June 14th, 2010

My Apathy Towards Athletic Nationalism

photo credit: Big Picture

The World Cup is on right now, and I don’t care. When the Olympics were on, I watched the occasional competition with a moderate level of disengaged curiosity. If I had to put a label on it, I guess you could say I am an athletic agnostic.

My lack of loyalty to any team—including those with whom I share a geographical connection—cannot be dismissed as simply a disinterest in sports. I enjoy watching a good football game, a few minutes of basketball here and there, or an intense match of volleyball. Rather, it has to do with an apathy towards rivalry, and the observation of common threads between team loyalty and nationalist political sentiment.

Allow me to explain.

Let’s set aside the World Cup and Olympics and go back to high school. Here is where we first learned of and became immersed in intense rivalry. Previous to this time we might have been involved in little league baseball or some other form of sports, but generally the games were more about performing well and improving skill than they were about defeating the other team to achieve victory.

In high school, however, we suddenly found that we had a new arch nemesis, that other team (in whatever sport) from the nearby school with whom a constant battle for trophies and glory had existed for longer than any of the students present had perhaps been alive. Pep rallies were held, cheerleaders cheered, athletes (some of whom were likely arrogant bullies with substandard academic achievement) were lavished with praise and adoration, and all present were whipped into a fanatic frenzy in our common goal to win.

We were never explained why we must win, or why the other team must be treated as the enemy. If the question ever was asked, the usual answer was probably a reference to the rivalry itself; they were our opponents because, well, they just were. Bathing in this constant drip of enmity, we found, over time, that we cheered the “home team” because they were “ours”, and we were “their” fans. The relationship of loyalty through mere (and superficial) association is not relegated only to young high school students, but also college students (think BYU v. UofU) and adults.

Take, for example, people who are right now cheering for “Team USA” in the World Cup—people who feel to cheer for “our” team because they happen to share the same nationality we do. The vast majority of people watching the game have no connection whatsoever to the team itself, or to most (any?) of the players. But suddenly when pitted against teams from nations around the world, we’re expected to “support our team”, and wo be unto the individual who tries to cheer for the other country!

This pseudo-nationalist athletic loyalty has commonality when looking at foreign policy and the attitude some people have towards individuals from other countries. I have observed individuals who, when discussing a given war between nations, support an escalation of military aggression, and an indifference towards so-called “collateral damage” (the murder of innocent non-Americans), in order to “save American lives”.

In other words, pitted in the same style of “us vs. them” mentality found in many sports, these individuals rank American lives above those who have a different nationality; seeing our side win is the paramount objective, and the result for which our loyalty must be vocally proclaimed. Such a divisive and destructive deprecation of the inherent worth of other individuals, simply due to their geographic and cultural ties, is anathema to everything America allegedly stands for.

This is not to say, of course, that fervent loyalty to a sports team and support for a nationalistic foreign policy are mutually inclusive. I am not suggesting that die-hard USA hockey fans support deploying bombs in Afghanistan, or that World Cup attendees dressed in an array of red, white, and blue consciously despise those of a different nationality. What I am suggesting is that a common thread exists between automatic and strong support for a sports team (primarily because of its geographic association) and a similar nation-based support of military action and foreign policy.

With sports, I do not understand why the game can’t be enjoyed for the competition itself, for the athletic abilities of the players, and for the exciting results, free of the fierce rivalry and drama that is often layered on top of a simple game. Sure, it’s okay to support one team over another, provided that there are legitimate reasons to do so—perhaps the athletes have worked extremely hard, or one or more came from humble circumstances to make a name for himself/themselves, or the players are genuine good people who practice sincere sportsmanship and are trying to improve the sport itself. But with these examples, one’s support of the team would be in relation to consequences of concrete actions, rather than simply wanting a team to win because of where they live, what rivalry they find themselves in, or some other factor that is, at its core, largely irrelevant.

