Miller: The Games are Better with Opponents

We hear a lot these days about how “divided” America is, and that same thing can be said when the conversation moves into the realm of sports.

Everyone has their favorite teams, coaches and players to root for. And often times fans take joy in denigrating the allegiances of others.

But… where would we be if everyone rooted for the same team? Would that be any fun?

As a fan of teams that many Northern Michiganders root against (the Packers, Twins and Devils), I oftentimes hear it from co-workers and friends when the hometown teams beat my squads. But that gives us an opportunity to share in a game experience, and see it from different perspectives. They are, after all, just games. And if we can’t be civil about sporting events, what hope is there for us in other more important walks of life. It’s okay to agree to disagree.

The thought of rivalries and opponents is fresh in my mind, because this week my alma mater (Central Michigan University) takes on Western Michigan in their annual rivalry game. For years while I was in school, and even after I graduated, I professed to “hate” WMU. But, everyone that I’ve ever met that attended that school has been a perfectly normal and respectable person, definitely not someone worthy of “hate.” Similarly, through my work I’ve come into contact with many people from my old high school’s rival schools, and I don’t have a bad word to say about any of them. In fact, some of them have become my favorite people to cover and/or talk to.

A few weeks ago, I was on a sideline at a high school football game on a Friday night. It was a close game at halftime, but as the second half got started, you could tell that things were starting to get a bit “testy” between the teams. There were a few extra shoves after the whistles, and even a penalty or two were called. But what stood out to me was a moment in the third quarter, when a receiver from the visiting team got into a shoving match with a defender from the home team. After the play was over, I heard a fan over my shoulder start yelling at the visiting player about his dirty play, exhorting the referee to throw a penalty flag. As this tirade went on, the visiting player starting clapping his hands, which only further infuriated the hometown fan in the stands.

It was my least favorite moment of the season so far, because I don’t think either party acted particularly well. It was a moment devoid of respect.

I’m not telling fans not to root… and root passionately… for their teams. But I’d love to see everyone bear in mind that those are people on the other side of the ball too, with emotions, hopes and dreams of their own. And in the high school games that we so often cover, those are kids wearing the jerseys and pads in different colors. Are they less virtuous because they attend the “wrong” school? We can’t all be from the same town, play for the same team, or root for the same result. If there was only one team on the field, that wouldn’t be a game, that would be a practice or a scrimmage.

We should want our games to be respectful; both fairly contested and evenly matched… because no one gains in a blowout game, neither the victor, nor the vanquished. And in the event that your particular team comes up short, you should look at it as an opportunity and learning experience for your players to challenge themselves to be better. That’s what sportsmanship means to me. Understanding that both teams are trying for the same objective, and being able to handle either result with class and humility.

So, before you yell at that opposing player, or snarkily reply to some chant from the opposing fans, or berate a ref for a missed call, just remember that they have a different perspective on what’s unfolding in front of them.

I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade, or throw cold water on your joy… in fact, when I was playing high school football, we had a chant after victories (rare though they were) that I thought was just about perfect: “They were good.  But we were better.”

Let’s strive to recognize the best in those on the opposite sides of the field from us. It’ll make our games that much better.