The Holy Huddle: Is Sports Fandom a Bastion of Hatred?

Each week in The Holy Huddle, Doug Hankins takes a look at the goings on of the sports world from a distinctly Christian perspective. 

Quick. Name the connection between LeBron James and Tiger Woods. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Both are notable professional athletes.
  • Both are child prodigies in the sports arena.
  • Both are multi-millionaires.
  • Both live in the state of Florida.

Yes, those facts are true. But consider this fact as well:

  • Both are hated in the sports world.

Tiger and LeBron are hated and their recent successes on the field of play have, ironically, prompted additional hatred on the Web.

Sports hatred is deeply embedded in the American sports culture—as American as apple pie. So what happens when Christians are deep within the culture of American fanhood? Is it okay for Gospel-bearers to participate in a culture of sports hatred? Should Christians hate LeBron and Tiger, the Yankees, Duke, or The Lakers? The Holy Huddle answers no and wants to suggest a way for Christians to operate in the midst of a hateful sports culture.

Sports Hatred Is Deeply Embedded in American Culture

Why is this sports hatred acceptable in America? I want to suggest a few reasons:

  1. Hatred is rooted in our sports jargon. Ever hear of the phrase, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend?”  or “This is the team we love to hate?” (See this and this). Or “I support two teams: my alma matter and whoever is playing against our rival.”
  2. We link team success to our sense of self-worth and identity. The win-loss column becomes personal during the season. The problem with this approach is that when fanhood defines one’s identity, wins and losses play out differently. Every win is a win for us and every loss is our loss. And the collateral damage in this awkward marriage of self and sport is the opposing team. If my team (my self) is defeated by another team, I view the opponent as someone who opposes me. The enemy of my friend becomes my enemy.
  3. Sport is our culture’s religion. The schizophrenic schedule of lows and highs is, in part, what reinforces our love affair with sports fanhood. Our team becomes the cruel mistress that gives us just enough pleasure to overlook the pain that she inflicts. The sad reality for some fans is that their fanhood moves beyond season tickets to the ideals of wardrobe coordination, Facebook status updates, and calendar priorities. But if our team is our god, then the opponent is the devil.
  4. Key figures in America encourage sports hatred. Sports writers encourage hatred, coaches demonstrate hatred, players hate other players, and owners benefit from hatred. Why wouldn’t sports fans pick up on these cues and play along?
  5. Rivalry is based on hatred and hatred is good for business. Sports hatred generates millions of dollars in television ratings revenue, ticket sales, media ads due to online and print journalism, and viability on ESPN highlights. For example, the fact that the Redsox hate the Yankees is not only widely known, it is also widely accepted and, in many cases, promoted as good.

So What Should Christians Do?

Should Christians abandon the sports world as a lost culture unto the Gospel? I think not. Instead, Christian sports enthusiasts might want to adopt a simple discipline:

Root for teams, not against them.

If you are a Christian who is a fan of the Boston Celtics, as I am, it would be good to adopt the posture of rooting for the Celtics. However, keep in mind that it does not make you more of a Boston fan to root against the Heat. It just makes you look like a jerk.

In talking about the trajectory of the Gospel, the apostle Paul says this:

Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Don’t be a jerk. Root for teams, not against teams. And in so doing you will demonstrate the Gospel of graciousness in the fallen sports culture.

About Doug Hankins
  • http://virtualstowaway.wordpress.com Jonah Stowe

    It’s funny, in some ways, the very fact that we have to be reminded not to root against an individual athlete or team is suggestive of how insidious sports culture can be and how it has become inculcated into our ways of thinking as Christians. I have never been a highly competitive person, so the rage that sports causes in some “fans” has always been bewildering to me. I think this is also part of the problem, because when I was growing up, I would often get the feeling that not wanting to win above all else was a kind of moral failing.

  • kristi

    I’m not even a sports person, so maybe I should not be contributing to this, but this seems a little overboard to me. I suppose there are people who take this stuff so seriously that they do actually hate the teams they routinely pull against, and of course, that would be wrong. True hatred for the Christian is never acceptable. But I look at sports as a story- your team is the protagonist, and the opposing team is the antagonist. This is why, I believe, people are drawn to competition, because just like all stories, it is a metaphor for the great spiritual battle going on around us all the time. Enjoying sports without a bad guy seems like trying to read Lord of the Rings and NOT pull against Sauron. Is it ever good to invite real hatred into our hearts? No way. But I think there cannot be a game without a strong opposition.

  • Ben Bartlett

    Kristi,

    You’re right, but I think the problem is more pervasive then you realize. I have been to a LOT of University of Michigan football games, and the vitriol directed at fans of the opposing team (whoever they may be, but especially for MSU or OSU) is incredible. I once had to quickly pull my wife away from an area where a fight developed after a Phillies-Mets game (sports geek note: it was the game where Aaron Rowand broke his nose catching a fly ball in center field!) because a Phillies fan threw beer all over a Mets fan. And you can’t say the “Malice at the Palace” wasn’t a perfect expression of how sports hatred can go too far.

    One phrase that always sticks with me is this: “If people don’t have enough drama in their own lives, they’ll create it.” I think there is a sense in which humanity longs for an enemy to fight, and a lot of people unwisely channel that into sports hatred. This article does a great job of pointing it out and pleading for sanity.

  • Charles

    While there’s certainly no excuse for the sort of extreme behavior described above, I think it’s a stretch to claim that a Christian must not root against teams other than their own. In any league that has divisions/conferences, a particular team’s access to the postseason is going to be determined by measuring its performance against the other teams in its division/conference. Attitude is everything. Further, in the context of college football, teams are competing for recruits’ attention. So, I think this article goes a little bit too far. It is possible to root against a team without it becoming a case of malice or hatred. In many respects, sports leagues are zero-sum games, and one teams’ success is necessarily another teams’ failure.

    Also, I don’t think this article pays enough attention to the many places in the Psalms where the Psalmist begs God to bring ruin and desolation to his enemies and to those who do evil. These passages are almost brutal to read because they strike us as meanspirited or uncharitable. However, some actions deserve rebuke or punishment. In that respect, while I wholeheartedly disagree with the idea that a team’s or player’s success on the field/court is necessarily a result of their level of faith (the Tebow fallacy), I do believe that sins often have tangible, temporal consequences. And I’m glad to see those consequences play out and a team or player reap them publicly. See, for example Bobby Petrino, the New Orleans Saints, SMU…


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