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Seeking an end to 'Holy War'

Villanova professor Paul Rosier, the chair of the university's history department, sent a friendly e-mail this week asking if it was possible to stop referring to the Villanova-St. Joseph's basketball game as the Holy War.

Holy War t-shirt at Saint Joseph's bookstore.
Holy War t-shirt at Saint Joseph's bookstore.Read more

Villanova professor Paul Rosier, the chair of the university's history department, sent a friendly e-mail this week asking if it was possible to stop referring to the Villanova-St. Joseph's basketball game as the Holy War.

Just ahead of Saturday's big game at Hagan Arena, I called Rosier, admittedly with an "aren't there bigger things for us to worry about?" mentality.

"I'm sure there are bigger issues," Rosier said Thursday afternoon. "Certainly Villanova is tackling bigger issues. But war and poverty and abuse of women are all tied to violence, and the way violence can become acceptable in language - when it is normalized, and young fans hear it so casually, I think it sends the wrong message."

This isn't a new cause for Rosier. He said he had first contacted members of the local media four years ago when he saw the term and most agreed not to use it. At that time, Rosier said, he also had contacted Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright.

"He told me he agreed with that wholeheartedly," Rosier said.

He'll get no arguments from the powers that be on Hawk Hill.

"I'm not a fan of the words either, never have been," said St. Joe's athletic director Don DiJulia.

Rosier got thinking about it again this year when he passed by Villanova's bookstore about two weeks ago. He spotted a T-shirt celebrating the approaching game. Gray shirts, school logos included. On top, in black lettering - The Holy War.

Rosier talked to the bookstore manager, who agreed with his thoughts, he said, and agreed to stop selling it and take it off the website.

As it happened, Rosier said, the St. Joe's and 'Nova bookstores are run by the same company. It was too soon to do anything this year, the bookstore manager said, but a design contest could be arranged for next year, to come up with a new nickname for the rivalry. New shirts could be sold in both bookstores.

So collectors might want to stop in at the bookstore on 54th Street right across from Hagan Arena. Just inside the front door, in front of the mini-basketballs and the Hawks all-weather blankets, there's a rack of those Holy War shirts, $20.

DiJulia is pretty sure the term was a media creation.

"I probably have thought 10 times over 40 years - if I can only come up with an alternative," DiJulia said. "I always call it the Army-Navy game of Philadelphia basketball."

A terrific book about the Army-Navy game was titled A Civil War.

"Ah, I'm not going to borrow that phrase," DiJulia said, noting that a St. Joseph's professor told him the phrase first came from a football game between Calvin and Hope Colleges 70 years ago.

Rosier knows what people always say about such things: What about the tradition?

"Religious violence was a tradition for many years, and still is to a certain extent, but I don't want to be a part of it," the professor said. He was raised as a Quaker in Swarthmore, and also sold soda at Veterans Stadium.

He asked his history class Thursday morning, "What do you guys think about the Holy War?"

They didn't think about it too much, he reported.

"They seemed to think it was mostly a St. Joe's thing," the Villanova professor said.

Easy to picture the reaction of Hawks to that sentiment. This is a rivalry for a reason, whatever its name. It hit another fever pitch last season in the game at the Pavilion, when Hawks player Halil Kanacevic, his team in control, offered a vulgar gesture with both hands. That may have gone into Hawk lore, except it also probably cost the Hawks the game, and maybe the next one when he was suspended. (Side note: Kanacevic has been in control of his emotions this season. Don't look for an encore.)

As for the name change, Rosier knows he is fighting an uphill battle. He pointed out Utah-Brigham Young and Notre Dame-Boston College both have been promoted as Holy Wars. And stopping the local media from using the term wouldn't necessarily end it.

"ESPN has promoted it that way on Rivalry Week," Rosier said, realizing plenty of Villanova fans use the term, too.

When the media do come around to an issue, pressure can get applied. The Washington Redskins now feel that pressure to change their name. Locally, Neshaminy High, also nicknamed the Redskins, has felt it.

As it happens, Rosier teaches Native American history as well as the history of American sports. He wrote a chapter of a book about the effort to change names and silly sports traditions, such as tomahawk chops, that whitewash the tragic history of Native Americans in this country while at the same time "creating the image of a violent, savage Native American."

His bottom line about the Holy War is roughly the same.

"There's not a fun element to a holy war and religious violence," Rosier said.

He probably wouldn't want us to say he's on a crusade to change the name, would he?

"That's a word I try not to use - I'd say campaign," the professor said.