Hate Is the Foundation of Sports; Let’s Bring It Back

Cheer for your team. Heckle the other team. This isn’t complicated stuff.

On the surface, there was no good reason for Red Sox fans to heckle Derek Jeter in his final game at Fenway Park a few weeks ago. The man was a model citizen and a respected competitor playing in the final contest of his career, and so it made intuitive sense that Boston fans, for the first and only time, would cheer their archrival and periodic antagonist. It was the “proper” thing to do, but, even so, it didn’t feel right. It felt patronizing; it felt almost purposefully duplicitous. The Jeter denouement proved that, by attempting to gain perspective on sports, we’ve lost perspective altogether.

I realize it seems odd to speak up on behalf of hatred, especially given that the Internet has fomented a simmering cult of reflexive vitriol and that this viciousness poisons our Twitter feeds and comments sections on a daily basis. But I think that’s a large part of the problem. I think that kind of everyday lowbrow hatred has actually skewed our ideals. That kind of hatred is shallow and unintelligent and occasionally even dangerous; that kind of hatred is the worst kind of hatred because there isn’t an undercurrent of self-awareness or rationality behind it. That’s the hatred that sparks violence, and I don’t think there’s any room for it, either in sports or in the world at large.

But that doesn’t mean we should abandon our principles altogether.

What I’m talking about here is another level of hatred, a more highbrow hatred, a more businesslike hatred. For the sake of argument, let’s call it Analytic Hatred, because, at least in our minds, we’ve worked out an intellectual reason for why this kind of hatred exists. (Example: Because Derek Jeter is implicity overrated by virtue of being a Yankee, he represents everything that is contemptuous about the overarching media presence of the Yankee franchise, and therefore deserves to be booed as a proxy, even in the last at-bat of his career.) Analytic Hatred in sports is more complex and multifaceted, but its also rarer because the arc of history bends toward the banal.

Here’s how we got soft:

1. Free agency became a thing. When Wade Boggs signed with the Yankees after 11 seasons with the Red Sox back in 1993, it felt like a jolt to Boston’s emotional architecture; when Jacoby Ellsbury moved from the Red Sox to the Yankees 20 years later, it felt like an inevitable quirk of the modern marketplace. No one is surprised when players aren’t re-signed these days, or when players land with rival franchises. It happens all the time. Our grasp of the economics of sports has changed the way we hate, and Analytic Hatred has raised the bar. The anger over the most infuriating free-agent move of the past 20 years, LeBron James’s signing with the Miami Heat, was driven not by hatred of the man himself (for the decision), but by the bungling of his media strategy (for “The Decision”).

2. Analytics became a thing. People like Nate Silver have made us smarter sports fans, but they’ve also made us slightly more willing to acquiesce to the numbers. If I want to cherry-pick facts and conjure up arguments to make the case that, say, Tim Duncan is an overrated faceless automaton, it’s almost impossible to do so with quants like Silver waving their multicolored graphs in my face. And I might not be tempted to make that argument anyway, for the third reason, which is that…

3. Fantasy sports became a thing. I’ve been fielding fantasy teams for more than 20 years now, and I have consistently developed attachments to players I would otherwise dislike; the feeling grew so powerful that I eventually decided I would stop drafting or picking players off teams I dislike, as it just wasn’t worth the emotional blunting. But this happens all the time: A Jets fan drafts Tom Brady because he needs a quarterback, or a Packers fan drafts Adrian Peterson because this is what Matthew Berry insists he must do with the first pick. And then they develop an emotional attachment to their imaginary franchise that blunts their original allegiance. When Peterson—or any other player—commits an ethically questionable offense, there is that odd contingentof fans who feel an obligation to defend the player because they view everything through the lens of fantasy sports. This is utterly nonsensical.

The last bastion of pure hatred is college sports, where these complicating factors don’t apply, and where everything is driven by an undercurrent of old-fashioned vitriol. Ohio State fans have solid and nuanced reasons for hating Michigan, and North Carolina fans have excellent reasons for despising Duke, and vice versa (though, really, the latter equation is perpetually skewed in North Carolina’s favor). Every rivalry in college sports is infused with Analytic Hatred. Paul Finebaum’s radio show is nothing but callers attempting and largely failing to rationalize their Analytic Hatred for other Southeastern Conference programs. At the University of South Carolina, football coach Steve Spurrier has made a cottage industry by conjuring wicked barbs designed to get under the skin of his opponents, a form of highbrow hatred if ever there was one.

And under the proper circumstances, amateur hatred can actually transfer to the professional ranks.

The best rivalry in the NFL these days is Seahawks-49ers, and not because both teams are perennial conference championship contenders. A few years ago, when they were both college coaches in the Pac-12, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, an intelligent hothead if ever there was one, decided he needed a foil, and he chose then-USC (and current Seahawks) coach Pete Carroll, a chill surfer bro who often looks like he’d rather be hang gliding. Harbaugh got under Carroll’s skin—purposely so—because he aspired to turn Stanford into a USC-level program, which he did before leaving for the 49ers. It wasn’t random; it was thought-out from the beginning. Analytic Hatred at its finest.

Done right, Analytic Hatred can spread like an oddly entertaining viral infection. Once, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman played for Harbaugh at Stanford. Now he plays for Carroll and appears to be actively trolling his former coach. Sherman made a conscious choice to embrace Analytic Hatred, based on the rivalry Harbaugh had started, which was based on his own manufactured rivalry. It’s a beautiful cycle, and I hope people like Sherman and Harbaugh continue to pay it forward. 

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb.

Photos by John Rowley / Getty Images