The story is a part of West Virginia University lore. It involves the legendary play-by-play announcer Jack Fleming, the University of Pittsburgh, and his mother.
According to legend, Fleming’s mother taught him very early in life the emotion he should express regarding the Panthers. While watching from their house, which was located near Old Mountaineer Field, Fleming’s mother pointed to the practicing Panthers and told him, “That’s Pitt. You hate Pitt now. You hate Pitt tomorrow. You hate Pitt until the day you die. After that, you will hate Pitt for eternity.”
Thousands of fans have taken on Fleming’s mother’s words and made them their own. Many West Virginia fans have a deep dislike, even hatred, for that school “up north.” To be sure, the feeling is quite mutual from Pitt fans.
As a native West Virginian, an alum of West Virginia University, and a fan of that great institution, I have been taught to hate all things Pitt. My dislike for the school is so much that I remember, as a student, being frustrated when a class field trip was scheduled to go to Pitt for a seminar.
West Virginia and Pitt are rivals, even though they no longer play one another due to conference realignment. Rivalries are important to sports and add to the competitive flavor of the games. What would baseball be without the Yankees-Red Sox, Cardinals-Reds, or Giants-Dodgers? What would football be without the Packers-Vikings, Redskins-Cowboys, or Patriots-Colts? We look forward to the rivalry game and love it when our team comes out on top.
However, as a Christian there is something uncomfortable about the way we participate in these rivalries. We truly hate our sporting rivals. Is this holy? Is it really acceptable for me to dislike someone simply because they cheer for another team? Does God look past my attitude in the stands because it is “all in good fun?”
There are two passages that, I believe, are key in helping us to answer these questions. In Matthew 22:39, Jesus says we are to “love our neighbor as yourself.” Love, a concern for others, is to be central to how we interact with others. The concept of neighbor, here, is not limited to those who live near us. Everyone is our neighbor because we were all made in the image of God. When we carry this image to the arena it reminds us that the person who is supporting our rival is our neighbor and we are called to extend Christ’s love to them.
The other key passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus commands his followers to show expressions of love to our enemies. When we think of this passage we often relate it to those who do us physical harm or seek to harm us. Loving our enemies goes beyond just that. It also is extended to the person sitting next to us who has the audacity to root for the “wrong team.”
When we combine these passages, we get the sense that expressing the love of Christ doesn’t stop at the ballpark’s parking lot. It extends into the stadium, into the bleacher seats, and into our conversations with opposing fans.
As followers of Christ, we are called to love our sporting rivals in the same way Christ loves us. This means we are called to rise above the pettiness and vile nature of much of our dialogue with rival fans and see them who they truly are: People who root for a different team. Instead of treating our sporting rival with disrespect, we are called to offer them the same expressions of friendship, grace, and community that we would offer anyone else.
Much of our missional dialogue, today, speaks of how we should share expressions of love in areas where living like Christ is not the norm. Seldom do we see anyone express a desire to love our rival as Christ has loved us primarily. This is because we can be blinded by the thought of “it’s just a game.” That mindset allows us to let our guard down to the point that we express the very vile and inappropriate actions towards others that Jesus warns us about.
So, yes, as a follower of Christ I am called to love the Pitt Panthers and their fans. It doesn’t mean I have to like Pitt. It doesn’t mean I have to cheer for them. I still hope that they lose every game. What I must do is to share the same care and concern for others that Christ has called me to do, and treat all people, including the Pitt fan, as myself.