God loves Buckeyes and hates Wolverines…at least that’s what I learned growing up. But that belief is slowly killing me (and I bet something like it is killing you, too.)
You see, I was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, home of The Ohio State University, where football was king. And it still is. Growing up in the shadow of Woody Hayes, I became a rabid, die-hard, scream-so-loud-at-the-TV-that-my-kids-ask-their-mom-if-I’m-insane kind of Buckeye fan. Frankly, there’s no other choice if you grow up in Columbus. You’re literally brainwashed from birth. I imagine it’s the same if you grow up in Tuscaloosa for Bama football, or Lexington for UK hoops, or even Richmond, Indiana, home of the Earlham College Hustlin’ Quakers. (Side note: They were the Fighting Quakers until 1980. I bet the poor mascot had an identity crisis every gameday.)
Recently, I’ve realized that my Buckeye fanship has gone beyond the land of healthy, appropriate hobbies and into what can be outrageous thinking toward enemies of my mighty Buckeyes. By enemies, I really only mean one enemy: That Team Up North. Also known as Miss-Again, scUM, and the Wolver-Weenies. Yes, I mean, the Michigan Wolverines.
As I’ve stopped to consider my views against Michigan, I’m not so sure what God has to say about all of that. Or that I want to hear it. (And I’m a pastor, for crying out loud.)
For those who weren’t dyed-in-the-scarlet-and-gray-wool like I was, it’s important to note, that for Buckeye football, the success of any season comes down to two simple words:
Beat Michigan. (Nothing else matters.)
I’m not joking. Ohio State can lose to Illinois or Minnesota or Indiana, who barely field teams each year, but no matter what, come hell or high water, they cannot lose to Michigan. For the love.
As I grew up, I learned that passionate love for Buckeye football also meant an equally intense hatred for all things Michigan. I was to hate their football team, its fans, and that annoying “Hail to the Victors” fight song. But I also learned that I was to literally despise certain hues on the color wheel (maize and blue), to think trashy thoughts about the entire state of Michigan and its gorgeous mountains (hills), lakes, and sand dunes, and to assume all Wolverine fans are idiots and losers.
You think I’m joking, but I’m not. Truly, I developed this belief that Michigan fans were, well, not good people. They were shady, with poor judgment. If Ohio State lost to Michigan, like we did 10 times under John Cooper in the Buckeye dark ages of the 1990s, I viewed Michigan fans as cocky cheaters. And if Ohio State beat Michigan, like we have (ahem) 13 of the last 14 seasons during the glory years of Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer, then Michigan fans were pathetic whiners.
As I look at this part of my life, I’d like to propose a new term: fan-ism.
I think it’s a thing. I really do. If you’re a sports fan of any kind, stick with me on this. We laugh it off, but if you’re a Bengals fan, don’t tell me you don’t hate Steelers fans. All smug in their black and gold, waltzing into Paul Brown Stadium every year to watch the poor Bengals get clobbered. If you’re a Louisville hoops fan, don’t tell me you don’t hate all those people in Big Blue Nation, as they incessantly talk about their UK diaper dandy talent and wear anything they can find that’s Wildcat blue. That hatred is called fan-ism.
Looking back, this is clearly the same kind of brainwashing that occurs with racism or nationalism or sexism or partyism or any other -ism.
While it’s certainly not as insidious as racism or sexism, fan-ism still is rooted in “me” and not “we.” It takes our fun passion for sports and twists it just enough past healthy that I don’t think God is pleased. Why? Because fan-ism takes sides and makes enemies out of people. Good people.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to advocate for millennial trophies for everyone. I’m not here to say you can’t have a team or wear their colors, check your ESPN app every 10 minutes for a score update, or even root against a rival.
But what I am here to say is that fan-ism tells us we can’t have friendships with people rooting for the other team. It tells us to take joy when the other team’s star player gets hurt. It tells us that we can (and should!) say disparaging things about other fans…and their moms. This type of fan-ism leaves me feeling empty when I realize that I’ve elevated my loyalty to a sports team and their success over the other values in my life that are at the core of who I am as a person. Values like kindness, friendship, optimism, and not screaming at referees on a TV screen who can’t even hear me. I’m a worse father, husband, and friend because of all this negativity I’m choosing to bring into my life.
If I trace this negativity to its root, I think it started way back in “innocent” childhood beliefs that are actually destructive. Now, decades later, these “loyalty to my sports team at all costs” beliefs have played out in obsessive and inappropriate adult behaviors, like not letting my son wear a nice-looking blue and yellow Old Navy swimsuit he likes. Or not wanting to vacation on idyllic Lake Michigan. I’ve even been a bit embarrassed to be friends with people who are passionate Michigan fans, like my next-door neighbor, or a friend I’ve gotten to know from our church, who it turns out, is quite a fine man.
These are all real examples.
I’m realizing I’ve been a sucker to fan-ism, that I’ve let myself be intellectually and emotionally swindled as a Buckeye fan.
Beat Michigan. (Nothing else matters.)
That’s true again this season, as the Buckeyes will face the Wolverines yet again for a shot at the Big Ten Championship, as well as a chance to stay in the conversation for the National Championship. It will be the 113th meeting of what they just call “The Game.” I think it’s the greatest rivalry in all of American sports, but I guess I could be a bit biased. And I’ll be yelling as loudly as I ever have at the TV, donning my Buckeye jersey and watching my phone blow up with the Ohio State text chain I have with my buddies. But as I watch The Game, I’ll also be watching myself for fan-ism.
So, whether you’re scarlet and gray or maize and blue; whether you root for UK or UofL; whether you scream “Roll Tide,”“War Eagle,” “Da Bears,” or “Go Pack;” no matter who you want to win the Crosstown Shootout, the Battle for Tobacco Road, or the next Yankees/Red Sox series; remember it’s just a freaking game.
I’ve been a victim of fan-ism. And while I’ll always be an enormous Buckeye fan, I guess I am slowly learning that:
People are more important than sports. People are people underneath their foam fingers and pom-poms. And God loves both Buckeyes and Wolverines. We should, too.
So, yes, I plan to watch every play. Yes, I plan to root with a passion. But win or lose, I’m planning on doing something I’ve never really done before. I’m going to remember that though it’s The Game, it really is only a game.
With that being said, GO BUCKS!