Punting the football in political communication: A game you MUSS win

Gauging the effectiveness of our words is often tricky business for those of us in politics – whether you’re with traditional media, a politician, a non-profit, a lobbying group, or a web-based publication like this one.

Your brilliantly crafted press release can get ignored, your opening joke might be remembered but the actual speech forgotten, and your magnificently researched investigative journalism might get 1/20th the hits of articles with headlines like “Teacher allegedly paid students after sex.”

This week I’ve been reminded of how a communicator’s words can have unintended consequences, with the start of the University of Utah football season last week. In 2002, while I was a cockeyed, optimistic young journalist for the U’s paper, I penned a humor column on the school’s delightfully absurd fight song.


Note that in recent years, more attention has been paid to the old fashioned terms such as “A Utah man am I” (changed to the much better “Utah fan”). Beyond that, the lyrics are mind-bogglingly lame, including phrases such as:

We’re up to snuff, we never bluff, we’re game for any fuss.

No other gang of college men dare meet us in the muss.

Use of the word “muss” particularly irked me, in that nobody could give me a clear definition of what it meant. The best theory I heard was that “muss” was a Prohibition-era term for brawl or scrum. Lambasting the use of the term, I wrote, “Muss isn’t even a word! They just made it up to rhyme with fuss!” (My whole column used to be available online here, and is doubtless buried somewhere in the Chrony’s archives at this point.)

But apparently my column struck a chord with some quick-thinking football fans on campus. The then-newly formed Utah student football club latched onto this idea, and renamed the student seating-area the “Mighty Utah Student Section”, the acronym of which is – you guessed it – “MUSS.” So now the lyrics make sense: “no other gang of college men dare meet us in our own student section.”  

A few years ago, KSL did a story on the MUSS’s increasing popularity – reporting that it started in 2002 with 800 students and then boasted about 6,000 per game. This is truly a remarkable explosion of activity, especially for a school constantly struggling against the “commuter campus” mentality of so many of its students.

When I wrote that little column 15 years ago, I didn’t know anyone would, so to speak, take the ball and run with it the way they did. I certainly had no idea it would help start a snow-ball of rekindled activity in Utah football. (But maybe the leadership of Urban Meyer helped a bit too.)

Not knowing how your message will play out is often a challenge in communications – some of the best stuff I’ve written has been completely ignored. But I have learned that, even if you can’t predict the outcome, you MUSS keep trying.