Us v. Them in Football and Life

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 02/01/2015

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of the human need to belong. And when it’s football season, I think about it even more.
I am a big pro football fan. And in case this is a less football-friendly group than frankly it ought to be, let me just acknowledge that yes, there are some concerns around the game of football and almost all of them are worth our attention. Head injuries should be investigated, prevented and compensated. Any criminal activities involving players should certainly not be tolerated, and I think violence off the field is deplorable and needs to be addressed.
The only football scandal we don’t have to worry about is whether or not the Patriots, my team, needs to deflate footballs in order to win games, because obviously they don’t need to, so why would they. That’s the end of that, then, I hope.
Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…
So the reason I think about the human drive to belong during football season is because football provides such a great opportunity for us to meet that basic human need. Football, or the choosing of and rooting for football teams, gives people an opportunity to exercise one of the things that we are very good at: tribalism.
For the purposes of this sermon, I’m defining tribalism as the human tendency to team up with a group of people, and declare that group in opposition to another group of people. We are in the Us tribe, and everyone else is in the Them tribe.
In football, we are encouraged to pick a tribe of people to belong to, and to declare that all the other tribes are not worth belonging to and ought to be beaten – sort of literally, in fact. There’s something very primal and enjoyable about it, something that reaches down deep into my core, at least, and pleases me.
There was a guy in the Washington Post the other day who was quoted as saying that he thinks “people enjoy sports…because it gives order to the universe. Something is either fair or foul, either a strike or a ball.”
He’s talking about baseball, which is nowhere near as good a sport as football, but I get what’s he’s saying. I think he means, people like sports because there are rules that have to be followed, and there is the opportunity to showcase skills, and there is almost always one clear winner. Life is often not like that, so sports help us feel that things are fair, predictable in a way, and that helps us relax.
I get what he’s saying, and I agree. I’m also adding that another reason why people like sports is because it allows them to divide the world up into Us and Them, which is something that people really like to do at their cores, and then to beat the Them in a relatively safe and contained way, in a way they aren’t able to do in their regular lives.
Think of all the ways you’ve ever striven to be an Us in the world, ever sought a way to belong.
Many of us feel we belong in our families, and many of us feel we do not belong in our families – or worse yet, our families made us feel that we didn’t belong, that they were the Us and we were the Them. But families have got to be the biggest Us vs. Them creators of all, wherever we find ourselves in the equation.
Of course, then, there’s the rest of the world, too. There is a concert venue in Silver Spring next door to this restaurant that my family likes to go to, so there’s always a line of people waiting for their concert that snakes past the door as we go to dinner. It’s amazing to me how similarly the people in that line dress to each other, no matter how differently the next night’s people might dress. One night, everyone is in flannel, backwards caps, and jeans. The next night, everyone is in black and metal and leather and black leather with metal. The next time, everyone is wearing tshirts and short shorts, even though it’s cold. One time there was a sweet 16 party there, and every girl was dressed in one of three sorts of outfits with a range of maybe five colors. You would have thought that some sort of command had been issued.
But sometimes that is what life is like, when the ways in which you fit in or belong to a group are very narrow and they involve very close attention to what visual clues you are providing. Sometimes it’s not easy to find your Us, or to feel like you really belong, and you have to work very hard and provide many exterior signs.
How else do we seek our Us, our tribes in the world? There’s sports teams, which is pretty obvious, but we also have tribal associations within neighborhoods or regions, between political stances, in workplaces, between religions, for sure.
Take a moment to remember those groups that you belong to. Those are the places where you are an Us. Is there a Them associated with each of those places? Who’s Them, in your family? Who’s Them, at your school or work? Who’s Them, politically? Who’s Them, nationally? And what do you do when you have to deal with Them, whoever they are? Especially when tackling them is frowned upon, unlike in the Superbowl?
This is all a long way to say that human beings like to find their Us, and they like to know who the Them is. They do this very naturally. But ultimately, I would argue, Us versus Them is not a very effective way to live.
Social science might give us perfectly good explanations for why we choose Usses and Thems in the way that we do. Belonging has made us safer, historically. When we belong in a tribe, we will be protected by that tribe. If there are scarce resources, we might be able to get those resources for our side, rather than leave them for the other side that we’ve separated from. We do have an inherent capacity for empathy, but we often spend that empathy on our own groups, leaving other groups out in the cold.
But our human capacity to seek belonging by way of taking sides is no longer particularly effective for us. It’s a system that’s gone askew. We can tell that we haven’t chosen our sides effectively when we are engaged in conflicts, wars, and environmental destruction that at the end of the day hurt Us as much as it hurts any Them.
Modern day conflicts and environmental hazards force us to look at this habit of Us versus Them and ask how that habit or conditioning is working for humanity these days. It begs the question of whether or not our Usses are too narrow to really function.
Scripted, limited fighting is fun on the football field – or at least I think it is. But real battles, real fighting, is not fun at all. It’s horrible for those who are involved and for those of us fortunate enough to not be involved it’s becoming harder and harder to not be affected. Our human battling, our Us vs. Them conflicts, are making life pretty miserable for everyone. And they are threatening the very planet we live on, which we cannot do without.
But how do we avoid something that is so ingrained? How do we stop creating these Usses and Thems in our hearts, in our lives? It’s so appealing in so many ways. Can we really be expected to go against human nature? On Superbowl Sunday, of all days?
The answer is – and I’ll give you the quick answer this week so we don’t miss the game – the answer is, we don’t stop seeking out safe Usses, the places where we belong and where we are safe.
We just expand the Us. We remember that we really belong to something much bigger.
Unitarian Universalism tends to promote the idea that average human Usses are way too small, and that we need to expand the notion of who belongs to include more and more people. It is not a secret that Unitarian Universalism purports that all of humanity is our Us. In fact, all the living world is our Us, we say. We promote these ideas in contrast to what our human instincts encourage us to do, which is to find a small Us to belong to, and start fighting with the Thems. So Unitarian Universalism is countercultural. And it takes some doing to remember why it’s important to be that way.
Why is it important to start expanding our Us? To explain in a fun way, I want to show a few minutes from a video I showed last year as well. It’s very fast paced but there are pictures!
Rethink the human narrative. Because it isn’t Superbowl Sunday every day, is it? Most of the time, we’re all in this together. And the differences we spend so much time thinking about really are superficial ones. Let’s finish the other video. Just take a look at how similar we are. Not in our faces or dress, or language. But in our spirits.
We are already an Us, a global Us. We imagine similar things, we dream similar things, we reflect on similar things. We want to hope, to belong, to be safe, to give and receive love. These things are universal. We are the same.
Today is Superbowl Sunday and you should divide into Us and Them for the game tonight. My advice is to root for the Patriots, but it’s up to you. But in the rest of your life, when you find yourself being in an Us, or reacting to a Them, I want you to pause. Give some thought to your Us, and whether it’s big enough to save the world. Think about how to make your Us bigger. Let’s think about ways to make this church a place where everyone is an Us. Soon, we will change the human narrative, and join each other in a way that supports and protects us all. And the Patriots will reign supreme. So may it be. Amen.