Rivalry and the Perpetuation of The Other

It was January 11, 1987.  I was seven and a half years old.  It was Cleveland, Ohio.  And it was the first time that Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway slowly and painfully ripped out the hearts of Cleveland Browns fans everywhere.  It became known as “The Drive. ” [All Browns fans close your eyes, others can watch this link.] While playoff aspirations have been a distant memory for the Cleveland Browns over the past two decades, during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the Browns had incredibly talented and wildly successful football teams, though the Super Bowl would remain elusive.

I live in Columbus and love the Ohio State Buckeyes, but I think my first love will always be the Cleveland Browns.  They have been so bad for so long that I wish it wasn’t true, but the beginning of every football season reminds me of my first love.  I attended several Browns games during this era, and the images of old Cleveland Municipal Stadium remain ensconced among my greatest memories.  It was during this era of heartbreak that I actually attended a regular season game against the Elway-led Broncos.  The success of the future Hall of Fame quarterback wasn’t respected or appreciated among Browns fans during those years – to say the least.  Instead I remember jeers raining down from the stadium making fun of anything and everything the inebriated crowd could mumble out together.  One of the first cheers I ever remember hearing at a professional football game was “Elway’s a faggot.”  As  a kid, I joined right in the jeering and cheering against this arch rival.

In sports, there’s a fine line between cheering for a team or player, and cheering against another team or player.  It maybe a reality that we Cleveland fans can appreciate more than most people.  The Indians and Browns last won world championships long before I was born, so there’s been plenty of time to root against other teams and their successes.  And what Cleveland fan didn’t root against South Beach LeBron?  It’s part of the fun, really.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find at least some delight in the recent faltering of Michigan’s football program.  After all, they are our rival!  My son has a sign in his room that says, “My favorite two teams are Ohio State, and whoever is playing Michigan!”  My two favorite teams have been doing pretty good lately!

I’ve been thinking a lot about rivalry lately.  There has been no better case study for what rivalry does to a person than Ohio State’s recent hiring of Urban Meyer.  Now, Urban Meyer is an Ohio guy – something that people in the South seem to forget.  He was born in Toledo, grew up in the Lake town of Ashtabula, attended the University of Cincinnati, and had his first head football coaching position at Bowling Green State.  His rise to prominence in college football was profuse, immediately finding success at every school he has coached for.  However, it was at the University of Florida where he achieved the highest level of success, winning two national championships.

The culmination of the 2006 football season found Meyer’s Gators taking on the Ohio State Buckeyes.  I remember watching and listening to Urban Meyer in the weeks leading up to the game.  I remember thinking how much of a pompous ass he was.  I remember how much I didn’t care for his demeanor and his cut-throat mentality (he has a reputation for running up the score on lesser opponents).  Compared to the buttoned-up, senatorial, humble ethos of Ohio State’s coach Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer was an arrogant prick.  And that arrogant prick helped kick my team’s behind in one of the more lopsided national championships you will ever see.  Which made me hate him all the more.

In the year’s following Meyer’s championships at Florida (they won again in 2008), he had some serious health concerns that eventually led to his resignation at the end of 2010.  I can honestly say that I’ve  never wished ill on anyone, including my rivals, but I can say without reservation that I wasn’t heartbroken to see him leave Florida and football altogether.

Then came a scandal at Ohio State.  Then came Jim Tressel’s resignation.  Then came probation.  Then came the rumors of Urban Meyer accepting the head coaching job at Ohio State.  One year after resigning from Florida.  Wait.  What?

There’s a lot of different sides to this complex story, but the thing I want to focus on for a minute is the strange situation it put us in as Ohio State fans.  Everyone I knew thought he was the perfect person for the job.  There wasn’t a better candidate.  But, man, once you’ve rooted against someone, it’s hard to just forget that and move on.  I still thought he was a pompous ass.

It’s interesting how quickly, my feelings about him began to thaw.  You know, he looks pretty good in scarlet and gray.  Now he was talking to the people of Ohio.  Now . . . you know what? . . . he wasn’t too bad of a guy after all.  Still intense.  Still kind of cocky.  But don’t you want that for your coach?  Then the magical season that was 2014, and the Buckeyes won the first ever college football playoff, and the entire state of Ohio has forgotten all about Jim Tressel.  Well, not forgotten, more like forgiven.

While this is the extreme case, every sports fan knows this feeling.  It happens all the time in baseball.  In the middle of the season, teams out of contention trade their good players to teams in contention, and the next thing you know,  a player you cheered so hard against, is wearing your team’s colors.  It’s heretical to even think about it, but if the Browns had been led by John Elway instead of Bernie Kosar, maybe the Browns have all the success that the Broncos would come to have.  It’s just impossible to picture him in their colors.

I’ve come to realize that sports displays a microcosm of life when it comes to identity.  We identify with our team.  We wear their colors, familiarize ourselves with their traditions, and we feel a part of them.  As a matter of fact, it isn’t them – it’s us.  While watching from the inactivity of our couch, we stand and shout, “We won!”

What helps us forge our identity is knowing that we are not them.  Rivalry can betray humanity.  For the jeering fans in the 1980’s and 1990’s in Cleveland, John Elway wasn’t a person.  He was a quarterback.  He was a Bronco.  He was a football player.  But he wasn’t human.  He wasn’t a husband or a father or a son and didn’t have a soul.  When Urban Meyer was pacing the sidelines in Gainesville, FL I saw no humanity in him.  I just saw someone who was better than me and my team and who made my skin crawl.

