Why Sports Tribalism Is Worse Than Other Tribalism

Why Sports Tribalism Is Worse Than Other Tribalism November 7, 2018

I wrote an article recently about the dangers of Tribalism and how Jesus invites us into a Tribe where the leader isn’t tribal and everyone is welcome into the tribe and loved and accepted even if they never join the tribe.

Most people agreed that tribalism is bad and that Jesus wasn’t tribal, but several people argued that there’s nothing wrong with sports tribalism, and even went as far as to sing the merits of sports as a way to build character, and equip children for success.

I totally disagree.

In fact, I see sports tribalism as the worst possible form of tribalism, for a number of reasons.

First, because it is the gateway drug to all other forms of tribalism. It does teach young children and equip them for integration into society, but this integration is tribal, and therefore what it teaches is tribalism, and what it equips young people to do is to think, act, and behave tribalistically.

Secondly, because sports tribalism appears innocuous, on the outside, but on the inside it is just as blind and irrational as any other tribalism.

As an example, I was riding the train to work one day last year and overheard a conversation between two other riders. One guy was from ST. Louis. The other guy from California was wearing a Rams jersey. He started going on about how great it was that the Rams were back in LA now. The St. Louis guy shared how he now hates the team but used to love them, (back when they were in St. Louis). The LA guy hated them for leaving but now can’t buy enough jerseys and hats for his entire family.

This sort of arbitrary tribalism is so stupid and petty. We “love” a team because now they are “Our Team”, even though a year from now they could become another team somewhere else.

What is it about “our team” we love? The coach? The players? The logo? The mascot?

What we love is simply this: We find part of our identity in that brand and we attach emotionally and we defend the “honor” of that brand even though it has nothing to do with “us” in reality.

I once posed a question to a friend of mine who is fiercely loyal to his college football team and passionately hates their rival team. “What if, by some fluke, the locker rooms for both teams were switched and at the last minute those players had to don the jersey’s for the opposing team and take the field for kick-off? Who would you cheer for: The players from your school who are now wearing the jersey’s of their rivals, or the rivals who are now wearing the proud jersey for your team?”

[Insert sound of gears grinding here]

Tribalism is inherently human, and we often fall into it unconsciously. For example, I recently watched a video clip from a NOVA [PBS] Special about tribalism which shared research from an MRI brain study and revealed this:

“In one fMRI study, researchers divided subjects randomly into two teams and asked them about each other. Even though before the experiment they were all strangers, subjects were more positive about their teammates than rivals, and had distinct patterns of brain activity depending on whether they were asked about a teammate, or a foe; including in the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula. These regions respond to both rewards and threats in the environment, helping us differentiate between friend versus foe, telling us who to approach [our team] and who to avoid [the other team]. The same brain patterns appeared when subjects thought about political group identities of others.”

“Acting as a member of a group leads you to adopt different priorities and motivations. So can we ever overcome group identity to change someone’s mind?” [yes, via reason, rather than emotion or fear].

“Whenever participants were asked about opposing political opinions, many of them had increased activity in the amygdala – the part of their brain that processes emotion and fear. These individuals were less likely to change their minds.”

So, when you listen to the news, or watch political shows, or listen to political radio today, do you pick up on the narrative of fear and emotion?

Why is that? So that you will be more easily manipulated to think as they want you to think, and to activate your primal tribalism to demonize everyone who is not like you.

People do it with politics, and with sports teams…[that’s partially where we learn this behavior at an early age, in school for example]….and they do it with their State, and their Nation, and yes, even their faith.

Tribalism, like Nationalism, is “the measles of the mind”, as Albert Einstein once said.

But there is another way. Jesus proclaimed that “God so loved the World”…not just the Jews. Peter had to learn that God wanted to embrace the Gentiles, and that was a huge paradigm shift for him, and for other Jewish Christians at the time.

Paul had to remind the Christians in Galatia that “we are all one in Christ Jesus” and that in the Body of Christ we no longer recognize class [rich/poor], sexism [male/female], nationalism [jew/gentile], or any of those other man-made divisions.

The Gospel is for everyone. God loves everyone. No one is outside of our circle. No one is “them.” We are all “us.

All tribalism is childish, foolish, divisive and anti-Christ.

Jesus does not command you to love your nation. He commands you to love your neighbor, the poor, the outcast, and yes, even your enemy.

And, may I suggest, even those who cheer for another sports team.

Love is what unites us. Whenever we divide ourselves, this is not love. It is tribal, and it is anti-Christ.


Keith Giles is a former pastor who left the pulpit 11 years ago to start a church that gives away 100% of the offering to the poor in the community. 

His new book “Jesus Unbound: Liberating the Word of God from the Bible”, is available now on Amazon and features a Foreword by author Brian Zahnd.

He is also the author of the Amazon best-seller, “Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics To Pledge Allegiance To The Lamb” with a Foreword by Greg Boyd.

Keith also co-hosts the Heretic Happy Hour Podcast on iTunes and Podbean. He and his wife live in Meridian, Idaho.

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