“Just wait till we kick your [expletive deleted] on Saturday!”
These words were brashly proclaimed on Twitter by a Wisconsin Badgers football fan and directed at a newspaper writer who regularly covers the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The two teams, both having good years, play tomorrow in a long-standing border-state rivalry with the winner receiving “Paul Bunyan’s Axe.” But guess who’s not playing? The guy who claimed to be part of the group doing the posterior punting and the Gophers beat writer. They both will merely watch the game.
“We” is a risky word as a sports fan, at least when it’s the kind of “we” that joins us to a team and makes us part of the competition. I am a loyal fan of several pro and college teams, and I appreciate the loyalties of other fans, too. I even appreciate their trash talking and jesting about rivalries and competition. It’s good fun to spar a little bit with Chicagoans about the Bears or Wisconsinites about the Badgers. But when loyalty becomes identity, “we” becomes a bad thing.
Last summer a Los Angeles Dodgers fan was stabbed to death by two San Francisco Giants fans. When the baseball season reached the playoffs, multiple reports surfaced of visiting players’ spouses being abused by fans of the home team. Browse Twitter feeds (if you dare) leading up to any heated rivalry and you will find everything from profanity-laced tirades to threats of violence, and often a bitter combination of the two. Where does this come from? What takes the intense, suspenseful, enjoyable experience of a sports rivalry and turns into a hate-fest?
Idolatry does. When we, as fans, identify so much with a team that we lose our individuality, when we find that identity in the actions of others over which we have no control, we go a little bit crazy. We become what we worship. When our hope is in the nonhuman we become inhumane. So the guy who decided to threaten the backside of the beat writer became more badger-like than human. When I invest my soul in the Vikings I become semi-barbaric. (Sadly, these transferences don’t work the same way for fans of the Saints, Friars, or Padres.)
As in all of life, balance and moderation are what we must strive for. Root, root, root for the home team. Belt out those fight songs and lose your voice hollering. But always balance that with the knowledge that you and the opposing fan are image bearers of the same God. Compete. Razz. Cheer. But do so in such a way that when the heat of the moment is over you can share a pew in church or a table at dinner. Don’t lose your identity in your loyalties because in doing so you’ll lose your personhood too.