Over the next six years, Urban Meyer will make on average $6.5 million each year.  Celebrity Net Worth reports that John Elway’s net worth is over $145 million.  In the world of high profile sports, I think most people would be able to put up with the mean-spirited fans and mudslinging rivals.  I’m not saying it excuses it; I’m just saying that no one is feeling bad for these millionaires.

However, this reality isn’t limited to the highest levels of sports.  It was early on in my son’s baseball career when I realized how conflicted I would be when it comes to his success.  If the bases are loaded and there are two outs and the game is tied and my son is up to bat, what is the right outcome to hope for?  Do I hope he throws a ball and my son draws the winning RBI?  Do I pray for a meat ball right  down the middle that I know my son can smash?  How do I root him on, without wishing ill on the other team or player?   Could it be that the other team needs a win more than our team at the grandest scheme of life?  Could it be that the kid in that illustration would be much more greatly blessed with a strike out than my son would be with a walk off hit?

It’s when the discussions of rivalry hit the local level with youth sports that I think we really begin to get into the heavy conversations.  My next blogpost will begin to deal with the challenge of balancing rooting for your child’s success while not rooting against the success of others.

Elite Sports Leagues and the Machine of Youth Travel Sports

There is a storm brewing on the horizon and I am doing all I can to prepare myself for it.  My son loves sports and has shown a true love for baseball in particular.  To this point, we have enjoyed our summers at the baseball fields in our local Westerville recreational league.  This summer should be especially fun as it proves to be the “peak” season for the local league with the league fielding more teams for the 8 – 10 year-old kid-pitch league than any of the other age groups.  However, the storms clouds have already begun to form as I see looming questions about the best way to navigate the future of our son’s youth sports experience.

The fact that my son is entering the most popular level of play in the local recreation league comes as no surprise.  Across the country, elite leagues and travel teams begin plucking kids out of local leagues by this age group (a trend that is becoming younger, not the other way around) and older recreation leagues are all but drying up for children interested in playing for fun (imagine that!)

This has not been foreign to me as my years in youth ministry have already familiarized me with the world of travel and elite sports.  I have seen families devote their summer vacations, countless thousands of dollars, and all of their free time to the development of their teenage athletes.  For some its the pursuit of college scholarships while for others it’s simply the obsession with being the best – but whatever the case, there is plenty of fuel to supply the burgeoning beast.  Even though I am a huge sports fan and am excited about my children playing sports, ever since I have been exposed to the world of travel and elite sports it has left a poor impression on me.  Particularly the way I’ve seen families obsess over these leagues to the detriment of their attention to their children’s faith development and spiritual formation has led me to believe this is a major crisis for the American church.

Until very recently, I had never heard any Christian who had been critical of sports – ever.  Sure, there may have been an occasional prude who complained about Wednesday night practice forcing athletes to miss Bible study at church, but when it came to Christians and their participation with sports – everyone I knew was “all in.”  Then I had a kid.  Then I started watching how sports consumed the lives of the teenagers I worked with.  Then I started asking their parents hard questions.  Then the you know what hit the fan.  Turns out, I had stumbled upon a sacred cow.  “Just wait until your kids are that age . . . ”

Well, they are getting close now, and I’ve decided to dedicate an entire dissertation to the subject because I have come to realize no one is talking about this.  The percentage of children in churches (particularly suburban mega churches) who are participating in elite and travel leagues is staggering (I have no statistical evidence of this – just the obvious eye test), and yet walk into a Christian book store or peruse the Christian ministry and youth ministry sections at Amazon and you’ll find no guides, no Bible studies, no suggestions for navigating an incredibly taxing time of life and an expensive and crucial developmental stage of life.  Almost all the treatments you’ll find there are limited to a subtle dose of the prosperity gospel.  Why is no one talking about this?  Why does it appear the church’s critique of sports is that it is pretty much neutral?

And all along the way, my son is getting older and closer to the age where travel baseball (and all other sports) becomes an presupposition.  As Tom Farrey acknowledges, “Travel teams are no longer an add-on to the youth sports landscape, like the post-season all-star teams of previous generations.  In many communities, after the age of 9 or 10, they effectively are youth sports.”   (From: Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions out of our Children p. 183)

I don’t have an answer to all of this.  I don’t think that the idea of travel leagues and elite youth sports organizations has to be bad . . . but I think the current manifestation of it is bad – really bad.  I believe it is harming the social fabric of small towns and larger communities and is helping contribute to the inactivity of children – statistics show that when children try out for teams and don’t make them, they are very likely to give up on the sport for good.  In any places, elite travel teams are the only option and if you don’t make them . . . there just aren’t many pick-up games happening in backyards anymore and . . . their extension cords just don’t reach quite that far.  Additionally, these leagues and teams are taking shape before children are even developmentally prepared for competition.  Winning national championships and attaining high state and national rankings are for parents, not children (inspiring this classic on the topic: Just Let the Kids Play.)

I plan to post a great deal on this topic in the coming months.  As we make difficult decisions about where our son plays and when and how often and the lot, I’ll be reading, studying, and researching this topic hoping to find insight and wisdom that can help us navigate these challenging areas of life.  What I hope doesn’t get lost in this is that my son have fun (my daughters too – but they’re still a few years away from the mouth of the machine).  I hope that Christians will begin to have more frank and honest discussions regarding their love affair with sports.  I’m a huge fan of sports and believe they play a crucial (and healthy) role in culture . . . but I am equally convinced that we often allow them to become these monsters that they have become and they take on a life of their own.