With foreign policy, I do not understand why those who supposedly value their own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness do not afford the same privilege to other individuals around the world, regardless of nationality. God is no respecter of persons, so why should we be? Any loss of or damage to life should be avoided and opposed, and not simply excused when it supposedly becomes necessary to “save American lives”. Legitimate defense is one thing; an aggressive offense masquerading as “protecting the homeland” with dubious reasons given for its justification is entirely another. “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” is a horrible approach towards foreign policy and finds a philosophical predecessor in the geography-based rivalries that saturate sports.

Sports are not bad, and all war is not unjust. I fear, however, than the rabid fanaticism prevalent in so many athletic competitions, and the degree to which team loyalty is formed simply by loose geographical or other superficial connections, can and does lead to a similar (if subconscious) feeling when the “teams” become governments, countries, and military brigades. I do not support the actions of our federal government simply because it’s “my” government, and I do not support any sports team simply because they’re “mine”. Perhaps what I’m arguing for is a little more balance and critical analysis before offering our loyalty and support to anything.

17 Responses to “My Apathy Towards Athletic Nationalism”

  1. David
    June 14, 2010 at 12:26 pm #

    What I find entertaining is watching when people change their ardent loyalties. A friend who grew up across the street from me was an avid BYU fan until the day he got a minor scholarship at the U of U (academic scholarship no less). Suddenly blue was the last color you could find at his residence; the whole family switched their loyalty.

    I now live in the heart of Bountiful Brave territory which was the rival for my high school growing up. I’m not quite sure which school I am supposed to desperately identify myself with but I’m fine because like you, I like sportsmanship more than rivalry. I like seeing both teams win and I cheer hard for the players I know personally, which are mostly at Bountiful now.

  2. Aaron Bradley
    June 14, 2010 at 3:23 pm #

    Sports often supplant mental thought on the part of the viewer; more likely an ardent fan is more interested in the feeling of achievement vicariously than they are of any actual connection geographically or otherwise. I have also observed that often sports encourages behavior as support merely for the facade it promotes to others; i.e. I like the Lakers because they are not the Celtics; thus the ‘real’ Celtics fan is now challenged by the other rival and competition ensues between the two parties. Sports often fills a void that otherwise might be nourished by other meaningful activities as well. How much better would our society be if we had ‘Fanatics’ of a particular State or Political movement; can you imagine sufficient people engrossed in the goings-on over C-Span versus ESPN… yet what causes more meaningful consequences in out lives? Sports? Or Cap and Trade? Hmmmm…. Well enough soap box speech, I too like sports, such as Motor Sports, perhaps a little more interest in sports cars would be healthy. (Not totally serious here.)

  3. Josh Gardner
    June 14, 2010 at 3:33 pm #

    I think this comic illustrates this point nicely.

  4. JHP
    June 14, 2010 at 3:52 pm #

    I think the link between athletics and war is a bit of a stretch, but I do agree that many people go way overboard with their allegiance to sports teams and with their time spent on sports generally. I call this “Palestral Attachment Disorder” (http://matthewpiccolo.com/?p=395).

    Imagine what the world would be like if people enjoyed athletics only for competition. There would probably no longer be huge stadiums, lucrative TV contracts, or stores dedicated only to team paraphernalia. A better world? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t have a problem with team loyalty or national loyalty as long as it doesn’t become excessive. I think the hard part is defining “excessive.” I definitely think that anytime team or national loyalty incites any kind of sincere hatred or disdain for another team or nation, then it’s gone way too far. The annual U/BYU game is a good example of this.

  5. Clumpy
    June 14, 2010 at 5:43 pm #

    Assuming that you go into sports with the viewpoint you describe, it may be destructive. But those who view, for example, the Olympics as exactly what they portray it to be – a coming together of nations for a shared experience – won’t get this nationalistic garbage out of it. I don’t care how many medals my country gets or even watch it, but I’m kind of glad we participate.

  6. Chris
    June 14, 2010 at 11:41 pm #


    This was one of the most entertaining and also profound posts I’ve read from you. I’ve been feeling this way for a long time about politics and sports.


