BY BEN SMITH
For four years, I have been a member of the Cal Band, which means that in addition to playing at numerous sporting events in Berkeley, I also had the opportunity to travel with the university’s basketball and football teams around the country. These opportunities have mostly been safe and enjoyable, but as a member of an opposing fan base, I have also been vulnerable to the harsh treatment of the occasional extreme fan. I have had to endure coins and bottles thrown at me as well as verbal abuse, and I have even heard of fellow Bear fans, women and children, moved to angry tears and oaths never to return because of the way they were treated at another stadium.
This is not to say that our own fans act differently. Some of the quietest people I know can become unpredictable as the fortune of the Bears ebbs and flows. Typically, I am quiet, even shy, but getting into a sporting event can lead me to spirited yelling and screaming. If the game has been frustrating or emotional, the most inconsequential negative play can immediately bring on a “boo” or a comment about a particular player’s personal hygiene, mother, etc.
I don’t believe that we would even dream to act this way in our workplaces or lecture halls, mocking our boss when he makes a bad decision or waving our jacket in a classmate’s face after a correct answer. Why, then, do we feel that it’s permissible, even necessary, to act like children or criminals in the name of sport?
A lot of our actions result from a tendency to “go with the flow,” an impulse that often covers up our individualism and the ability to make our own decisions. We feel that we will be ridiculed for not joining in with the abuse of other fans. So, because thousands of other people are approaching the game like this, we forget our own values and quickly join in, without giving much thought to what we are doing.
In some ways, we may believe that our fate or our fame hinge on the outcome of a particular game. If we support a team because we like certain athletes’ style of play, or grew up watching them, or lived and worked with them (as can be the case in college sports), we are quick to be passionate about their play, because the way people see them is the way that people see us. We do not want to be identified with the athlete or team that did not perform when it mattered the most.
Much of our confusion also seems to stem from the depiction of sporting events as battles or wars, which really do involve life or death. Players are taught to hate their opponents and to stop them by any means necessary, an attitude that often results in demoralizing trash talk or unnecessary physical injury. With this polarizing rhetoric, we cease to view other individuals as human beings, and instead look away from their humanity to the color of their shirt or the hat that they’re wearing. The game becomes the only thing that matters.
As always, we should try to see our games through God’s eyes. I imagine that Heaven’s view of a rivalry game is different from our own, even beautiful, because thousands of the Creator’s sons and daughters are brought together for a mutual purpose. Immediately, the game becomes a conversation starter, an opportunity to share community and encouragement, and allows tens of thousands of people from different backgrounds to engage with each other. I doubt that God is wearing any sort of athletic apparel to show partiality to one side or another when he witnesses this.
As fans or associates of fans, we need to remember that our brothers and sisters are just like us, that teams are only artificial constructs intended for play, not for war. Athletes, at the deepest level, are all created equal, and the games they play merely allow them to showcase the talents with which God has gifted them. The next time we witness a sporting event, no matter who’s playing, no matter what implications it may carry for our school, we should remember the words of Abraham Lincoln, who said, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” And God simply delights in his children enjoying his gifts, no matter where those children are from or who they support.
Team spirit can so often bring together complete strangers who find themselves wearing the same colors, over athletic talent that is meant to inspire, entertain, and ultimately bless. Yet we must be conscious of our hearts and minds when we are engaged in activities as overwhelming as sporting events, whether we are spectators or participants. So often we use the goodness that sports produce to justify extreme behavior toward others, an approach that runs directly contrary to the second commandment. If we hate our brother, we reject what God has made, and we do not model the love he demonstrated through Jesus, a compassionate and merciful son who embraces everyone, no matter which side they’re on.