The Kentucky-Louisville Rivalry: Seeing Our Sporting Enemy as Our Neighbor

This week, I have gained a new level of appreciation for Switzerland.

For centuries, Switzerland has claimed neutrality and refused to get involved in many of the wars that dominated Europe, such as World War I and World War II. Switzerland has maintained political neutrality since 1515 , which was internationally recognized at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Even when wars surrounded the tiny country, Switzerland maintained its desire for neutrality.

I’m not sure how representatives from Switzerland would have enjoyed being in Kentucky this week. The commonwealth is in a state of manic frenzy with the anticipated Final Four match-up tomorrow featuring bitter rivals Kentucky and Louisville. It’s a classic rivalry being played on a big stage featuring two schools that do not like each other, two coaches who do not like each other, and two groups of fans who have little respect for the other.

Everyone is focused on this game and battle lines are being drawn. A wrong word at a dialysis center could lead to a fight and the wrong allegiance could lead you to not having as many friends at work.

No one is beyond being impacted by this rivalry. That includes a certain pastor and blogger who just wants to see a good game.

This happened the other day when three individuals approached the parsonage seeking my support for a local candidate running for office. At the end of the conversation, one of the individuals looked at my shirt and said, “You need to change your shirt!”

What is this … high school? Am I going to have to turn my shirt inside out now?

For the record, my crime of fashion was wearing a St. Louis Cardinals shirt. This isn’t the first time I’ve been scolded for wearing a Cardinals shirt, and not always be Reds or Cubs fans. There have been a few Kentucky fans, throughout my time in the state, who have seen my shirt and believed I was supporting their enemy.

Sports rivalries bring out the worst in us. I’m not discounting myself in this. I am just as guilty. During a time in my life that I am not proud of, I have told a few Pittsburgh fans what they could eat for lunch. In recent years, I have told my wife that if our future children decide to attend Pittsburgh that I am not going to pay their tuition. (Now, of course I will pay for their education. I will just wear my WVU gear to their graduation.)

Sports are meant to be fun and entertainment, yet we often take our passion for our teams to an unhealthy level of obsession. When we reach obsession level, it distorts our ability to perceive reality clearly. The fan is no longer just a person who is equally passionate about their team as we are of ours, but, instead, they are the enemy. They are not our neighbor, but they are a representation of the thing we hate the most. Even worse, we will close the potential for relationships simply because someone wears the other teams colors.

This is true anywhere where our obsessions reach a point where we can longer see clearly the love of God that exists in the other person. For example, our obsession for our favorite political party of ideology can blind us to seeing the humanity of our political opponent. Even our loyalty to our country can blind us to the wrongs our country has committed throughout the years.

Obsessions are blinding and prevents us from being our true selves. It is only when we have true perspective about the things that matter can we get beyond our need to lead obsession-dominated lives. As followers of Christ, we must remind ourselves that we are all created in the image of God and that we are called to love our neighbor. Jesus connected the love of neighbor not just to our friends, but also to our enemies. If we are to connect that message to the world of sports, we are to see that true Christian love is to extend hospitality and grace to the person wearing a different team jersey than we do.

This is difficult to do, because in the heat of the moment the last thing we want to do is be hospitable to the other team. We want to express our anger and frustration, and we don’t always think first in those moments. In the heat of the moment, when we think we are about ready to say something we will regret later, take a breath and think about it. Would what you say to the person wearing a Kentucky shirt or Louisville shirt (or a Pittsburgh shirt) reflect the glory of Christ? Even more, if Jesus was wearing the other team’s colors what would you say?

Ultimately, some perspective is key. Regardless of who wins on Saturday, the Commonwealth of Kentucky will come out a major winner. A Kentucky school will play, Monday night, for the NCAA championship for the first time since 1998. Also, the Kentucky-Louisville game has provided more than $5 million in free advertising to the state.

That is something for all of us who call Kentucky home to be proud of and rejoice in.

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