Sports and Our Not-So-Secret Identities

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Fans. The University of Kentucky men's basketball team beat Arkansas 78-63 to capture the 2015 SEC Tournament title on Sunday, March 15, 2015, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, TN. Photo by Chet White | UK Athletics

The University of Kentucky men’s basketball team beat Arkansas 78-63 to capture the 2015 SEC Tournament title on Sunday, March 15, 2015, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, TN. Photo by Chet White | UK Athletics

By Jonathan Miller

From dodging politics over the turkey table, to a looming recount and counterpunch, to the death of one more Kentucky legend, this Thanksgiving weekend was poised to be yet another low moment in our annus horribilis. It seemed like we’re in the final episode of a long-running TV reality drama, with the showrunner up in the sky tying up loose ends.

But then the gridiron boys in blue pulled off a magical upset — over our interstate arch-rival, no less — restoring the bounce in our step that had been hamstrung by months of anger and violence and disunity. Yesterday, with the exception of a few square miles on the Ohio River off I-64, the Commonwealth joined in one voice of exuberant celebration: There was joy in Mudville … and Madisonville and Middlesboro and Midway and Maysville and Monkey’s Eyebrow … the Governor’s Cup was back where it belonged.

Every day, KSR does a brilliant job of addressing the hows and whats and wheres of Kentucky sports; it’s my role as the site’s annoying little brother to occasionally ask “why.” Why do so many of us who have never worn the jersey — the majority of us, in fact, who have no formal affiliation with the university — care so deeply and passionately about the successes and failures of these post-adolescent young men and the boys’ games they play?

I’ll spare you the Freudian exegesis; but suffice it to link the phenomenon to our sense of identity. We may root for our favorite professional sports teams, but the Kentucky Wildcats are part and parcel of our cultural and societal fabric. For many Kentuckians, the Cats are intertwined with our psyche; we can’t remember or even imagine a time that their successes didn’t embolden us and their failures didn’t dispirit us. Whether traveling cross-country or dealing with Internet trolls, UK sports reflect to the outside world how we see ourselves: our collective self-image.

This shared sense of identity can sometimes be a wonderful thing. As I elaborated here, college basketball provides the Bluegrass State a much-too-rare realization of a cohesive, interdependent community: Because we care so much, we put aside our sharp differences on religion, politics, lifestyle — indeed nearly everything — to join in common cause on game day or during tournament time.

But human nature provides a flip side as well. When our self-identity is so enmeshed with, and so reliant upon, a team or cause, the other tribe no longer appears as a rival, but rather an enemy: a force that deserves our vanquishing, their unconditional surrender. We develop narratives about our opponents that we hope will reveal their malevolence. Remember our glorious sense of schadenfreude when the spoiled, indulged, entitled Duke athletic program received its comeuppance in the 2006 lacrosse “rape” scandal? We soon discovered that our cartoon stereotypes legitimized false accusations that nearly destroyed innocent young men’s lives.

This darker facet of identity has received considerable attention in the nation’s general election post-mortem. The white-supremacist alt-right, holding so much of America in a nefarious light, has found an amplified voice through social media, and a perceived powerful champion in the President-elect’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric. Now with all the levers of power in Washington and most statehouses, it’s the GOP’s challenge to harness the anger and frustration that fueled its electoral victories to accomplish substantive change without playing into the alt-right-provoked identity crisis and undermining the constitutional protections that truly have made America great.

The challenge is even more profound for the loyal opposition. Democrats justifiably can be proud for bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice over the past century through creating and strengthening the social safety net and dramatically expanding civil rights. But Democrats have recently allowed themselves to become rhetorically pigeon-holed as the creature of “identity politics,” beholden exclusively to minorities seeking new rights, lazy welfare recipients addicted to drugs and government largesse, and a coastal elite that pays only lip-service to those dispossessed by their progressive policies — all while appearing to mock and shame people of sincere faith for socially conservative views. It’s no wonder that we’ve witnessed the flight of the white working class that most benefits from signature Democratic policies like progressive taxation and universal health care: How can they identify with a party that perpetually appears to be condescending and taking them for granted?

It’s even harder for Kentucky Democrats. With the Southern partisan realignment now complete, and the national party continuing to be a yoke around their collar, Bluegrass Democrats stand bereft of power and identity. Only the development of the latter will help secure the possibility of the former. But those who want to assign past blame and future responsibility to the state party apparatus don’t understand the modern political system. As demonstrated by Obama and Trump, by the Democratic Leadership Council and the Tea Party, meaningful and potent energy, ideas, and campaigns must be generated today outside of the traditional party construct.

That’s why I find Matt Jones and Adam Edelen’s New Kentucky Project so intriguing. This site’s proprietor has helped shape and nurture both a virtual and real-life community built around our common identification with Kentucky sports. Politics and policy are much more daunting subjects, but Matt understands the new communications paradigm presented by the Internet and social media, and more significantly, that the future for progressives in Kentucky relies on the right message and messengers.

Ultimately, with public faith in our systems of government at historical lows, it’s time for both parties to develop new identities. I’ve preached for a decade that building a set of principles around our shared moral values — as illuminated by the universal principle “to love your neighbor as yourself” — could unite people from all backgrounds around a politics of the common good. But whatever party or policies prevail, until we can identify a shared identity that embraces all of us — a truly American identity that convincingly assures us that we’re all in it together — we will continue to slog through our polarized and par

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