Commentary

Us vs. Them

When the illogic of sports fandom spills over into real life, you don't have to play along

Updated: November 21, 2011, 1:54 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Whose side were you on last weekend? Whose side for Penn State at Ohio State? For Harvard vs. Yale? For Southern California at Oregon?

If you're a sports fan, and you're honest, here's your smartphone/e-reader/newspaper scoreboard from last weekend:

[+] EnlargeEagles Fan Painted Face
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesFans express their loyalty in many ways, some more menacing than others.

Them 20 - Them 14
Them 45 - Them 7
Them 38 - Them 35
Them 0 - Us 1

In fact, from every weekend. Because sooner or later everything in sports -- all the madness and passion and struggle and money -- boils down to "Us" against "Them."

A phenomenon more exclusive than inclusive, being a sports fan with a powerful rooting interest in a single team is an act of self-definition. An ideology. A choice of attributes and vanities. Color schemes. A rejection of weakness or evil or teal. An expression of tribal exceptionalism. "We're number one!" A mostly harmless mechanism for sorting ourselves into categories -- along with our differences and preferences and prejudices and delusions.

What does the University of Michigan stand for that the University of Nebraska does not? In what way but the weather is Oakland not Minnesota? Or Los Angeles unlike Houston? What defines the West Indies or Chelsea -- but says nothing of India or Liverpool? Why Roma, never Lazio? Why Tony Stewart, not Carl Edwards? We arrive at every answer by shuffling and dealing our own needs and wants and neuroses and values. We project ourselves onto everything around us, even history. Then -- positive and negative, right and wrong, better and worse -- we limit or expand the cast of imaginary villains and heroes in our world every time we sit down to watch a game. All football is fantasy football.

[+] EnlargeBrowns Occupy Signs
AP Photo/Tony DejakIn our popular culture, messages with larger meaning are often appropriated by sports fans. And politicians aren't afraid to appropriate the opposite direction.

We recalibrate ourselves with every first down; with every INT; with every DeSean Jackson taunting penalty.

Good example. Giants vs. Eagles. Sunday night. New York and Philadelphia meet again in New Jersey, as geography demands, and as pizza battles cheese steak for the umpteenth time.

51 years ago to the day that Chuck Bednarik knocked Frank Gifford cold and struck a blow for Philly; a blow for Geno's, Pat's, and Tony Luke's; a blow for every Concrete Charlie who ever played out his days in the handsome shadow of a halfback Pretty Boy.

Giants-Eagles? Ever see "Big Fan"? The imagined grudges and hurts and slights between New York and Philadelphia go back past Herman Edwards and the Miracle at the Meadowlands, back past Bednarik/Gifford, all the way to the founding of the republic and beyond it. Back past William Penn and Peter Minuit. Back past even the dawn of New Amsterdam and Shackamaxon, back to the first families of the Algonquin in their longhouse.

Hang around sports long enough and everything starts to look/feel/sound like a rivalry.

And that's the trouble. That's the problem with Us vs. Them. It's blinding. Paralyzing. Life is not sports.

Whatever deep and terrifying troubles have come to Penn State were for years obscured and made worse by the reductive Us vs. Them mentality of big college football loyalty. Moral vision tunnels to nothing when confronted with the choice between some self-defined "us" and a frightening "them."

[+] EnlargePepper Sprayed Fans
Sean Brady/Getty ImagesWhen pepper spray is in the air -- on campus, in New York and elsewhere -- love is not.

The budget argument stalemated this weekend in Congress is every bit as parochial and narrow and nonsensical as any sports argument. It's not a negotiation, it's not governance, it's two Bednariks in search of a Gifford. It's us against them.

Whose side are you on, anyway?

Democrat vs. Republican? Cop vs. protester? Christian vs. Muslim? Harvard vs. Yale? Us vs. us vs. us vs. us.

Look around your table Thursday. Look around the room. Look around the world. There's no escaping us.

And for that we should all be thankful.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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