume?

Let’s put it this way. In my NKU class, we often address politics, not because I’m a political scientist—I’m not—but because political parties use these rivalry elements to enhance group identification. Unfortunately, this has led to a toxic and antisocial environment where emphasis is placed on conflicting values and perceived discrimination by authorities.

For example, politicians harness these ingredients to spark division, whereas in sports it may foster communal values. This contrast is stark in European sports, where team loyalty often intertwines with political allegiance, unlike in the U.S. In Europe, insulting one’s team can feel like an attack on personal identity, escalating to more intense reactions.

How your research on rivalry in sports can be applied to business?

Take the rivalry between Apple and Samsung. The conflict conditions are met because the two companies compete against each other in a highly competitive market. The social identity elements are met because Apple and Samsung customers are passionate about their brands and perceive each other as rivals. The symbolic significance elements are met because the rivalry is relatively new, the two companies are located close together, and the rivalry taps into customers’ deep-seated emotions about their brands.

How about personal life?

Rivalry can also exist in personal life. For example, siblings often compete for their parents’ attention and approval. This can lead to a rivalry driven by the conflict conditions (competition for resources), social identity (identifying with different roles within the family), and symbolic significance (history of the relationship, proximity of the siblings, emotional investment in the family).

What are some of the positive and negative aspects of rivalry?

Rivalry can have both positive and negative consequences. On the positive side, rivalry can motivate us to achieve our goals, strive for excellence, and build strong social bonds. On the negative side, rivalry can lead to conflict, aggression, and even violence.

How can we manage rivalry in a healthy way?

First, we need to be aware of the different ingredients of rivalry and how they contribute to our competitive behavior. Second, we need to be able to recognize when rivalry is becoming destructive and take steps to de-escalate it. Third, we need to focus on the positive aspects of rivalry, such as the motivation to achieve our goals and the opportunity to build strong social bonds.

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