Teach us how short our life is, so that we may become wise. ~Psalm 90:12
“It’s only a game.” This statement of seemingly obvious fact is what people often say to me when they are musing over why people care so much about football.
The sentiment behind this statement is one of exasperation, judgment, and desired diminution. Football needs to get back to its proper place—to a game, a hobby, a past time that doesn’t carry with it the most important and profound parts of life. And the feeling is that those who make it more than a game are misguided, deluded, and in need of a reality check.
For us and for other football families, football is not just a game. It’s my husband’s job and it determines where we live, who our friends are, how people treat us, even whether people talk to us or not. Football has moved my family from Nashville, to Charlotte, to Chicago, to Tampa, to Oakland, and to Chapel Hill. It has brought us great joy, blessed opportunities, and it has at times broken our hearts. Football means 16-18 hour workdays for most coaches each day. Football means working on Thanksgiving, Christmas lots of times, too. I think most people can understand why football is not just a game for my family and for others who have made football their life’s work.
That “it’s only a game” pronouncement must really be about the fans: the people who live and die with their teams, who travel far and near, who build their weekends, their decorating, their wardrobe, their social life around the team they love. Why do they care so much? Why does it matter to them so very much?
At the university level of sports I see a love/hate relationship with fans. On the one hand, the university loves their fans and wants to make them happy. University fanaticism can carry with it the loyalty of generations and genuine gratitude toward an institution of higher learning for how it shaped and molded many of its most ardent supporters. Without fans there is no big time football.
There is also a disdain toward fans at their extreme. More than simply “irrational exuberance” or excess, football fanaticism can feel dangerous. Just look at what happened at Penn State after Paterno was fired. At gatherings there since, armed police have been present. That’s not the kind of fans we want our school’s fans to be. Jumbotrons in stadiums everywhere preach the gospel of taking the high road of sportsmanship and respect.
The difficulty with this love/hate relationship is that universities want and need these to be long-term relationships. What do you do to live with this off the graph, dangerous side of the ones you love? Why do people care so much that they become rude, unruly, insulting, even violent?
Through the years I have pondered those questions at a gut level. I wondered about it when we received death threats in Chicago. I wondered about it every time we got cursed at in restaurants. I pondered it when I had to start wearing head phones and listen to gospel music during games because I got tired of listening to how many ways my husband needed to die and/or go to hell or both. I’ve explored it when some parishioners in the churches I’ve served are more passionate about their questions about the team my husband coaches for than they are about their passion for God or about their faith. I’ve thought about it when I read statistics about elevated levels of domestic abuse for people whose teams lose. I’ve wondered about it when I have seen whole cities turn against people or root for people depending on how they are performing.
It is equally unsettling for us when we see how quickly fans can turn from vitriol to hyperbolic praise. My husband can literally be an offensive genius one minute and the biggest idiot in the world the next. I’ve learned not to listen to either extreme, but it sure can make real, trusting relationships hard to come by. Are people your friends because they love the team? When things go wrong will they turn on you? Do people really care about you and your family? Is their kindness genuine? We are blessed with many good friends, but we always have to be intentional about who and how we trust.
It is a wonder, isn’t it? People who are otherwise polite, polished, moderated adults can enter emotional abandon at the drop of a pass. Therein lies some of the mystery and importance of why football (and other sports for that matter) is not just a game for many people. Obviously it is feeding us in a place we are hungry, scratching an itch, filling a void that we desperately need filled.
Today I am headed up to VA Tech for the UNC game. I will pray and breathe and get centered on my way up there. Who knows what will happen! I could experience elation, excitement, and joy. I could leave with a soaring good feeling. Or I may encounter deep and painful disappointment and sadness. Either way I try not to get angry or sucked in by any of the comments I hear being made around me—good or bad. I do get angry sometimes—especially at the officials, but I have learned through the years that it doesn’t feel good to let football turn me into someone I don’t want to be—angry, distrustful, cynical, or mean-spirited. So, I let myself feel the sadness and the joy—but I work to not attach to the anger and hostility.
And when I feel myself practicing this art of being present but not attaching to toxic emotions like anger and cynicism, I realize that I am practicing being the kind of person I want to be in the rest of my life. Maybe that’s why football has such a hold on so many—it’s a place where we practice life. Can we defeat the enemy? Are we strong enough to work through pain? Will we be ready when the big play comes our way? Will things work out the way we dream of? And can we persevere when things don’t?
At football games we get to cheer for the people who make us happy at the top of our lungs. We can yell at those who make us mad. And we can scold those who don’t do their jobs or who disappoint and frustrate us. At football games we can jump up and down, dance, sing, put our arms around total strangers, and feel connection and community with thousands of people. We know whose on our side and whose not—it’s as simple as the jersey color on the field.
And we can take a good hard look at our shadows—life is dangerous, life is brutal, life is full of people who don’t play fair, and the wicked sometimes prosper. Nowhere else in life (past the age of 2 or so) are we authorized to express these full-bodied emotions about and reactions to the way life is. We can’t do it in our jobs, in our families, in our churches, in our politics—at least not without being labeled as deranged.
Football isn’t just a game—that should be obvious to everyone in this country at this point. Embracing that fact for big time college football programs is not their normal mode of operation. The hallowed halls of academic conversation and higher learning are not supposed to be consorting with fanatics. At the same time, universities know how lucrative this relationship is. So they keep up the love affair even though they do not know how to feel all the way good and settled with it.
I don’t think anyone, including the Roman Empire, has ever figured out how to let the coliseum be the powerful force that it is without it becoming a deeply distorting force in society. In American society we’ve got this tiger by the tail on the campuses of the places where our best minds are teaching and learning. How can we harness the power for some redemptive cause? And I am not just talking about raising money for charities or bringing cans for a food drive.
Universities are supposed to be about the business of making the world a better place through the light of learning. Surely there is a lot to learn from this burning source of energy and passion that exists adjacent to our laboratories, libraries, and lecture halls.
Calling an audible in big time football when it comes to the fans will have to be a trick play—something that no one expects and that defies all the patterns we’ve shown before. What if big time football programs engaged in a time a moral reflection about how we can collectively make this relationship between fans and universities an honest one? Let’s bring the relationship out into the light and own up to our love for each other and the complications and pitfalls therein. What better pathway could we find to insights about our societal conscience and desires than this game that captures the hearts of so very many?
The passion in the relationships between fans and their teams can tell us a lot about ourselves—shadows and light. The healthiest relationships do just that—we call those couples “soul mates.” And maybe, just maybe, the truth is that football touches us there, in the hungriest places in our souls. Trick plays catch us off guard–like when new light comes to us from the shadows, even fan-wise.