I cheer for my favored team, but I don’t gloat. So, when the Duke Blue Devils ground out a two-point victory over the tenacious Butler Bulldogs, I briefly raised my hands and said “Yes!” — but I didn’t go on FaceBook or Twitter to taunt my friends who are Carolina fans. I was just relieved that Duke — wearing white jerseys but clearly the visiting team against hometown Butler — had faced a tough team and a tough crowd but still managed to win.
Butler’s fairy-tale story in the tournament was naturally appealing: if they’d been playing against anyone but Duke, I’d have pulled for them, too. I’m even unashamed to admit that I cheered for UNC during last year’s tournament run, and in this year’s NIT (no, that’s not a back-handed slam). I think it’s possible to have a favorite team without hating your rivals, who may always come back to beat you next year.
When I first moved to North Carolina in 1979 so I could attend the initial incarnation of Southeastern Seminary and serve a rural church near Oxford, I faced a bit of culture shock. The tobacco culture was different, but I knew something about farming. The hardest thing to adapt to was that everyone from tots to the tottering cared about college basketball, and in March they all got red-eyed and hoarse.
I grew up in Georgia, where basketball’s only purpose was to keep football players in shape during the off season. Sometimes I joke that I chose Duke for my PhD studies just so I’d have a dog (or a devil) in the fight.
And that brings up the issue mentioned in the title of this post. Cheering for devils was not something new for me: my hometown high school’s mascot is a Red Devil. I grew up cheering for the Red Devils, and in high school I strapped on my pads and my helmet with the devil face on each side, ran out beneath the Friday night lights as the band played “Our Boys Will Shine Tonight” (they still do), and then poured every ounce of strength and desire I had into being one of those “mighty Red Devils” the cheerleaders were always shouting about (“We are the devils, the mighty Red Devils! And everywhere we go, the people want to know, whooo we are, soooo we say, “We are the devils, the mighty Red Devils …).
I admit, though, that even then I felt a bit ambivalent about being a young Christian who sought to grow in faith, but who found his greatest joy in dressing like a devil and hitting people really hard — after the team had huddled to chant the Lord’s Prayer. Then we’d shout, “Let’s kill ’em!” We could have been Crusaders, slaying the infidels in the name of Christ.
I understood that it was all metaphorical, of course, and still do, but I always felt a bit odd about it. I’ve never had such issues when cheering for my undergraduate alma mater, the Georgia Bulldogs, during football season. “Man’s best friends” (so some say) don’t carry quite the unsavory reputation of demonic scourges. “Go you hairy dawgs!” may come across as indelicate, but at least it’s not irreverent.
At Campbell, alliteration made us the Camels. Camels are ill-tempered but feisty and long on endurance, so I guess “Fighting Camels” is not an inappropriate moniker. At least it’s unique enough that we don’t have to worry about other schools wanting to adopt the same mascot.
So, I remain a dog, a devil, a camel — and a follower of the One who rules over them all. In the brief euphoria of championship celebrations, it occurred to me that it would really be something if we could get as excited about Jesus’ Easter victory over death as we do about devils, dogs, camels, rams, and wolves.
Yep, that would be something indeed.