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.

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23 thoughts on “Sports Fans and the Importance of Nationalism

  1. Nationalism is why we enjoy the Olympics so much.

    This last time, I was enjoying watching a US women’s beach volleyball duo (for their athleticism. Get your mind out of the gutter!), when the announcer mentioned that one of them was married to a Dodger. I immediately started rooting for the North Koreans.


  2. Nationalism is why we enjoy the Olympics so much.

    I’m atheist and regard monarchy as an anachronism but I have to admit when Farah stepped onto that podium on August 11th I was screaming “God save the Queen”.


    • And The Fascist regime!*

      *In the States, NBC had a CGI intro that played a bunch of British rock and pop songs. One was Johnny Rotten snarling “God Save the Queen” but they cut off the obvious follow-up line of the song. This made really annoyed me. Possibly more than it should.


  3. The University of Kentucky had a more interesting season (like watching a train wreck) and brought far more joy to opposing fans than U of L. Heck, one ESPN commentator likened Robert Morris’s court celebration to the Zion rave scene in Matrix Reloaded.


  4. Nationalism is certainly a big part of the reason I love the Olympics. Some sports (gymnastics, BMX and white-water canoeing/kayaking in summer; hockey and snow and ski cross and figure skating in winter) are just fun to watch regardless of who’s winning, but cheering on Canada is what makes all the other events fun.


  5. We are more the sauerkraut and elephant garlic festival type around here. Did I just admit to that?

    If I had understood this about sports when I was growing up, I think I would have been better off. It’s always nice to feel like you belong, but I think a lot of kids (probably more girls than boys, but I could be wrong) aren’t taught the value of identifying with a larger community through the vehicle of sports.


  6. I was taught to distinguish between nationalism and patriotism, with patriotism [good!] being a loyalty to one’s culture and a willingness to defend it, and nationalism [bad!] being a belief that one’s culture is superior to all others and a need to retaliate against anyone who expresses otherwise. It’s a pretty unsatisfying distinction; just as being a fearless teller of hard truths one day makes me an asshole the next, one man’s patriot is another man’s nationalist. At any rate, I totally do not mean this to quibble with your choice of words. What you’re describing obviously doesn’t fit my notion of nationalism, but “patriotism,” the way we usually use it, doesn’t seem entirely apt either.

    It comes up sometimes here in Japan because the word for patriot in Japanese has a wholly negative connotation for everyone except the far-right thugs and clowns who embrace it. Cheering on Japanese national teams in baseball and soccer is complicated – all the flag-waving and chanting was uncomfortable. Being able to root for the home team, when the home team is your own country, is something that many Japanese thought was reserved for “normal” countries, and is taken as a sign that Japan is beginning to put its darkest history behind it.

    I never read Orwell’s essay, but I have found it useful to describe Good Patriotism (as Americans understand it) by comparing it to sports fandom. You root for the team you’re born with, you’re elated when they win and crushed when they lose, you’re irrationally proud of their strengths and coolly lacerating about their weaknesses.


  7. “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.

    I’m wondering if this theme will show up in any of the “College Education in the 21st Century” symposium that starts tomorrow. That’s not a sarcastic remark — colleges do play a role in the community that goes beyond education. It’s much easier to get the city/state/whatever unified behind a sports team than, say, behind the math department. “Yes! New advances in Galois field theory!”


    • Last year the UK fans at my house were so drunk that they started fighting during the final game and many left in a huff. The two remaining were so drunk that they started celebrating our victory by standing on a truck parked in the front yard and screaming across the road. Then I had to gently tell them that it was only half time. They actually thought the game was over. The next day they didn’t remember a thing about what happened on the court.

      BTW, did you see that John Wall scored 47 points in a single game a few weeks ago? I think he’d be a senior now.


      • Kentucky fans are, in my experience, like most southern sports fans (including Louisville sports fans, if Louisville can be considered the south… it’s pretty much in Indiana). Loud, drunk, loyal but quick to criticize, and prone to obsession. In junior high, my school had a “fan day,” and the amount of Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Alabama, and Memphis State (it was Memphis State back then) gear that kids had in their wardrobe was staggering. There were people who owned Tennessee shoes, Tennessee shoe laces, Tennessee socks, Tennessee pants, Tennessee t-shirts covered by Tennessee sweatshirts, Tennessee jewelry, Tennessee hats, Tennessee hair gear (scrunchies, berets, ties, and so on), Tennessee buttons, Tennessee wrist and arm bands, and Tennessee paint on their faces. Ugh… that orange is a color that doesn’t occur in nature, and in my hometown, it was everywhere.

        And yeah, Wall is having a really good season since he came back from the injury. I follow most of the ex-Cats in the NBA. I’m a big Boogie Cousins fan, and Tayshaun Prince is still one of my favorites. Also: “Hello! Where did that last six inches come from?”


  8. All the talk about nationalism, patriotism, and sports fanaticism makes me wonder of my inability to really get into sports is related to my inability to drum up any strong feelings of nationalism.

    When everyone was talking about the Olympics, I could not figure out why it was such a big deal. How am I affected if someone from my country is a faster swimmer than someone from another country?

    Sports teams, countries, states, etc.; I just do not find myself emotionally invested in any of these institutions.


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