How Could I Ever Love Michigan State?

I hate Michigan State.

I hate its football team, its basketball team, its volleyball team, its campus. I hate its historically inaccurate mascot (the Spartans, who, let’s not forget, lost at Thermopylae). I hate its color scheme, its fight song, I even hate the name of that wretched institution, two words once so innocuous but now rendered so horrifying: “Michigan” and “State.”

Hate is, admittedly, a very strong word. I try not to use it in normal conversation. And more important, I try not to hold hate in my heart, even for my enemies.

But when it comes to sports there’s no other real way to express the depth of disdain I have for the rivals of my alma mater, the University of Michigan. I delight in their sports failings, relish their sports pain when they, say, lose to a 15 seed in the NCAA tournament. Hate for a sports rival is like falling in love: It exists beyond reason.

My sports-based hatred for the entity that is Michigan State University is pure but not uncommon. If you are a sports fan, there is likely a team you support — and then another you loathe. Maybe you’re a Liverpool fan and the mere existence of Manchester United drives you insane.

Or, maybe you’re such a rabid Alabama fan that you responded to a loss against Auburn, your biggest rival, in January 2011 by driving to Auburn’s campus and poisoning the school’s legendary live oaks.

Sports can bring out the very best of humanity, but sports can also make happy, well-adjusted people — human beings with jobs and dogs and kids and hobbies — lose their minds. And that lunacy isn’t confined to times when your team loses a game; it’s not only manifest as hatred of a rival. It also affects how you take in information.

According to a 2018 study written by Megan Duncan, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, Michael Mirer of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Michael Wagner of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, fans perceive news that accuses their team of wrongdoing as biased, even if they trust the source of the information.

In an interview with Virginia Tech’s news department, Duncan said that the ways fans perceive news about their team that they don’t like is similar to how both Democrats and Republicans view news about their parties that they don’t like. “People saw more bias when their team was under attack,” she said. “Democrats and Republicans operate much in the same way.”

I wasn’t always like this — and, by many measures of polarization, nor were America’s two political parties. In fact, before I went to Michigan in 2005, I don’t think I’d ever given Michigan State a second thought. East Lansing is nearly a five-hour drive from my hometown of Cincinnati, after all, and neither of my parents were college sports aficionados, meaning that my exposure to Michigan State was limited.

So how did I become a massive Michigan fan, and how did that translate to wanting Michigan State to lose every game for the rest of human time, and perhaps beyond?

I spoke with Duncan on the phone this week, and she told me that the creation of a sports fan has a number of requirements, including a specific geography, family affiliations and the sense of kinship one may get from being a fan of a team. She said that in many ways, sports fandom “forms similar to other kinds of identity, where you start associating with folks who have something in common. And then you can feel support from them. You feel that sense of winning when your team wins, or that sense of defeat when your team loses.”

In other words, if Duncan is right, I became a Michigan fan because I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and was thus surrounded by Michigan fans, a family of sorts with which I created a kinship around university life, classes and — you guessed it — Michigan sports. We socialized at Michigan games, and created bonds and relationships centered around watching Michigan sports that have stood the test of time.

And if Michigan and the school’s sports made up the in-group — the group with which I found kinship and belonging — Michigan’s rivals were the out-group. Sure, Michigan State and the University of Michigan are both public universities in the state of Michigan, but I found no kinship with the people of East Lansing (and, I presume, they did not with me).

In our conversation, Duncan elaborated on how our connections to our political identity are markedly similar — our political understanding is largely based on where we are and with whom we socialize.

“When your political party wins, same as when your team wins, you feel that sense of winning yourself. Or when your team loses, you feel that loss similarly.” She added that based on her research in sports and politics, those kinship ties also impact how we perceive bad news about our favorite teams.

“You know it’s gonna take more than simple facts for you to believe that your hero of a sports coach has actually looked the other way while sexual abuse happened. Or it’s going to take more than just facts for you to realize that your political party isn’t headed in the same direction or doesn’t share your same values,” she said.

So what could reshape someone’s sports fandom or, by extension, political affiliations? Duncan told me that while some shifts happen when something takes place that “cracks through your sense of reality” and raises questions about how and why you think the way you do, the way many people change in their sports fandom or political alignment often stems from a literal, physical shift.

“We see shifts in political alignment or sports team fandom if you shift to maybe a completely different geographical area where your social structure, those around you, thinks differently,” she said. If you grew up in a very liberal area and moved to a place that’s more conservative, your views might change, or at least your views on what the people now around you believe might change. And your sports fandom might change if you moved to a new town with different sports allegiances — lessening your hate for your traditional rivals as well.

My hatred for Michigan State is not sensible. I’m not a hater. I did not come to it through logical decision making and a firm comprehension of the facts. My hate for Michigan State developed just as my love for Michigan did, naturally, easily, through a change of cities and the formation of lifelong friendships.

And my politics are likely very much the same. I am proud of my willingness to be wrong, but I’ve noticed that I have a troubling propensity to excuse my own wrongness in the face of evidence by saying that hey, well, those guys are probably even more wrong than I am.

That’s not reason. That’s fandom. And, as any Auburn tree poisoner or Duke fan driven to the basement during North Carolina games knows — or as I know, watching Michigan play Michigan State today and probably saying many things that perhaps I would not repeat in the paper of record — fandom makes you do some very, very stupid things.

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