  7. Dave P.
    June 15, 2010 at 8:45 am #

    My brother graduated from the U of U, I graduated from BYU, so my parents wisely remained neutral come the time of “the big game.” I never liked the rival attitude in sports and that was especially true come my freshman year when the BYU fans stormed the field after the team “won the big game.” Stadium security couldn’t handle it so they called in the ROTC cadets to help! There were more than a couple of injuries that day.

    I grew up in the Marshall Islands and the Marshallese are some of the best people in the world. There were a few on my high school softball team and they would applaud no matter who got a hit.

    The statement of “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game,” is the best metric to use to determine who the great sportsmen are.

  8. Jim Davis
    June 15, 2010 at 12:05 pm #

    I liken the blind loyalty to sports teams the same way people are blindly loyal to their political parties.

    I grew up in the LA area and was therefore a Dodgers fan. I hated the rival teams in the division. Even though the players, coaches, style of play, and overall dynamics of the team would change dramatically from year to year I would still remain loyal to them.

    I see many with this same type of blind loyalty when it comes to parties. I’m not saying that all people within a certain party are ‘loyal no matter what’ but many are. When Bush and the GOP were in control I saw many ‘republicans’ turn blind eyes to many things they’re all of a sudden upset about now that the democrats are doing it. The same goes for many democrats- Now that Obama and the democrats are in control they’re turning blind eyes to many of the things they fought Bush about which Obama continues/increases.

    I have decided that loyalty to parties is dangerous. We should be loyal to good principles. Loyalty to parties turns our brains off when they should be active. It’s also putting trust in an ever changing group rather than in something concrete- like truth.

    “The man who votes the same ticket in politics, year after year, without caring for issues, men, or problems, merely voting in a certain way because he always has voted so, is sacrificing loyalty to truth, to a weak, mistaken, stubborn attachment to a worn out precedent. Such a man should stay in his cradle all his life; because he spent his early years there.” -William George Jordan, The Power of Truth

  9. Paul Mayne
    June 15, 2010 at 11:14 pm #

    I actually have a different perspective when it comes to the olympics. To me is seems less about which country wins the most total medals (because it’s always the same large countries) and more about the individual achievements of the best athletes in the world, often only competing against themselves for a better time (in the non-team events). I often see America rooting for individual foreign athletes.

    I’m partial to the advantages of kids playing little league sports, but I think team sports in high-school and college are very good for building friendships, discipline and leadership skills. Not to mention great physical activity and fitness.

    Rabid fanaticism in any area or interest in unhealthy, not just sports.

    When it comes to being a fan of sports, I consider myself pretty interested in almost all major sports. But I actually don’t claim any individual teams (other than slightly the Jazz and Utes because they are local) as my own. I enjoy watching and following sports for the sake of entertainment and that’s it. Including the Olympics and World Cup.

  10. Doug Bayless
    June 17, 2010 at 5:57 pm #

    I’m with you about 80% on this one.

    I draw a pretty sharp line between arbitrary enthusiasm for sports and arbitrary loyalty to political parties or militant nationalism.

    Sports are fun. They can motivate you to achieve goals, have better health, and learn teamwork. As a fan, you can vicariously achieve those goals, appreciate well-executed athletics, thrill in dumb luck, and enjoy camaraderie with other self-admitted arbitrary enthusiasts for ‘your’ team. It is literally ‘all fun and games’ with positive upsides as long as you learn to ‘be a good sport about it’.

    While there will always be those who are vicious, mean, cruel, small-minded, and horribly fanatical as fans (I’ve seen many here at my own University) there will hopefully *also* be those who are thoughtful, fair-minded, nurturing of rivals (who wants weak competition?), and who keep reasonable perspectives about such things.

    So I’m enjoying the World Cup. I’m rooting for the home team because it’s fun. I don’t hate the other teams. I even tend to wish them well. In other sports, for instance, I claim to be a huge BYU fan, but I like to see the U of U do well. Better competition for us to improve against.

