What American Sports Bars Can Teach us About Religious and Socio-Political Coexistence

Yesterday I spent my Sunday afternoon in a local sports bar, which has effectively become my favorite local hangout for sporting events, where I watched my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers lose in embarrassing fashion to the league bottom-feeder Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The only bright spots of the afternoon were that the local Washington Redskins didn’t have a game, meaning that there was actually room to sit down; and I won a drawing for a very large container of beer, which, in the interest of avoiding intoxication, I promptly shared most of with several strangers sitting by me at the counter.

Then in between the endless selection of beer, the mediocre food, the spectral range of jerseys, the sea of TV images, and the shouts, it hit me: this bar, highly typical based on my experiences at sports bars in the US, serves as a model of how people of differing religious, ethnic, political, and socioeconomic paradigms ought to coexist. Allow me to elaborate:

(1) Whoever your team is, you are faced with dozens of people openly and proudly displaying where their own loyalties lie, which are often contrary to yours. 

Virtually everyone in the bar was wearing a shirt and/or hat with their favorite team’s logo on it. Normally the hometown Redskins have at least a simple majority, but with many others, particularly since Washington, DC is such a transient city. Other teams well-represented included the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins, and event the Detroit Lions.

The same principle ought to hold true in a society.  A healthy sense of social tolerance means that anyone, whether Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Mormon, Jewish, Sunni, Shi’ite, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic; conservative, liberal, libertarian, socialist, green, etc. ought to be able to proclaim where they stand without fear of legal or physical repercussion. Just as no sports bar can properly function when certain fans are forced to hide their loyalties, no robustly tolerant and engaged body politic forces anyone to hide their viewpoints, no matter how unpopular.

(2) The clash of fanbases occurs in a completely non-violent fashion.

American sports fans, although sometimes prone to violent outbursts, have generally been known to be less violent than their soccer fan counterparts in Latin America, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. In his book How Soccer Explains the World, author Franklin Foer documents numerous instances of violent fans. Some are in places that might be expected, such as the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Celtic-Rangers rivalry in Scotland. However, other places with strongly violent soccer hooliganism were in the liberal West, including England, Italy, Spain, Brazil, etc. He interestingly notes that:

“There is, however, an important difference between a home game in London and Washington, The majority of English fans will root for England. In Washington, more or less half the stadium wore the blue-and-white Honduran jersey, and they were the ones who shouted themselves hoarse and heaved their shoes. The American aspiration of appearing in the World Cup rested on this game. But on that day, the Washington stadium might as well have been in Tegucigalpa. Traveling through Europe, you hear the same complaint repeated over and over: Americans are so ‘hypernationalistic’. But is there any country in the world that would tolerate such animosity to their national team in their own national capital? In England or France or Italy, this would have been cause for unleashing hooligan hell.”

Now, lest I be accused of romanticizing the US, I acknowledge our political system has plenty of problems of his own. What I am suggesting, however, is that American sports culture, particularly in bars, is largely, at least comparatively, very non-violent and demonstrative of passion without violence. A notable game was between the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers. It is a fierce rivalry, in fact the oldest in the NFL. And yet fans of both teams were there, yelling at the TV, occasionally verbally going at it, but at the end of the day kept it completely good-natured. In a world of violent confrontations, such as Sunni-Shi’ite clashes in Iraq, ISIS-Ba’athist clashes in Syria, Israeli-Palestinian violence, numerous domestic disputes in Africa, and Egypt’s issues, models of vibrant and non-violent political debate is desperately needed.

(3) The lack of violent confrontation does not equal a lack of vibrant debate or the mellowing of one’s own stance.

As previously noted, in sports bars, fans of different teams, especially in heated rivalries, can have strong exchanges. Multiple times in this bar, I have witnessed opposing fans exchange “trash talk” regarding the game at hand, very occasionally even with a little profanity, but no physical confrontations. However, on the flip side, you will not see fans giving each other a “mutual respect” or “your path is just as good as mine”. Although one would already not expect debates about intrinsic right and wrong to arise over football, it’s worth noting that fans will stand firm over their choice of team. Numerous rivalries exist over which I’ve witnessed very heated exchanges: Bears-Packers, Steelers-Ravens, Cowboys-Redskins, Giants-Eagles. Each fan clearly has put their all behind their love of their own team, and have little patience for opposing views. But they nonetheless clearly believe in an environment in which everyone has the right to voice their passions.

In American socio-political discourse, a common catchphrase is “tolerance”. However, it seems that in many cases, rather than mean being willing to live alongside things one doesn’t personally embrace, it has come to colloquially mean “acceptance“. There are even some who have come to argue that tolerance as a concept must be abandoned, and that the only acceptable paradigm is “mutual respect”, in which one considers every other viewpoint to be equally legitimate. This individual is an excellent example. I likewise recall a conversation with a friend of a different religious faith, who said to me, “By focusing on our differences, it will open the door to conflict.”

The problem with this approach is that it actually makes healthy debate less likely, as it makes people fearful of engaging in passionate, constructive disagreement. Comedian and illusionist Penn Jillette makes a very compelling case that the very notion of “tolerance” is condescending, as it implies that people are essentially too fragile to handle being told that they are incorrect. He notes that:

“I think true respect… it’s one of the reasons I get along so much better with fundamentalist Christians than I do with liberal Christians because fundamentalist Christians I can look them in the eye and say, ‘You are wrong.’ They also know that I will always fight for their right to say that. And I will celebrate their right to say that but I will look them in the eye and say, “You’re wrong.” And fundamentalists will look me in the eye and say, ‘You’re wrong.’ And that to me is respect. The more liberal religious people who go ‘There are many paths to truth you just go on and maybe you’ll find your way’… is the way you talk to a child. And I bristle at that, so I do very well with proselytizing hardcore fundamentalists and in a very deep level I respect them and at a very deep level i think I share a big part of their heart.”

Likewise, with NFL fans at sports bars, when arguing about the better player, better team, better coach, etc., they have the guts to look each other square in the eye and say, “NO! YOU’RE WRONG!” On many occasions, rather than being the stereotypical stupid sports fans, the people involved in the argument are well loaded with facts, dates, and statistics. And no matter how heated it becomes, in the end they almost invariably come out teasing and laughing.

In politics, if we want to seriously hope to make progress on issues, then there must be a willingness to hear opposing views, but there must also be a willingness to share one’s own views, because without this honesty and fearlessness, the issues will ultimately not be addressed. As one left-winged writer has actually noted, “An easygoing tolerance, rubbing along beside each other without much curiosity, is not enough. We need to recover a confidence in intelligent engagement with those who are unlike us, a profound mutual attention, otherwise we shall crush a life-giving pluralism.” While I likely would disagree with this person on most issues, they are correct on this point. The flip side is that, as illustrated by fans at bars, people on the opposing side of an issue will not themselves receive this “intelligent engagement” when you maintain your own firmness and (informed) passion.

I have no delusions about America being the model of enlightened socio-political discourse. Nor am I downplaying the existent issue of fan violence in the NFL. What I am suggesting, however, is that, at least based on my experience, American sports bars are places that serve as an example of places where open, informed, heated, passionate, and non-violent confrontation often occurs, and can offer insight into how discourse ought to occur regarding the bigger issues in society. Sports culture appears to be one area in which the United States quite simply does it better than the rest of the industrialized world. If only our socio-political climate could follow suit.


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