Drum Major Ed Carden of the USC Marching Band plants the sword in the UCLA… (Jeff Golden / Getty Images )
In the last 15 years, I've covered nearly every USC road game where the Trojans marching band performs on the field, and there's always a moment in those games that makes me cringe.
It's the moment before the pregame show in which the USC drum major majestically — or is that tauntingly? — plants a sword in the middle of the opponent's field.
I hate it. I'm stunned other schools allow it. It feels like more than just a piece of metal digging into grass, it feels like a lack of respect burrowing under the stadium's skin.
I think about what happened in Dallas a dozen years ago, with San Francisco's Terrell Owens spiking a touchdown pass on the Cowboys' legendary midfield star and being angrily tackled by Dallas' George Teague. I think of the potential trouble faced by the Trojans band on any Saturday in this current violent sports environment, there being an inherent danger in a college kid spiking a sword amid a hostile crowd spiked with liquor.
So I think what UCLA did this week was not whiny, or petty, but smart.
In preparation for hosting USC on Saturday in the 82nd renewal of their rivalry, the Bruins informed the Trojans that if their drum major planted the sword at the Rose Bowl midfield before the pregame show, they would ban them from marching at halftime.
USC quickly and classily agreed to the request, issuing a statement that promised no field stabbing "in the spirit of cooperation and sportsmanship.'' Later, in an open letter to marching band alumni, director Arthur C. Bartner wrote, "I will not jeopardize the traditions we have built together over 43 years, including traveling to the Rose Bowl and performing at halftime, by ignoring their request.''
And that should be the end of it, right? Of course not. Is there ever an end to anything in this game? Since news of the request broke, fans from both teams have quietly seethed. Joe Bruin wonders how the Trojans would like it if a bear mascot did his business at midfield at the Coliseum, and Tommy Trojan thinks the Bruins are babies who should be more concerned about winning the game.
I'm quite sure that when the drum major steps onto the UCLA logo Saturday, we'll see a stabbing motion occurring throughout the USC cheering section as fans shout and boo and get all lathered up over something that is completely avoidable and has nothing to do with football. The only thing all of this proves, of course, is that the stabbing tradition should never have been allowed to take place outside of the Coliseum in the first place.
Though a UCLA spokesman declined to comment on the request, it was apparently based on complaints from alumni inspired by new Coach Jim Mora's stand-up-for-yourself culture. Bruins officials have become so sensitive to seeing their logo plunged, they even persuaded the Pac-12 to remove such a scene from a conference promotional video. UCLA has also been concerned about game safety, understandable considering the last time these teams met at the Rose Bowl, there was a pregame parking lot melee in which two men were stabbed.
As for the Trojans, while the school quietly acquiesced, I talked to two former Trojans drum majors Wednesday who offered more detailed insight into the importance of the tradition. Though I don't agree with their stance, their arguments were smart, and their emotions were real.
"Beyond this being really kind of childish, the biggest thing that they're missing is that it's not about UCLA or defacing property, it's about us," said Kenny Morris, who was the USC drum major for the 2009 season. "It's about the Trojan family, all of us uniting for one single moment before we're ready to play, symbolizing that it's time to get down, time to start the game and get behind the team.''
The stabbing is the first real act by the band before a game. It is executed by the drum major in silence before the band enters from the sidelines. Morris said that after he makes his precise march to midfield, the sword is planted on a spot that has nothing to do with a logo.
''It's not like we go out there and find a logo and stick something in it,'' Morris said. ''When you're out there in front of 90,000 people, you don't even think about where you're putting the sword. First, you don't want to drop it. And second, you want to put it so deep you split the earth open.''
Eddie Carden, drum major for the 2008 season, stuck the sword in the UCLA logo during his tenure. He said it caused no incident and, like Morris, he said it wasn't about UCLA.
"I'm disappointed to see their fans take this tradition and twist it into something that it's not,'' he said. "The USC-UCLA tradition has lived through a lot of moments, and it's a shame to reduce any part of it.''
They make good points, but not as many as the Bruins do, or the Cal fans who have also complained about the tradition. The only place that has publicly accepted the stabbing is Notre Dame, an approval that would carry a lot of weight except, well, Notre Dame doesn't have its logo on the middle of the field.
The one thing that appears beyond debate is that defacing another team's midfield logo is never perceived as good sportsmanship on any level, no matter why it is done. After recent incidents in the parking lot and on the field — remember Pete Carroll versus Rick Neuheisel? — this game is in desperate need of some good sportsmanship.
Good for UCLA officials to demand it. Good for USC officials to accept it. As for the fans, chill out. For three hours Saturday there will enough sticking to satisfy everyone.