Do the owners of these teams exploit such feelings? You bet, which is why fans feel so outraged and betrayed when a team gets moved from one place to another. But is there anything intrinsically wrong with their loyalties, or with the admiration of fans for heroism in an athletic encounter involving “their” team? I don’t think so.
Given such strong sentiments, the people who own these teams have an obligation to stewardship that they don’t always discharge. Even as a profoundly loyal Patriots fan, I’d be upset if the team and the league simply threw a locker room attendant under the bus to get out of their problem. Loyalty runs both ways, and it most certainly extends to the locker room attendant. (And if he did deflate eleven balls in ninety seconds, he should have been in the Pro Bowl.)
But I know which side I’ll be on this Sunday, without any mental reservations. The Patriots, including the attendant, are my guys.
To be clear, I do not have a horse in Sunday's race/game. Rather, it is important to note that Dionne, usually a voice of the calm, inculturated, progressivist branch of the American church, has openly declared, well, a side. It seems out of character, although he's not alone. Charlie Carmosy, one of the emerging theological voices on abortion and animal rights, teaches at Fordham and shamelessly sides with his Green Bay Packers. And then there's Notre Dame--American Catholicism's favorite professional sports team.
What's interesting about all this is the American Church has made a point to eschew such parochialism. The Church is universal, inclusive, and not, well, so limited. And that is true--don't get me wrong. However, when theologians and public critics like Dionne show their hand regarding their teams they are really indicating the humanity we all share. Part of our life involves, and perhaps requires, particularity, identity, taking sides. After all, Carmosy and Dionne and a whole host of Catholic bloggers and critics would readily embrace the Catholic label. (That itself is instructive--and St. John Paul II contributed significantly to this perspective--being Catholic in the modern world necessarily involves particular ethical, spiritual, and communal choices.) The Yale postliberal school--primarily Protestant but includes Catholic voices--would insert here comments based on George Lindbeck's notion of a cultural/linguistic model for religion. To be "Catholic" means speaking the language and acting within Roman Catholic culture.
Theologically we know these choices quite possibly entail persecution and martyrdom. And yet isn't that what faith is, or at least involves? A willingness to risk the present for the (as yet unseen) future? So perhaps it shouldn't surprise or offend us when some Catholics, given the opportunity, reveal themselves to belong a smaller, and in this case, more tightly-bound, community: like-minded sports fans. This is especially true when your team has the misfortune/providential gift of being the popularly reviled group. Trust me--I get this for these guys and these guys. They're my teams...and they're not the usual "Catholic" teams. That, in part, is what Dionne asks: why can't I root for the team I like? Think about it: must we all still root for Notre Dame...in every game? What if you grew up loving the Minnesota Vikings? Must you surrender your childhood for current theological tastes?
Because, basically, the theologically-attuned want instead to insist on universal good choices for all. The Packers are the best NFL team because their community ownership model bucks the filthy-rich-guy owner stereotype. The Red Sox are better than the Yankees because rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U. S. Steel (attributed to Joe Lewis or Bill Veeck). Andrew Greeley lent his considerable powers to claim supporting the Cubs made better "Catholic" sense. (To no avail: the Cubs last won in 1908. The Cardinals have won eleven--and lost eight--between 1926 and 2011.) The question, though, remains: when the game's over, will it be fair to apply Dionne's argument to more recognizably Catholic issues?