The Common Good

March Madness and How To Love Thy Rival

NCAA tournament bracket illustration,  Brocreative / Shutterstock.com
NCAA tournament bracket illustration, Brocreative / Shutterstock.com

Watching sports is not as much fun as it used to be.

I blame Jesus for that, because he just had to say:

“Love thy enemy.”

Or, as Chad Gibbs puts it in the title of his fantastic book on spirituality and sports, Love thy Rival.

Here’s an example of how Jesus ruined sports for me. The University of Louisville and the University of Michigan will face off tonight in the final game of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

I’m not a fan of the Cardinals or the Wolverines. So, in order for me to fully participate in our national ritual that is the NCAA Tournament, I have to pick between two teams that I don’t care about. I’m a huge fan of underdogs, so I’ll root for Michigan … 

… which means I’ll have to root against the Cardinals.

Yes, it doesn’t matter who the underdogs are. When it comes to baseball, my favorite team is the team playing against the Yankees. And when it comes to basketball, everything about the Lakers is an absolute abomination. Just look at their colors –

Purple and yellow.

Abomination.

I’ll briefly invite you into the psychology of my sports world: I love watching the favored team lose as much as I love watching underdogs win.

Which makes “love thy enemy” really hard — because I love hating those teams. Whenever they lose, a certain glee enters my heart.

What does that mean when it comes to the championship game of the NCAA Basketball Tournament?

Let’s say Michigan wins tonight. My wife will roll her eyes as I jump up and down in our living room, relieved that once again good overcame evil. (Okay, that’s a stretch, but it’s close to how I – and many others caught up in this cultural ritual – will feel.) Immediately after the game, Michigan’s coach and a few players will be interviewed. I will vicariously enter into their excitement, joy, and success. I’ll even identify myself with the team and think

Yes!! WE did it!!!

After all, I was cheering them on from my couch.

And then the CBS cameras will pan over to the Louisville coaches and players … and then I’ll change the channel. 

Why? Because if I see the tears of defeat and painful looks of loss, I might find myself experiencing Louisville’s pain, too. And feeling their pain would ruin the joy Michigan won for me! I would much rather change the channel than risk that.

If we take seriously Jesus’ call to love our enemies, including our sports rivals, I think it means we must join them in their success and defeat, in their joy and pain. The problem is that our sports culture runs counter to this Gospel message. 

Please, do not be the guy holding the John 3:16 sign. The gods of sports don’t love the world; they only love the winners. Few things are more idolatrous in sports than when the winning team thanks God for their victory. That assumes God is on the side of winners and is against losers.

Again, that’s counter to the Gospel message, which, if we lived into it, would ruin a sports culture that glorifies winners. The Gospel says that God indeed loves the world, but that God especially loves cultural “losers.” To paraphrase the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the ‘losers’ of human culture.” Why? Because God is on their side. Jesus repeatedly shows this when he enters into the lives of the marginalized, the outcasts, the losers of his culture. He radically identifies with them in the parable of the sheep and the goats so that his followers might identify with them too.

Which brings me back to tonight’s game. I don’t want you to feel guilty about watching the game. I’ll be watching and cheering. But when Michigan wins (I hope!), this time I will refuse to change the channel when the cameras pan over to Louisville. If just for a moment, I’ll join them in their pain. 

It may feel unnatural to love our rivals in a sports culture that demands winners and losers. But, with enough practice, love can become as easy as a layup.

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.

Image: NCAA tournament bracket illustration,  Brocreative / Shutterstock.com

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