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Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011

Fake Hatred

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It wasn’t just the outcome of a sporting event that made Chicago a great place to be last weekend. I was in town for other recreation, but it was impossible to miss the high-spirited friendliness in anticipation of a classic championship game.

And, yes, that included good cheer toward hard-to-miss Packers fanatics who showed up in town wrapped in green and gold from head to toe.

From the previous week’s media hype in Wisconsin, I expected bloody rumbles on the streets reminiscent of the Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story, only with the dance steps done upside of each other’s heads.

All that fake hatred between supporters of different groups of athletes from different towns is one of the least attractive aspects of sporting competitions.

A long time ago, someone somewhere got the ridiculous idea it would make sports more exciting—and more profitable, no doubt—to promote feelings of personal loathing between various opponents and their supporters.

When I was growing up in an Indiana town of a few thousand people, we hated, really hated, the kids in another town of a few thousand people about 10 miles away.

When this hatred wasn’t being played out on a basketball floor, it became public in other ways. Both towns were near the Ohio border, which had a lower drinking age than Indiana, and, consequently, had dance halls where we gathered to drink at even lower ages and compete in other ways.

Some of these competitions took place in parking lots with beer bottles.

I still remember meeting one guy who had been among the other town’s hated villains, only this was when we were both away from home for the first time as freshmen at Indiana University.

It turned out we were both small-town kids a little scared to be attending a large state university. It was good to see a familiar face. We had more important things to do than to dislike each other.

Prolonging Childish Things

As we read in First Corinthians back in Vacation Bible School: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

But contrived sports rivalries tend to prolong childish things.

In Wisconsin, the last word on winning against some other team—athletic or any other type of partisan competitor—always comes from the state’s anointed deity, Vince Lombardi.

Lombardi could simply be considered a colorful, larger-than-life character in one field of commercial entertainment.

Or you could take him much more seriously, as Robert Stone’s novel, Outerbridge Reach, does when one character holds up Lombardi as a great man and a role model for children.

“Vince Lombardi was not a great man,” his companion objects. “Vince Lombardi nearly destroyed this country. … He was a…monster. He caused the Vietnam War.”

There were a few other folks involved too, of course. But this country repeatedly gets into trouble whenever it gets carried away with the idea that the only thing that matters is defeating folks just like us whom we define as the other team.

We’ve had Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy’s campaign to destroy the livelihoods of imaginary red menaces in our midst, the Vietnam War turning generation against generation and the recent deadly, costly war to save ourselves from weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist.

In recent weeks, we’ve had a lot of public discussion about how ugly political rhetoric has gotten in the last two years.

It’s no mere coincidence those two years followed the election of a president who—in one respect only—comes from a team that is not used to winning much of anything in this country.

That victory immediately gave rise to an angry, strident group determined to “take our country back.” They began defining supporters of the opposing team as evil people not like us—socialist, communist, fascist, whatever those contradictory epithets really mean.

Remembering the emotions of Election Night 2008, everyone celebrating was American through-and-through. They were moved to the point of tears to see our democracy achieve something great many of us never expected to experience in our lifetimes.

Sports victories can be pretty fun, too.

And having lived as an adult in both Chicago and Wisconsin, I can state with absolute certainty there is nothing inherently better or worse about the human beings who reside in either place.

For all the media’s shrill attempts to pump up the unrivaled rivalry between Green Bay and Chicago, there sure were a lot of Packers and Bears embracing each other on the field after an unexpectedly exciting finish.

You can bet much of Chicago will be cheering for Green Bay in the Super Bowl. There’s too much real hatred in this world already. We don’t need to manufacture fake hatred.

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