How Sports Teach Us to Disagree

In the midst of this holiday season, I want to take a moment to reflect on what has become for many people a holiday tradition: arguing about politics, religion, the state of the world and any other hot-button issue at the dinner table. Maybe you already had a knock-down, drag-out argument about Donald Trump on Thanksgiving Day. Maybe you’re already dreading someone raising the question of immigration law in front of a certain uncle at Christmas.

In a recent ESPN The Magazine article, Tom Junod places this belligerent disagreeableness in the character of your fictitious Uncle Ed. But, Junod writes, there is hope. At some point, the meal and the sociopolitical arguments will end. When your voices are exhausted and the table cleared, the two of you will sit down to watch football:

“It’s not that you’ve never argued while watching football with Uncle Ed. It’s that you can argue in a way you can’t over dinner, because the arguments that start at the dinner table seem always to have the potential of careening out of control, while the arguments that start while you’re watching the Cowboys are exercises in containment, if not contentment. Was Dez Bryant able to make a ‘football move’ before the ball squirted from his hands? You can go back and forth the rest of the afternoon without finding an answer but also without finding any enmity between you.”

Junod continues, “And that has been the function of NFL football on Thanksgiving Day: It teaches you how to do something so many people have forgotten how to do on the other 364 days of the year, which is to agree to disagree.”

A similar point is made in this episode of Seinfeld:

Jerry and his birthday-suited companion disdain and disagree about every aspect of their beloved Mets. Yet somehow they remain united in their fandom. Rarely do we see that eternal optimism and amity when weightier issues are concerned.

One might argue that such agreement is possible in sports only because sports are mere games and hardly matter in the grand scheme of things. In response, I would point to the violent clashes between soccer hooligans. Fights between opposing soccer fans have occurred even in recent years, such as at this 2016 European Cup match. Try to tell those fans sports don’t matter. But as Junod points out, we can argue in different ways about sports and weightier issues with the same person. You and Uncle Ed are more likely to peaceably disagree about instant replay than about transgender bathroom laws.

This amicable disagreement stems from the fact that it is easy to recognize (even for hooligans) that there are always more important issues than those concerning sports. But as issues become weightier (e.g. moving from who will win the World Cup to corruption in FIFA to human rights concerns about future host countries), the gap of importance decreases and it becomes more difficult to recognize that even weightier issues may still exist. And it is often the really big issues that offer common ground.

So disagreements about sports can serve to remind us that there are more important matters at stake in the world. And some of these issues, like family, country and humanity, unite us. We need to keep this thought in mind when issues grow in importance. We need to work harder to find common ground when disagreements threaten to conceal it. In this way, sports, like physical fitness, can provide a testing ground for the larger issues in life.