by Adam Metz
What I remember most about attending the 50th annual Thanksgiving Day football game in Detroit back in 1989 was the Cleveland Browns hearse that was in the tailgating lot. You read that correctly – an orange and brown hearse decked out with a white stripe down the middle. I can't be certain, but there's a pretty good chance that it is the same Cleveland Browns hearse that was for sale on Craigslist earlier this year. (Can there be more than one?) Anyone who has ever attended a big-time sporting event can attest to the bizarre things fans will do to show their support for their team. From awkward tattoos to hilarious obituaries to all out riots, sports can bring out the best, the worst, and the weirdest in us all.
As a high school football official for the past ten years, one of things I have realized about sports is that it makes people irrational. My football crew and I have had pleasant conversations with coaches who seem completely sane before the game, only to watch them turn into rude, degrading, and screaming imbeciles in a matter of minutes. Coaches, players, and, especially fans, under the intoxicating influence of sports can quickly do or say things that they will regret - sometimes for the rest of their lives.
Sports not only affects our actions, however; our minds are just as susceptible to its influence. In January 2003, my wife and I were in Tempe, AZ with another couple to watch Ohio State take on the University of Miami in the National Championship game. If you remember it, this was one of the greatest college games ever played, and Ohio State won in double overtime. If you are a Miami fan (as was the other couple attending the game with my wife and I), you certainly remember that the first overtime was extended by a controversial defensive pass interference call against Miami. You can relive the drama in this fine piece of Buckeye propaganda. With my friend and I rooting for opposing outcomes of this game, it was fascinating to watch the "thrill of victory" and the "agony of defeat" live itself out in the two of us, as Ohio State was recognized the victor. The difference between our two experiences could not have been greater.
It wasn't just the feeling of victory and defeat however, that made for contrast in our reactions. As we talked after the game, it became apparent that we saw a different game. A close call that had to be made (in my opinion) was a total miscall and display of incompetence (in my friend's opinion). And yet, we’d sat right next to one another; we saw the same game. We're both intelligent and generous people, not quick to make accusations against others. How could he be so wrong?
I finally found some answers when I ran across a psychology study that had been published nearly 60 years ago and examined a situation just like this. The name of the study is "They Saw a Game: A Case Study" and studies fans who attended the November 23, 1951 Dartmouth-Princeton football game. They asked fans from both schools questions about the dirty play in the game and who was responsible for starting it. Across the board, students were more likely to believe that the other team’s players initiated it, and that their team was simply (and justifiably) responding. Even the way the two schools' newspapers reported the game differed greatly. The findings led authors Hastorf and Cantril to conclude, "the 'game' actually was many different games and . . . each version of the events that transpired was just as 'real' to a particular person as other versions were to other people."
The study highlighted what is known as "selective perception," and the anecdotal references of ugly tattoos, NFL colored hearses, and sports biases highlight the fact that sports often has a power over all of us - even over our minds. Sports fanatics often live completely different lives at the office or at home in the "real world." The arena or the stadium is a place where they can "let it all hang out" and "blow off some steam."
Sports allegiances can also blind us, however. It does more than alter our perception of close calls. They can sometimes lead us to cheer when a player goes down with an injury. They can make us say things we would never say on the street or in any other setting. The first football chant I remember hearing as a kid was, "Elway's a faggot." Really, I heard 80,000 fans chant that in unison. In short, our sports allegiances can cause us to lose who we are.
That's the only way I can explain what happened on this past Saturday's episode of the wildly popular College Game Day. If you aren't familiar with Game Day, it is basically a televised tailgate party that travels each week to different locations in order to help get the country excited about upcoming college football games. Each week, the show builds suspense as the personalities make their picks for the big game, and climaxes when former college football coach Lee Corso makes his "head gear" pick for the game from which they broadcast by putting on the mascot of the team he is picking. This past Saturday's game was in South Carolina for the Florida State - Clemson game, and Corso picked Florida State. You have to see it to really capture what happened next; you can watch it here.
Without the context of college football, it's difficult to imagine anyone not seeing the offensive nature of this 60-second clip. This goes too far even for a Saturday Night Live sketch. But, since it was all in the spirit of college football, it passes with hardly a blip.
I scarcely side with the hyper-sensitive, politically correct world that is often forced upon us. Every year when my family attends the Opening Day festivities in Cleveland, OH, I am reminded that my favorite baseball team has bigoted roots. Having seen many misuses and overreactions, I tend to be slow and methodical in crying "racist," but this episode highlights the blinding power of sports. If Corso's getup wasn't enough to trip the sensitivity wire by the ESPN suits, didn't the body slamming by the white man (Bill Murray) at the end do it for them? That we can be so blind highlights yet again just how powerful sports can be.
This is a complicated topic and I'm making no claim to solving the issues with a single blog post. The discussion regarding the Washington Redskins continues to grow (the Huffington Post has an entire page devoted to stories about the controversy), Florida State is regularly in conversation with the Seminole Indians and are trying to appease their detractors, and I suppose discussions will broaden regarding the fates of the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves and other similarly named teams. While the complex debate continues, a good place to begin is by acknowledging how sports clouds our judgment. We need to have these conversations, and we need to begin them by acknowledging that we are talking about people - a people who have been victimized and ignored as much as any civilization in the history of the world. And in a more perfect world, we would be having these conversations about football and baseball mascots because we had already acknowledged their painful past, restored dignity to their people, and assigned the value that is due to their civilizations.
is the minister of the Alum Creek Church of Christ in Lewis Center, OH
where he lives with his wife Mary Beth and their three children: Clark,
Clementine, and Cecilia. You can find more of his writing at Theological Vacillation and you can follow him on Twitter @CrasslyYours.
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