Sports Identity (and Why I Have to Take Down My Steelers Banner)

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Two interesting things happened this weekend that led me to think a bit about sports, the need for identity, and conflict. Part One: As we are on our way this weekend to a baseball game between the Nationals and Padres (neither of which is a particularly important team to my Brewers-Mets-Pirates family), my three sons are discussing for which team they are rooting. My youngest announces that he is not rooting for any team but rather just going to enjoy the game (and the ice cream, popcorn, hot dogs, etc.) My other two boys tell him, rather forcefully, that he has to pick a side, he has to root for a team. “But why?” he asks. And he raises a good point.

Why is it that we feel the need to identify with one side or the other? Why do we have to root for a team? And is this innate need to be part of a team part of what explains how conflicts are created and maintained? If we can’t just go to a baseball game and enjoy the weather, but we have to root for someone in order to really enjoy it, can we observe conflicts and root for a good ending? A good or peaceful process? I don’t think so–I think we end up demonizing one side or the other–even when we might not be directly involved. This might not be all bad in those conflicts where we could argue it’s pretty clear who’s right and who’s wrong. For example, I am quite comfortable arguing that genocide, wherever it occurs, is a bad thing. On the other hand, assuming that Russia is the bad guy and Georgia is the good guy in the recent conflict between the two countries leads to overlooking a lot of nuances necessary to really understanding what is going on–and makes it much harder for the U.S. to play a positive role.

Part Two: Lest anyone think that I am above all of this identity politics, yesterday I had to remove the Steelers banner from my door where it has happily sat since the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2006. Why? Well, my new colleague and rabid Eagles fan Paul Secunda made me a bet. If the Steelers won on Sunday, he would have to put a Steelers banner up on his door. If the Eagles won, I have to take mine down. This was too good to pass up–and besides which, he really is from the wrong side of the state! Alas, the Steelers played horribly (apparently with little care for my bet and my pride) and so I removed the banner yesterday morning. My only consolation is that, as a Steelers fan, I am pretty sure that I will have reason to put it back up long before those Eagles fans get a reason to mount theirs!

Cross posted at Indisputably.

5 thoughts on “Sports Identity (and Why I Have to Take Down My Steelers Banner)”

  1. If what makes watching sports fun – or a big part of what makes it fun – is vicarious participation in the struggle, then it is going to be more fun when we have a rooting interest. When the Packers beat the Steelers or the Eagles, Packer fans win along with the team. That may be why so many fans raise their arms in triumph (I won!) when their team does something right. All Joe Sixpack has really done is swill beer and munch on a brat, but, in his heart, he is right in the hometown huddle. The only way he can feel the thrill of victory is by taking sides.

    If that’s so, then maybe the impulse to identify with one side or the other isn’t so compelling in other contexts. Tonight at Miller Park, I want to share in the Brewers’ win over the Pirates. I don’t feel that way about Russia and Georgia.

  2. It does seem a bit fortuitous how we pick our favorite sports teams. My favorite line to this effect was uttered by Stephen Colbert a few weeks ago: “Go Team Where I Live!” Now that I have lived in five states (well, four states and one district), there are many teams I cheer for, mostly because I feel a sense of shared spirit with the teams in the cities and states where I have lived. So maybe the key to resolving conflict is to place ourselves in the shoes of our opponents – so that we can build a sense of shared identity and spirit. It also makes it harder to distinguish the “us” from the “them”. (One caveat: I can imagine that this theory has its limits, for I will never cheer for the Dallas Cowboys . . . .)

  3. This all reminds me of an article my ADR professor so kindly suggested we read – Tannen’s “Argument Culture: Moving From Debate to Dialogue.” The way that we feel we have to pick a sports team to root for is reflective of our desire to “win.” As Tannen points out, in order to “win,” the culture automatically assumes things are seen as black or white. People don’t automatically see the gray area as winning in our culture (except for Prof. Schneider’s son), even though it might be better for all involved.

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