published Sunday, October 7th, 2012

Kennedy: Why we must love our enemies

I hate the Dallas Cowboys.

Sorry. I say that with the full knowledge that "hate" has become the first official cussword of the 21st century.

Still, my hatred is pure.

Roger Staubach, the Dallas Cowboys' hall of fame quarterback, was in The Times Free Press newsroom a few years ago touting a business deal. As I watched him talk through an office window, I could feel my neck get hot.

When quarterback Tony Romo threw five interceptions last Monday night in the Cowboys' loss on national television, it made my bran flakes taste better on Tuesday morning.

As a lifelong Pittsburgh Steelers fan, I have built up 40 years of animosity focused on the Cowboys, who have been dubbed "America's Team" for no good reason. A Cowboys player once mused that Texas Stadium had a hole in the roof so "God can watch his favorite team play."

Whatever.

The Steelers have won six Super Bowls, the Cowboys a paltry five. You can look it up. The teams have met three times in the Super Bowl, and the Steelers have won twice.

Part of me understands that my Cowboy hate is unhealthy and probably un-Christian. After all, the New Testament is pretty clear about loving your enemies.

I just finished a new book called "Love Thy Rival," by Auburn University graduate Chad Gibbs, who is himself seeking redemption for his loathing of the Alabama Crimson Tide.

To write with authority on how rivalries inspire hatred, Gibbs attended many of America's most intense, ongoing sports feuds. Some of them are legendary: Army vs. Navy (football), Celtics vs. Lakers (basketball), Yankees vs. Red Sox (baseball).

Each of the sport rivalries he sampled, in its own way, is responsible for spawning irrational fan behavior, he says.

For example.

• Gibbs interviewed a Knoxville pastor who, while a Duke University divinity student, dressed in a Speedo and gyrated wildly in the stands to coax a University of North Carolina player to miss two free throws.

It worked.

• He interviewed a University of Louisville supporter who hated the Kentucky Wildcats basketball team so much that he says: "If you see me with a towel on my head, it means Kentucky is playing Al Qaeda."

• Gibbs himself admits watching over and over the replay of the 2010 Iron Bowl, a game in which the Auburn football team overcame a huge halftime deficit to stun Alabama.

"I like to watch the (Alabama) players and fans get excited (in the first half)," Gibbs writes of his tape-watching obsession, "knowing how miserable they will be when the game ends."

Wow, that's sadistic.

Gibbs, a man of faith, has sought counseling. He builds a case for the fact that sports rivalries, and the animosity they inspire, can be a form of idolatry if they're allowed to burn out of control.

"Any time somebody crosses something we idolize we instinctively hate them," Gibbs said in an interview. "... I think if you've got idols in your life, you're not giving God your full devotion."

For awhile, Gibbs was stumped to find anything redeeming about sports rivalries.

He began to notice that some sports fans, especially SEC football fans, lead a sort of joyless existence during football season. The best they can hope for is a victory that will give them momentary relief from stress. He said after the dramatic 2010 Iron Bowl, for example, Auburn fans seemed drained and numb, like a patient who has just been told a tumor is benign.

Finally, Gibbs found hope in the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan; when a Samaritan man helps a Jewish traveler who has been robbed and beaten.

If fans of rival teams could only get together for some higher cause, Gibbs notes, then there might be a silver lining in sports fanaticism after all.

"We have a common enemy; it's called sin," Gibbs writes. "Until it is ultimately defeated, it's up to us to battle with its offspring: sickness, helpless and despair."

Gibbs has set up a fund through the charity Samaritan's Purse to help rebuild a school in Haiti. Sports fans seeking atonement for hating their rivals can make a contribution at www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/chadgibbs.

As a gesture of contrition, I'm thinking about making a small contribution in the name of a Cowboys great from Jackson, Tenn. -- Ed "Too Tall" Jones.

(Who, by the way, could not even carry the jock strap of Steelers defensive lineman "Mean Joe" Greene.)

There I go again.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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