Check out most any list of the most hated teams in all of sports, and somewhere near the top you’re bound to find Notre Dame football. Like the New York Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys and the Los Angeles Lakers, the Fighting Irish are one of those squads that, with its national following and history of success, is reviled by pretty much everyone else.
So when I and about 30,000 other Georgia fans arrived for the Sept. 9 game between the Bulldogs and the Irish, we came loaded for leprechaun. And we promptly found ourselves among … well … just about the nicest people anywhere.
There were little old men in green blazers stopping us to ask if we had questions or needed anything. A campus cop offered tips for touring the basilica. The stadium and basketball arena were open Friday afternoon for fans to have a look-see. A waitress at a sports bar remarked — after we’d left the tip — about how “snazzy” the visitors from Georgia looked.
And the fans: They were out early Saturday morning, setting up tailgate spreads for all. There were flags, cornhole boards and the biggest bottle of Fireball whisky I’ve ever seen. Everywhere you looked, there was socializing between partisans wearing Bulldog red or Irish blue and green. Inside the stadium we spoke affably, in between screaming for our players to drive theirs into the turf.
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I’m sure others among the assembled thousands could tell of less friendly engagement, but I neither saw nor heard of any. (Every fan base has its knuckleheads, but at $500-plus per ticket, maybe ours and theirs stayed home.)
Some Georgia people attributed it to the fact we’re not longtime rivals with Notre Dame — it was only the second time the teams have played — or that it wasn’t an SEC game. Perhaps. Certainly, encounters between Southeastern Conference cousins have produced uglier scenes over the years, though I’ve been to games in Auburn and Tuscaloosa and Knoxville and Jacksonville, and never witnessed much that was out of step with what I saw in South Bend.
No, I don’t think the lack of contempt at Notre Dame owed to a lack of familiarity. I chalk it up to the fact we were face-to-face, not swapping nastygrams in the septic tanks that online message boards can be.
If you think this is where I pivot to politics, you’re right.
My father-in-law is fond of saying life is a contact sport. You need to get out there, shake a hand, look another in the eye. Turns out, it’s usually much harder to hate the other guy after that.
My work puts me in both the comment threads and the halls of government, and what I’ve noticed is how much more amicably Republicans and Democrats get along in person than online. I find the real hatred exists chiefly among those who engage only from their keyboards — or are paid to keep the fires of outrage stoked.
This is not a mushy call to bipartisanship or “working together.” Americans hold real differences of opinion on the issues, and fighting for our views to win elections and policy debates is just as legitimate as last weekend’s struggle on the field. The red horde didn’t convert any Irish fans to our dawgma, any more than we became Notre Dame fans. But I do think we’re killing ourselves by moving toward actual hatred of one another, by writing off anyone with a red “MAGA” hat as irredeemably racist or safe-space-seeking students as hopeless snowflakes.
And above all, Georgia fans, when the Notre Dame nation returns the trip and comes to Athens in 2019, let’s show them the hospitality they showered on us. Like most Democrats, they’re not as bad as you’ve heard.
Kyle Wingfield writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach him and read more at www.bit.ly/KyleWingfield.