I spent the Labor Day weekend on Kelleys Island with my family celebrating my birthday. Saturday also happened to be week one of the college football season. As has become a bit of a trend, a whole host of Ohio State Buckeye fans descended on the island in full Buckeye regalia to watch their game versus Notre Dame.
As it would happen, I’m not a Buckeye fan. I was raised in a Catholic family rooting for Notre Dame. I vividly remember watching the Notre Dame replay show with Lindsey Nelson on Sunday mornings in the fall after church with my dad and brothers. I don’t remember the Ohio State vs. Michigan rivalry being that important in our house. We were expected to be Notre Dame fans. When my oldest brother enrolled at Michigan, however, the rest of us siblings became quasi-Wolverine fans mostly because he would occasionally bring home UM swag (stickers, pencils, t-shirts, etc.) and because some of us were able to actually visit the campus in Ann Arbor. In those less-tribal days, our Michigan fandom really didn’t seem like that big of a deal, and whenever I was called out for being a supporter of “that team up North,” it was a lighthearted sort of teasing.
As you might suspect, I took my “traitorous” fandom with me into adulthood, and just as I rooted for Notre Dame as a child mostly because my dad did, two of my three boys chose to be Wolverine fans like their dad. My cheering for Michigan never rose to a hatred for Ohio State. Actually, as an Ohio high school football coach, I was happy to see the team with a large number of Ohio high school football players excel, and despite good-natured ribbing with many Buckeye fans, I still root for them with the exception of one game each fall.
Somewhere and sadly, however, the rivalry turned ugly.
This was never made so clear to me as this past Saturday on the island. As he is wont to do on days that Michigan is playing, my oldest son wore a Michigan football t-shirt while we were gathered in our condo to watch the Michigan vs. Colorado State game at noon. At one point, my wife needed lime juice from the store in order to finish her salsa. Without putting much mind to what he was wearing, my son volunteered to make the short walk to the general store. During his journey, two Buckeye fans threatened to “kick his ass” and two others menacingly informed him that he was a “brave man for wearing that shirt.”
Let me emphasize that: FOR WEARING A T-SHIRT.
No big deal. My son is and behaves as an adult. He ignored their comments and returned home no worse for the wear. Later that afternoon, however, when he, his wife, his brothers, and sisters-in-law decided to venture out for a beer, I, fearing for his/their safety, advised him that it would be better if he would change out of his Michigan shirt that seemed to so offend those men earlier. Not to worry. He was way ahead of me.
As most things tend to do for my constantly-whirring brain, the entire situation got me to thinking about mothers and fathers whose children can’t so easily remove the attribute for which others seem to hate them for no defensible reason. I thought of the parents of Muslim children, who in simply adhering to their faith, send their daughters out into the world wearing hijabs. Similarly, I thought of the parents of Jewish boys, who send their sons out into the world wearing yamulkes. I thought of the parents of LGBTQ children who send their sons and daughters out into the world knowing their orientations may lead to violent reactions from insecure homophobes. Most poignantly of all, I thought of Asian and African-American parents, whose children cannot simply remove an item of clothing or adjust their behavior to avoid the predictable prejudices and discriminatory practices inherent in a systemically-racist society.
Obviously, the fear I felt for my son wasn’t one-millionth of that which the parents I mentioned in the previous paragraph must experience daily. However, that one-millionth shook me to my core. It was MY son being threatened for simply adopting MY favorite team as his own when he was a daddy-pleasing little boy.
Whether it pertains to rivalries between sports teams or the acceptance of one another for our diversity, I’d like to think that we can do and we can be better by adopting a more appropriate perspective toward what ultimately remain games and by celebrating our differences rather than villainizing them.
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