    On the other hand, I abhor blind loyalty in the realms of politics, nationalism, and especially warfare.

    Those areas are *not* fun and games. Competition there is not to strengthen the competitors in skills and strength but rather is much more likely to involve cheating, crushing opponents so that they never return, blindly ignoring other strengths (rather than learning from them), etc.

    I see the parallel you are drawing. And it is an apt one.

    Nevertheless, I don’t choose to “throw out the baby with the bathwater” if you will. I had great experiences with sports in high school and I’m enjoying sports more as “a fan” the older I get.

    All competition is not bad, as I’m sure you’d agree. In some arenas, it can be great! And it matters very, very much how you pursue it in the arenas in which it is good.

    In business, for instance, it’s great to be motivated and inspired and compete so well that you generate jobs and income and can do charity work, etc. But imho a principled businessman doesn’t go about it with the intent to ruin the personal lives and impoverish and crush their competitors.

    I’d like to differentiate principled and appropriate competition from the bad so we don’t lose the good. I think sports can be great.

    But I’m with you in educating people about the abject perverseness of transferring that ‘fun and games arbitrary team’ mentality to matters of life, death, liberty, and the rights of fellow men.

  11. Bill
    June 17, 2010 at 8:05 pm #

    I think thou doth protest too much, Connor. I remember as a kid in NY watching the Yankees, becoming a big fan of Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford and rooting for them without malice towards any other team. It’s natural to be supportive of the people you live among and see on a regular basis. In fact it’s natural to form communities apart from other communities. People don’t just root for a faceless high school, they root for the people they know and share common bonds with. The human experience is not without feeling and emotion, among real people it cannot be a sterile, objective experience. If your brother got into a fight with a stranger would you be dispassionate? If you care about your friends can you be comfortable with the other high school whipping them? If you believe in the values of your country, is the enemy deserving of equal empathy? Has our country, in your lifetime, gone to war with a country that was not demonstrably evil, that was not already killing or oppressing the innocent? Some choose to rationalize that we are against the other government, not the people. But that government could not exist but for the people, through their support or through their timidity. And it is the enemy that has learned to exploit our humanity by putting civilians in harm’s way.
    And yes, it is not always about rooting for the home team. In individual sports like golf we still choose our own favorites for our own reasons. Maybe it’s an appreciation of the greatest skill, maybe it’s more about personality or style.
    I must say, however, that your comments about placing all countries on an equal footing seems at odds with someone who is, I think, a strong believer in national sovereignty and opposed to a one world order. Your support for universal equivalency sounds very much like what I’d expect from President Obama. And yes, I agree that critical analysis should proceed policy, but if a policy is deemed necessary, winning and not compassion should be the main consideration.

  12. Jonathan
    June 18, 2010 at 1:35 am #

    In a conversation this week with my wife, (I had been camping and away from the news) she told me that the soldiers sent to the US/Mexico border have already killed someone. She said it happened right on the border and that it resulted in a stand-off between the US and Mexican soldiers pointing their guns at each other.

    The talk-radio host she heard this news from went on a tirade about “how dare those Mexicans point their guns at our boys!”

    Then my wonderful wife said, “All I could think was good for them! If our unalienable rights come from God, and we all share the right to defend our lives and property, why wouldn’t the Mexicans have the same right to bear arms in their defense as the US soldiers!?”

    What a wonderful woman who loves individual liberty. So many people can’t see past the nationalism driven into them to the true principles that should be our focus.

    @ Bill – “If you believe in the values of your country, is the enemy deserving of equal empathy?”

    – Absolutely. The values of our country = God has endowed ALL MEN with certain inalienable rights – not all American men but all men.

    ” Has our country, in your lifetime, gone to war with a country that was not demonstrably evil, that was not already killing or oppressing the innocent? Some choose to rationalize that we are against the other government, not the people. But that government could not exist but for the people, through their support or through their timidity.”

