When it comes to dealing with tribalism, Windsor Mann says football is the answer:
As strange as this may sound, people become fans in order to become part of a tribe — each with its own customs, chants, costumes, and idiosyncrasies. America, like Iraq today or Scotland centuries ago, is still a tribal society, but a highly sophisticated one. Sectarian conflict still exists, but it is artificial and superficial and, thankfully, governed by officials. We no longer fight with weapons; now we fight with footballs. Instead of fighting to the death, we play until sudden death. Unlike our brethren in the Middle East, Americans have learned how to channel their tribal aggression. That channel is ESPN.
The beauty of team sports is that they allow us, as fans, to identify with a large group of people — mostly strangers — who partake in a common heritage, cheering on players we will never meet. In this way, being a fan is no different than being a tribesman. Singing the fight songs, donning the colors, and investing one’s time, money and emotion in a team’s success — these are the ways of the athletic clan.
When the teams represent significant blocs of society, sports can serve as a medium for enmity between rival factions within a country. More often than not, domestic obsession with team sports is a positive sign; it suggests that war-torn rivals have found a safe venue in which to settle the score.
It is worth noting that American football became popular in the late 19th century — after a war that had divided the nation against itself and pitted brother against brother. Writer Jim Weeks suggests that in those volatile postwar years, football emerged as a substitute for war. “In an era concerned with reviving the Civil War virtues of self-sacrifice, courage, discipline, teamwork and public spirit, football appeared to be the panacea.”
That the teams in the NFL and NCAA represent major cities or states shows how civilized and harmonious American society has become. Better for Carolina and New York to face off on the gridiron than in civil war.