For the Love of the Game

by Jonathan Gault | 5/5/13 10:00pm

Being the fan of a sports team involves a lot of love. You love your team, in good times and bad, and you probably love several of the players too. If your team is winning, you love the coach. And you love your fellow fan, especially when your team hits that walk-off home run and you need somebody to hug.

But one of my favorite things about being a sports fan is getting the opportunity to hate. First, a few disclaimers. In general, I am not a fan of hatred, but I have found that in my life it is at times unavoidable. I try to like everyone; I like liking everyone. But there are some people that I just cannot bring myself to like, no matter how hard I try.

That doesn't mean that I'll act like a jerk to them, but I'm not going to lie to myself when I know I don't like them. And while it can seem fun to share a bond with someone over a mutual dislike of an individual, it still makes me feel a bit dirty inside. That's where sports come in.

Sports provide me with an arena to hate and not feel bad about it. There's nothing wrong with hating a particular team. In fact, the football game between Georgia and Georgia Tech is known as Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate. I hate LeBron James and the Miami Heat and I hate the New York Giants. But it's not regular hate; it's sports hate.

Sports hate is different in that it stops once the game ends and the athletes leave the field of play. As much as I hate James when he's on the court in a Heat uniform, I actually think he's a great guy. I have tremendous admiration for his game, as I've never seen anyone combine strength, speed and size the way he does, and watching him play basketball at its highest level is inspiring.

And by all accounts, he's a good person off of the court. He's always smiling and has never been involved in any sort of scandal. Okay, The Decision was bad, but don't forget he donated all the advertising money from that special to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. I wrote earlier this year that we, the public, cannot truly know athletes and should not rush to judge them one way or the other. But based on what I'm seeing, James is one of sports' good guys.

So when I say I hate James, that doesn't mean I hate LeBron James, human being. It means I hate LeBron James, Miami Heat forward. There's a difference. It's fun to have someone to root against, and it adds an extra level of intrigue to following sports. Instead of just rooting for my team, the Boston Celtics, I have something else to follow and immerse myself in rooting for the Heat to lose.

Rivalries like that between the Heat and the Celtics are good for the sport and help convince us fans that, for our favorite athletes, vanquishing foes is worth more than any eight-figure paycheck. You might be shaking your head right now, asking, "Well, didn't Ray Allen leave the Celtics to join the Heat this season?" Well yes, he did. But prior to the Celtics' game with the Heat on March 18, Paul Pierce told the media, "I hope they lose every game the rest of the season." Knowing that one of my favorite players had the exact same thought that I did was a great feeling.

Furthermore, Allen may have left, and not for a paycheck, mind you, since the Celtics offered him more money, but I guarantee that Pierce and Kevin Garnett would never join the Heat. I have always felt a stronger connection to those two as a fan, anyway. I won't argue that their passion was greater than Allen's, but it certainly was more visible.

It doesn't matter whether you're a Red Sox-hating New Yorker, a Giants-hating Angeleno or a Michigan-hating Buckeye: sports hate is a good thing. You can channel your anger and aggression from the rest of your life into three hours yelling at an opposing player and when you're done, you feel better about yourself. Sports as catharsis works.

But perhaps the best thing about sports hate is that it can melt away in an instant. As much as I rooted against James in the playoffs last year, his look of pure joy when receiving the Larry O'Brien trophy after the Heat's victory in the NBA finals hit me right in the feels. James' eyes got really wide and his expression seemed to say, "This is for me?"

In that moment, James' joy overwhelmed everything else. He bridged the divide between athlete and regular human being. I couldn't help but be happy for him. I guess sports hate only goes so far.

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