    – The first part of what you said is very supportive of Connor’s post. Evil countries? So everyone living within an area defined by a line on a map are evil and deserving of death because of a radical group in their midst or a tyrannical government ruling them? The Executive Branch of our own government thinks it’s now OK to execute US citizens that it designates as threatening to the state! Does that make us all evil and deserving of invasion and slaughter? By your definition, if you haven’t SUCCESSFULLY stood against this, then you are supportive of it due to being overly passive.

    This also makes me think of the current sanctions against Iran. I have heard several stories of courageous individuals and student groups standing up to the government. To reward them, the US is placing sanctions against Iran that will hurt everyone in the country – including those who fought against evil.

    “And it is the enemy that has learned to exploit our humanity by putting civilians in harm’s way.”

    – I hate this argument through and through. Like we can somehow absolve ourselves of the guilt after our predator drones bomb a residential area. Damn those “terrorists” for letting kids stay in their own houses! We were clearly justified in slaughtering innocent men, women, and children, and somehow it’s the enemies fault for not standing out on a sand dune with a sign saying, “I’m tired of the US killing my people, so now I’m fighting back. You must now kill me, but please do it out here in the sand so my kid doesn’t have to die.”

  13. Bill
    June 18, 2010 at 10:31 am #

    @ to Jonathan
    Basic rights may be unalienable, but they are not inviolate. As the founders knew, they must be secured by individuals and groups. As they said “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.” Rumors of a few dissidents in the colonies did not suffice to secure these rights. If governments don’t represent their citizens they must be replaced by those citizens. Today’s oppressed people need to have the courage that our forefathers had to fight and die for those rights . If it’s so easy for terrorists to mount insurgencies against their governments and our forces overseas, why would freedom loving people not be able to mount the same insurgencies against repressive governments? We could fund them just as outside forces now fund terrorists. Or in certain instances, as we have in the past, we can help with troops, though I’d like to see less of that. But wars can’t be fought without innocent deaths being part of the equation. Sad, but true. I hope you understand also that insurgents use civilian shields as a planned strategy to evoke the very emotions that you’re displaying.

  14. Jonathan H
    June 23, 2010 at 11:43 am #

    conner, come on, this is one of the most ridiculous articles i have read in a while. talk about a stretch, think you may have pulled a few muscles. you should’ve attached to this article the pic of you shirtless and painted blue at a byu game. something tells me you would feel different if it were ron paul vs ronald reagan on the field of play or perhaps, libertarians vs neo-cons. if that were the case, me thinks you would be shirtless and painted, blackberry in hand blogging about it.

  15. Doug Bayless
    June 23, 2010 at 12:03 pm #

    not to thread jack . . . ok *to* thread jack:

    libertarians vs neo-cons on a field of play, lol!

    the neo-cons would be in near perpetual trouble as they continually failed to understand why their (both friendly and not-so-friendly) pragmatic self-interest interventions into the personal lives of the referees, other team’s players, and even fans (blatant bribery, lavish gifts, reminder “shows of force”) were viewed with such displeasure and disapproval by many of those involved with the sport . . . but the libertarians would have trouble of their own vehemently disagreeing with most of the regulations and referee calls on simple principle. 🙂

  16. Karch hinckley
    September 22, 2016 at 8:33 am #

    Pretty decent points I’ve pondered a lot about the subject of sports being in a few rivalries in high school. My drive and others to be the best typically people subconsciously want to be honored above all like someone ins the scriptures which is not a good thing. Who wins is vainity in the eternal prospect. Although people do have a lot to gain, from the college to the professional level from winning it shouldn’t promote hate of course and uchtdorf points out in one of his talks that hatred can derive from sports teams. I follow a few teams and the thing the keeps the games very interesting and it does to many people is the rivalries, for me it’s the storylines like golden state vs cavs the trash talk between the teams. The coming back from the deficits who can come back from a devastating loss, and one might believe that the opponent truly hate each other which could be true in some cases but if u follow them on social media a lot of them are good friends. Just like people like a good movie which typically involves some sort of conflict, a lot of fans love a storyline not advocating violence or whatnot but in sports we can get them

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