One of my favorite part about rooting for a sports team is being a part of a group that shares the same camaraderie, passion, and highs and lows as you do. There’s a community that comes with fandom that makes people do crazy things: Wear weird colors, paint their faces, scream and cry, sometimes even scale streetlight poles when your team wins.
But ultimately, I think sports give us a unique opportunity to practice the art of seeing from another perspective and building empathy.
Sports loyalties take us back to our primitive roots in how we form allegiances, rivalries, and tribes. When you find your team’s fans, you are among your people and in the club. When you should come across a fan wearing another color (representing an opposing team), your body sends artificial signals all over the place that this person has marked themselves as a threat. They are not part of your tribe. Your desire to win the game is natural incompatible with their desire to also win.
In the end, only one team will declare victory. And through this comes an interesting opportunity every time you’re at a sporting event with an opposing team.
Yesterday my husband and I brought a group of Wildcat fans to our local bar to watch the Northwestern football game. This bar, Blondies, is safe haven for NU alums. We take over the bar and front room, all the TVs point to our game, and the bartenders even hand out purple shots when we score a touchdown. (Yes, these are as disgusting as they sound.)
The back room of Blondies is Michigan State territory. It’s green and white with Pom-Poms on every table. This typically does not present itself as a problem, except for during the one game each year when we happen to be competing with each other. That day was yesterday.
When we cheered, they booed. When we booed, they cheered. It was touch and go for a lot of the game. There was a lot of yelling. And somehow in the end, we managed to eek out a victory, our first in several weeks.
Later at the bar we all collided. A couple of NU friends and me decided to start a game, and we needed more players. So we invited our Michigan State representatives to join us.
We shook hands, acknowledged their defeat, and spent the next half-hour learning about each other not as fans but as people. How long they had each known each other, why they were in New York, what we all do professionally.
Eventually we learned that this game was a particularly sad loss for the Michigan State fans because it happened on their turf on their annual Homecoming. We all felt bad about that; it’s an important day for any loyal alumni no matter where you go to school, and we empathized with that feeling of loss.
You may be thinking, what’s so special here? This type of thing occurs at nearly every sports bar all over the country every single weekend.
And that’s exactly my point. I really believe that sports fans set a great example for how we can see one thing so clearly for so long — that our team needs to win at all costs — and then immediately shift mental vantage points, even if only for a second, to think about what it must be like to lose at home on Homecoming.
These micro frame shifts are so important to us all as we seek to understand different perspectives in all areas. Sports is easiest because it’s not (I promise you, it’s really not) life or death. And if we start practicing and building the habit of seeing things from the other side with sports, it’s only natural that we’ll build this empathy muscle over time and use it in other contexts and with other tribes too.
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