Sports Rivalries, Culture Wars & Polarization

Is there a way to opt out or will you be made to care?

Growing up in central Michigan I wasn’t a die hard sports fan. Sure, I was a little unique as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan (a fandom I believe I picked up from my brother). But I also cheered for and went to Detroit Tigers games (they won the World Series the year I moved to Indiana much to my consternation) and watched Big Ten football and cheered for the University of Michigan Wolverines. I wasn’t really into hockey but had friends who were, and who played the sport.

I was a Michigan fan without really thinking about it. Michigan State football, and the rivalry with UM that developed later, wasn’t really something I was aware of or cared about. Big Ten football was about going to the Rose Bowl so I cheered for Michigan to do that. I don’t recall being particularly emotionally invested. My family wasn’t an intense sports family. We watched it rather casually.

As I got older I became more knowledgeable and interested in football and my fandom ramped up a bit as a result. I remember a particular painful event where my beloved Steelers lost to the normally lowly Detroit Lions. But that just meant my step-brother could give me a hard time. I rooted for Michigan but going to high school and college in Indiana that wasn’t particularly controversial (although I was emotional when the Fab Five lost to North Carolina).

Columbus and THE Ohio State University

It wasn’t really until I moved to Columbus, Ohio to be with my then girlfriend, now wife, that I began to encounter truly intense sport allegiances.

In Columbus, everyone assumed you went to Ohio State (my wife, a Columbus College of Art and Design grad, dealt with this constantly) or at a bare minimum cheered for the Buckeyes. Being a fan of the University of Michigan, even casually, mean constant friction, jibes and commentary. I was taken aback by the sheer intensity of it all.

I never lived in Ann Arbor or attended UM so I can’t say what that might have been like. But as noted above, I grew up a casual fan and most people I knew were too. There were lots of teams and sports people watched and cheered. Pro football, basketball, hockey and baseball and a wide variety of colleges and universities large and small.

But in Columbus THE Ohio State University was what it was all about. This was before The Blue Jackets or Crew. It seemed like everyone invested all of their energy and focus on OSU. It felt weird to me.

Pick A Side

I have a theory that in Central Ohio you have two choices about how you react to this intensity. You can just sort of become a causal Ohio State fan and keep your non-OSU fandom to yourself (and like minded friends) or you can do what I did and fight fire with fire.

For whatever reason, the obsession with all things OSU caused me to double and triple down on my identity as a Michigan fan.

I watched the football obsessively. I rooted against Ohio State. I bought Michigan gear and accessories, even changed my ringtone to Hail to the Victors at one point. I became a full-throated partisan deep behind enemy lines.

There was only one small problem with this, I began this journey during the John Cooper years. The man who went 2-10-1 against Michigan. He also had a losing bowl record. In his 13 years, six times Cooper ended the season with losses to Michigan and in a bowl game.

As you might imagine, this made being a Michigan fan in Columbus a heck of a lot easier. And when Michigan football imploded, and Michigan embarked on a equally seemingly endless losing streak in The Game and bowls, the emotions changed.

It got to the point that my family wouldn’t watch Michigan football games with me. My anger and frustration soured the game and often the day. I had to wrestle with this identity I had adopted and lower the temperature.

The whole thing was sort of weird because, again, I didn’t attend the University of Michigan nor did any of my family. It was an adopted identity that I fostered not some organic connection or loyalty.

The Culture Wars & Polarization

This is a long winded introduction. But I bring this all up because politics and the culture wars seem to mirror this experience for me.

With the caveat that these are complex and far from monocausal issues, but the internet, demographic issues and politics have changed in such a way that it feels like social media, corporate culture, and increasingly everyday life wants to force me to choose sides on everything. You are either on one team or the other.

Whether it is Donald Trump, LGTBQ issues, race and gender, and whatever is the outrage du jure, it splits everyone into teams. Just like with Ohio State, you can’t read the paper, turn on the TV, check Facebook or Twitter, go to the store, or, heck, even go to church, without the culture wars being shoved in your face.

The “Big Sort” means more and more people live, work and interact with people who share their opinions and beliefs on a slate or political and cultural issues and so they see that as their “team.”

And though in many ways I despise the term, so much of life just seems like pure “virtue signalling;” a way to make clear which team you are on or that you are a “good” person because you have this sign, fly this flag, wear this t-shirt, etc. etc.

And this is increasingly both parties, all ideological sides and issues.

Is “You will be made to care” reality now?

More and more, I feel out of sorts across a number of areas where once I would have seen myself as pretty mainstream. From theology to politics to sports to geography, I feel like I don’t have a real “home;” a place where I sit comfortably within the group (Future email: Stranger in a Strange Land - Sojourner, exile or heretic?).

But I am not completely an outsider either. I am neither a radical or reactionary on most things, but it feels like being a moderate and pragmatic traditionalist makes you a radical or reactionary. Thoughtful classical liberalism for lack of a better term is a dying breed.

If you don’t really want to “go along, to get along” but you don’t want to argue and fight either, you can feel untethered in some ways. I don’t want to put a sign in my yard. I don’t want to wear a ribbon or t-shirt or march in a parade or protest. But I also am not comfortable with the quite often radical concepts and ideas being treated like mainstream or the only sensible view. The speed in which we move from extreme to everybody thinks this, or should, is dizzying.

Throw in the growing sense that voicing opinions in the public square is something you have to think twice about, and my instinct is to just unplug and mind my own business.

But I have a couple decades of online engagement and opinion making and that is a hard habit to break. I also have made quite a few friends along the way and this sort of disconnecting seems like saying goodbye to them.

Plus, I have teenage children. Unless I want to be absent from their lives I can’t just disappear and disconnect from popular culture in a straightforward way.

But what bugs/worries me the most is the growing sense that even radically cutting back on my internet usage wouldn’t necessarily mean an escape. As noted, corporate marketing, day to day politics, and even neighborhood life seems infused with culture wars. Social pressure, and worse, the law, seems increasingly intent on making you take sides. Has “You will be made to care” truly become reality?

It is enough of a reality that I won’t opine on certain topics online because there is a non-trivial risk it would cost me my job, or a future job, or cause conflict for my family.

No Easy Answers

I don’t have any easy answers. I have been cutting back on the time I spend online. I am very close to quitting social media altogether (excepting work duties). I am trying to focus more on building relationships and community.

I want to live into Philippians 4:8

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

As I mentioned in a previous email, I watch a lot less sports than I did in the before times. And I have thus begun to lower the intensity of my engagement with sports. Perhaps, I can do this with politics and the culture wars and improve my emotional and mental health in the same way.

But I worry that the cultural and political winds are blowing hard in the opposite direction.


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