Sports Politics

Whose Side Are You On?

April 06, 2011

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In both politics and sports fandom, the fundamental question is: “€œWhose side are you on?”€ Exploring who roots for whom affords perspective on the big questions of who is politically loyal to what, and why.

We can use some reality checks from sports because ever since the 1978 publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism, academia has possessed a readymade jargon for discussing who sides with whom that forestalls much actual thinking. As UCLA historian Russell Jacoby complains in “€œBloodlust: Why we should fear our neighbors more than strangers”€ in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “€œA thousand, perhaps 10,000, scholars followed [Said] and have written about how “€˜we”€™ construct the “€˜other,”€™ or the stranger.”€

Sports teams are blatant constructs, but they push on the open door of male enthusiasm for war parties. When I became a college football fan while listening to the 1965 USC-UCLA game, nobody had to construct an “€œother”€ for me. I was an excited but neutral six-year-old boy looking forward to choosing a team to cheer on with as much eagerness as a virgin awaits her suitors. When UCLA’s Gary Beban threw two touchdown bombs in the 4th quarter to come from behind and win 20-16, I swore lifelong loyalty to the Bruins.

“€œAs Bedouin tribesmen say, I against my brother, my brother and I against our cousins, our extended family against the world.”€

Jacoby argues, contra Said, that obsession with the other “€œdiverts attention from something less sexy: the familiar. For those concerned with strife and violence in the world…From Cain and Abel to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries and the civil wars of our own age, it is not so often strangers who elicit hatred, but neighbors.”€

Professor Jacoby’s post-postmodernism could use some sports sense. Why have there been more wars between France and Germany than, say, between Mongolia and Paraguay? For roughly the same reasons that UCLA plays USC more often than Florida: shorter commutes to the field and more to fight over (such as local bragging rights over the Alsace-Lorraine).

A basic concept of conflict organization Jacoby misses is relativistic concentricity. As Bedouin tribesmen say, I against my brother, my brother and I against our cousins, our extended family against the world. It took a lot of strife to knock innumerable Gallic and Teutonic communities together into the large states that could square off so memorably in 1870, 1914, and 1940.

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