Sports Fans and the Importance of Nationalism
The post I was going to write was about how I became a Louisville fan but upon proofreading it seemed a rather self-indulgent autobiography. So the short story: I grew up in this city, I am a University of Louisville alumni and Kentucky fans are (mostly) insufferable. Seems the choice was easy. What I find more interesting than my own personal loyalties is the way that athletics will transform people with no real connections into a monolithic group with strong emotional ties.
If you are unaware, the Cardinals have had a pretty good year so far. We scored an upset win over Florida in the Sugar Bowl back in January. Our men’s basketball team entered the NCAA tournament as the overall #1 seed and have looked solid during their run to the Final Four. Our women’s team has been an underdog story, upsetting last year’s champs, Baylor and then Tennessee for an unlikely spot alongside the men in the Final Four. On top of that there was an emotional component last week when U of L player Kevin Ware broke his leg during the Elite Eight game against Duke. Some say this has made the Cards the sentimental favorite going into tomorrow’s games but I like to think it’s more than that.
Living in Louisville we are surrounded by a sea of blue. The majority of the state roots for Kentucky. We feel a bit isolated and so we turn inward. This city has always been proud of our local university. Back in the 1980s the Cardinals became a national force and were so successful that Sports Illustrated called them the ‘team of the decade’. National titles in 1980 and 1986, and Final Four appearances in 1982 and 1983. That changed in the 1990s. It was a dark period for the university and the city that supported them. Mediocre seasons and thousands of unfilled seats at home games. Then Rick Pitino arrived in 2001 and a renaissance began.
What has happened over the last 11 seasons is that the city has fallen in love with our home team again. There have been ups and downs but overall a steady climb back to national prominence. In addition to basketball there have been successes in other sports. “In 2011-2012, Louisville was the only Division I school to have…teams in the NCAA postseason in football, volleyball, women’s soccer, men’s soccer, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, baseball, and softball.” What this has done for the self-esteem of the city and for a sense of community is unbelievable.
Nationalism often gets a bad name. Modern nationalism can be blamed for World War II. It’s also fair to say that nationalism was at least partially responsible for our ill-advised commitment to Afghanistan after 9/11. We often think about nationalism in negative terms but I see a lot of good there as well. Nationalism was responsible for the New Deal, the GI Bill and the space program. Nationalism is why we enjoy the Olympics so much. Our national identity shapes our attitudes towards one another in times of natural disaster and our generosity towards other nations as a symbol of our desire to do good in the world.
Nationalism can also be scaled down into localism and in a country as large as the United States this is critical to forming the tighter bonds of community in a given locale. Localism, like nationalism, is dependent on the formation of an identity. Cultural characteristics play an important role. Food, the arts, tradition, the way people talk, annual events and yes, sports. Championships or high-visibility items are not the only factor necessary either. Cubs fans are some of the most dedicated in the country, but a World Series has eluded them for over a century. There are towns all over the country that that hold annual festivals based around seemingly trivial things like strawberries or maple syrup. Some communities base a large part of their identity around ethnicity, as I recently discovered in Chicago on St.Patrick’s Day. Others tackle cultural identities, like San Francisco which has become symbolic for its importance to the gay pride movement.
With sports there is the added component of competition. One community is symbolic pitted against another with only one possible winner. This adds an emotional element unlike other aspects of localism. Sports come with apparel and television coverage and often national attention. The players themselves become part of the identity as we talk about them as though we know them. With college athletics the players are younger, many with no future in sports beyond their college years. It’s easy to think of them as your little brother or sister (or big brother and big sister). Upsets are common and the unknown makes the game more exciting. It’s easy to build a local identity around this.
In my own city this week has been pretty special. It is Spring Break here so many people are enjoying a week off. The weather has been wonderful and the sidewalks are filled with people daily. Among them I have seen a lot of Cardinal red this week. Last year the university adopted the Louisville First campaign which was designed to highlight that every player is dedicated to the university and the community that supports them first. They have been masterful in sending a message that we are all in this together and it has paid off with the fans. This team that we have supported through the last several years, a coach that the city adores and a season that has been unforgettable have all come together at just the right time. Our community ties have become so strong that I even know a few Kentucky fans that are openly pulling for a win today and on Monday night.
Whatever the result is today and in the national championship game, our community is certainly a little stronger for this experience. My hope is that we will learn from this lesson and figure out ways to produce this sense of togetherness more often. That goal is of course much harder on a national scale and nationalism presents dangers that localism does not, however that is also a goal worth reaching for. We just have to find those institutions which will help pull us together.