Religion, Sport, and Othering

It was interesting watching the wildcard round of the NFL playoffs last weekend and, in particular, the immature loss of control by the Bengals at the end of their game. As a long-time Patriots fan (since the early 1970s), I've seen both ends of fandom. The Pats were pretty miserable to watch when Joe Kapp was their quarterback, but have been a lot of fun since #12 took over.

What intrigued me over the weekend was the question of why people put so much emotion and energy into pulling for a group of grown men running around throwing a weird-shaped ball. In the end, it really doesn't matter if the Steelers or Bengals win. Football may be economically significant in a society that so values money and greed, but in the greater scheme of things like life and death, it isn't important at all.

So why do we get so worked up about sports? I think the answer can be found in the human tendency toward building identities around and finding security within group membership, as well as the zeal with which we often engage in othering associated with the identities we construct for ourselves and ascribe to the members of different groups.

What is othering? It's something humans do regularly. Othering occurs when individuals identify with a group and then build their identities around membership in that group on the basis of a sense of superiority that comes with belonging and the diminishing of outside groups. Racism is a form of othering, as is nationalism.

For fans of sporting teams, othering is evident when people display their attitudes about rival teams, such as when they trash talk each other in the comments sections of sports-related websites. In the case of Bengals fans, I suppose their sense of superiority comes from the feeling of being better at suffering than anyone else, much like it did for Red Sox fans over so many years.

Americans, and many in other countries, flock to their sports teams with the same kind of zeal we see in fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, to name just a few. Wearing the yellow and green of the Packers is a way to construct an identity and, particularly if the team is successful, to associate oneself with being good at something. Of course, this is where trash-talk comes from among fans, who have little to do with the actual on-field success of their team, but who are able to construct a sense of self as better than other selves around the belief that "we" won the Superbowl or World Series, or that "we" will do so next year (or the year after...).

The similarities between religion and sport are quite profound. Fans of sporting teams, like fans religious sects, have their taboos, their totems, and other symbols that identify them as members of their group, and as nonmembers of other groups. So the Bruins fan may wear a hat with a large B on the front of it in much the same way a Christian wears a necklace with a cross on it. These symbols serve the purpose of identifying one as belonging to group A (Bruins fans or Christianity fans) and, by extension, not belonging to group B (Canadiens fans or Islam fans).

There really isn't much difference. Both -- whether religion or sport -- consist of individuals who have faith in their "team" and who invest a great deal of their time, money, emotion and energy in supporting the group with which they identify. They attend church or football games on Sundays (and often both), they purchase symbolic objects that announce their membership to others, and they engage in rituals that intensify their sense of belonging.

Most of the time, the rivalries in sport and religion remain good-natured and refrain from descending into intense othering behavior that can become dangerous and harmful. But at its worst, fans of sporting teams engage in the kind of othering we see among fundamentalists, in which those who have beliefs and behaviors different form one's in-group are demonized, vilified, and in some cases attacked and killed. The fights that happen between fans of the Cowboys and the Eagles are no different from the fights that happen between fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. Both are grounded in an irrational commitment to the idea that one's in-group is superior to other groups and, thus, that as an individual one is superior to other individuals.

And, again, even collective commiseration in the badness of a team can generate feelings of unity and superiority. I think this is a significant part of what is going on with fundamentalist Christians in the U.S., who seem to feel put out by the fact that not everyone agrees with their particular religious team or brand of religious belief.

Perhaps the zeal with which Americans seem to be able to affiliate with sporting teams and religious sects is a product of a common theme running through American society. I'm not sure what that theme is, but I'd hypothesize that it is linked to a sense of insecurity that has long characterized how Americans situate themselves in relation to others in the world and the misplaced feelings of security (and arrogance) that arise when one believes he or she belongs to a superior group.

Of one thing I am sure, however. The othering evident in either religious or sports fandom easily can lead to the kind of violence we see in religious disagreements, sports rivalries, or even in the vicious hit by Vontaze Burfict on Antonio Brown. How much of that hit came from Burfict's building a self-identity around "I hate Pittsburgh"? There is nothing wrong with being a fan, but there is something wrong when building one's identity around membership in a group leads to feelings of superiority and hatred towards those who belong to other groups.