I grew up an Alabama fan. I have many wonderful memories of going to games with my family, of listening to my grandfather explain offensive and defensive plays at Bryant-Denny Stadium, of cheering wins and being supportive during losses. My sister and I are alumni of Alabama. We have close friends and family who are alumni of almost every other SEC school, so from an early age, we sat side-by-side with fans of opposing teams and learned the value of friendly rivalry. And for the record, I could do without the, "We just beat the hell out of you," cheer by Alabama (if anyone in power at Alabama reads this).
Be it Kentucky, Florida State, Auburn, Oregon, Stanford, Southern Mississippi or any other school, whatever the sport, fans abound. Their love for their schools is genuine. Their memories from sporting events are as real and valued as my memories. They cheer and enjoy wins, give appropriate grief when their school trumps a rival, commiserate at losses - all the good fun that is being a fan. Most enjoy the games, engage in good-natured ribbing, and continue on with life.
Or so I thought.
In the last few years, I've noticed that good-natured ribbing devolve into downright mean, crass, abusive, and diminishing comments. Yes, there are always those particular fans who go way beyond the bounds of appropriate behavior in their actions, which is sad and offensive to those of us who enjoy the game. Personally I hope these fans, when their identify is discovered, are no longer allowed to attend sporting events of their respective schools ever again. A tweet from an Anglican priest in Canada suggested that people must pass an exam in basic courtesy and manners to ride public transportation in Toronto; I think that people should pass the same exam to attend a sporting event.
Because basic courtesy and manners regarding sporting events, particularly college football, seem to be dying. Maybe it was always this crass, and social media has given it a new outlet. Maybe our general culture of increasing meanness toward those who differ from us is simply reflected in the microcosm that is sports fans. Who knows. But I do wonder...
I wonder is why we are so willing to say all Alabama fans or Auburn fans or Oregon fans or Duke fans are trash or losers or inbred or whatever the epitaph du jour may be while many of these same people (though not all) would be offended if someone said or posted a Facebook status that all Christians, Democrats, women, gays or other group were (fill in the degrading word here)?
Do we think it's different?
Because I don't think it is. Anytime we reduce people to demeaning stereotypes and attack their dignity, we sin. Period. And when we encourage and engage in said behavior, we are saying a great deal about ourselves and how we willingly dehumanizing others to feel better, perhaps, about ourselves, whether it be sports fan bases, political parties, or socio-economic groups.
We are saying the rules we learned as children about name-calling aren't applicable once we become adults, even though the damage we cause with our names and labels does just as much (if not more) damage.
We are saying that the excuse of, "It's just a game," gives us permission to act in ways that, quite honestly, have no place in the kind, caring behavior of a life that confesses to follow the life of Christ.
We are saying diminishing people through trash talk is absolutely permissible and appropriate as we group them together and allow the worst examples to serve as the definition of "them." If that standard is true, then Christians should be very wary. We have some gems of bad behavior in our vast and storied history of Christianity. As does every group. We humans are a constant mixture of beautiful word and action and darker, more evil behavior. To only focus on the tragic actions and inactions of humanity is living perpetually in the shadow death and destruction, like Good Friday over and over again with no desire to enter into Easter and grace.
Maybe it's just me, but I'm done with the trash talk. If that's part of what makes the game or life exciting for you, please sit somewhere else. If your social media is an invitation to devalue others because they cheer for different teams or vote for different parties or experience God in different ways, I will not allow that vitriol to enter my soul. And I will be aware - very aware - of my own words when I am tempted to group people together and dismiss them as an adjective or only see the negative instead of struggling to love them as my neighbor, whether they be fans from other teams, different political parties, or any other group that I experience as "other." When I reduce people to a grouped stereotype, I resist God's invitation to see and hear people as individuals. In hearing God's song of love, I am invited to see people as, well, people. Humans with stories, good and bad; with wounds and joy; as people who often, are far more alike than different.
I enjoy watching teams do their best and play a game. Yes, I like the team for whom I'm cheering to win, but if they lose, my dignity is not diminished (just as it isn't increased if they win). It is a game, and it involves human beings who I as a Christian have covenanted to love. Because it's a game, I am not given a pass to dismiss people as if they weren't fellow children of God. I am held to the same standard of courtesy, kindness, and love as I am in every other part of my life. I am not given permission to wound another. I am, as we all are, reminded that we have no excuses to hate.
Especially because it's a game.