During the 2016 college football season, two highly ranked teams (and bitter rivals) Michigan State and University of Michigan, played their annual game. With less than 10 seconds remaining, Michigan held a slight lead but was forced to punt at midfield. What happened next shocked the college football community and is still talked about today: The Michigan punter dropped the snap and when he picked it up he inadvertently tossed it to a Michigan State defender who ran the ball 40 yards for a game-winning touchdown. Michigan State fans went into a frenzy and Michigan fans were stunned into silence.
But the silence did not last long. Within a few hours, angry rants against the punter poured out on social media. I remember one particular post aimed at the punter: “Go into the athletic training room and drink as much chlorine bleach as possible.”
With that, I was the one in shock.
Full disclosure: I am a Michigan fan and was extremely disappointed, too. But that post made me embarrassed not only as a Michigan fan but as a human being. I know that sounds overly dramatic, but is this what it means to be a fan and use social media? My guess is that the person who tweeted that message probably felt the comment was justified and may never feel remorse because the loss was so hurtful.
We all feel the sting when our team loses, but being a committed fan shouldn’t mean we compromise our dignity. Two universal traits — respect and forgiveness — might help us become better people and better fans at the same time.
I always find it interesting when people say “I hate to lose.” Yeah, like anyone loves to lose.
Whether I am playing checkers or rooting for my team in the World Series, I want to win. In fact, competition is intrinsically designed that if anything other than an all-out effort is given, the contest and result is compromised. So let’s get it out of the way: We all want to win.
Demonstrating respect as a fan comes down to accepting the outcome with magnanimity. This doesn’t mean we have to like losing, or that we even have to seek out a rival fan and congratulate them. But respecting the opponent and their fans is vital to keeping sports gratifying and civil.
Some say that sport builds character, others say that it only reveals character. I think it does both. Our goal should be to cheer, support, and love our team to our heart’s content, but we need to hold common respect as a firm boundary to our enthusiasm. Anything that demeans or insults someone just because they simply (and often innocently) support the opponent is out of bounds.
We have all made mistakes. And I bet that when we made those mistakes, we always hoped that the people we offended would 1) know that we did not mean to make the mistake, and 2) forgive and forget our actions to allow the slate to be cleaned, so we could start anew.
Now think about the mistakes made within athletic contests. There’s too many to even keep track of because athletes make mental and physical errors every game, often in front of thousands of fans and millions watching via TV. Coaches make poor decisions regularly, and many of them directly impact the outcome of the game. Referees and umpires (those poor people) cannot seem to get it right. Even with access to slow-motion replays, I have lost count of how many times they failed to make the right call.
Just because we’re invested in the behavior of others on a screen or field of play, these errors are no less worthy of our forgiveness. It’s the same dynamic in our personal relationships: forgiveness must be practiced daily or an aspect of that bond is torn. When someone wrongs our team or impacts a game, we have to forgive and move on.
Errors happen in sports — the pressure is part of what makes competition exciting. But when athletes, coaches, or referees perform imperfectly, it’s safe to assume they’re not doing it on purpose. It just happens and we must accept it.
Can we still scream aloud when the shortstop flubs an easy ground ball or the referee blows a simple call? Of course. But the next step with those feelings is to translate that angst to forgiveness. Otherwise, we’ll be trapped in negativity, which can impact other relationships and areas of life.
Of course, we don’t need to actually forgive anyone because we weren’t personally offended, but because we take sports seriously, it would help to offer forgiveness in our hearts. And if we can offer forgiveness through watching sports, we might be more practiced and ready to offer it in relationships that really are important. If you happen to be watching with a child, talking about passion and emotions as a fan through the lens of respect and forgiveness is a prime opportunity to offer rich life lessons.
Here’s the good news: forgiving and showing respect does not compromise being a fan in any way. In fact, demonstrating such traits could mean you are labeled a good sport — or even better, a good person.