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Tessa Blake Headshot

For Kids, Is Hating Rival Sports Teams Healthy?

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We are a family of fans -- serious, die-hard fans. From late autumn through March Madness, my husband, my daughter and I all live for Carolina basketball. It's more than just a game; as my husband says, it's like a religion. Or -- maybe more appropriately -- a cult.

On game days, we all dress in Carolina blue, crowd close together in front of the television and hold each other's hands as we live and die from blocked shots to alley-oops to free throws to the three-second rule. My daughter and I even paint our toenails sky blue during the season. I mean, we'd be crazy not to, right?

As Lucy has gotten older, it's been fun to indoctrinate her into our harmless insanity. Ian and I delight as she recites our players' names and positions, argues about whether a foul is technical or flagrant, and -- more problematically -- despises our rival with the passion of a thousand hot suns.

That last one plagues me. Outside of basketball, we teach Lucy tolerance and compassion. When it comes to Duke, we teach her hate.

We're not alone. Will Blythe's brilliant book "To Hate Like This is To Be Happy Forever" chronicles his otherwise-polite Carolina family, who lived to despise Duke basketball. My husband recently contributed a forward to Reed Tucker and Andy Bagwell's book "Duke Sucks: A Completely Evenhanded, Unbiased Investigation into the Most Evil Team on Planet Earth." In fact, basketball mania is so extreme in North Carolina that companies have to put special rules in place during the tournament.

And Duke-UNC is just one in a long list of rivalries, some of which will be battling it out in New Orleans this weekend, all of whom simmer with the white-hot contempt of Hatfields and McCoys. There are millions of kids across America -- like ours -- learning to hate. And, honestly, I don't know what to make of it.

Obviously, adulthood allows for a fair amount of nuance. Two of my husband's best friends -- loyal, smart, funny guys -- went to Duke, a detail he conveniently forgets every time he see Mike Krzyzewski's face. But do kids get this? Does it matter?

Maybe expressing rage within the relatively safe confines of sports is healthy (soccer riots notwithstanding). After all, Aristotle argued that we need catharsis to purge ourselves of excessive emotion. But -- not to be a killjoy -- it also seems possible that reverting to tribalism, no matter the context, leads to some of life's worst traits. We may emphasize that it's all for sport, but is hating in good fun any different from just plain hating?

Of course, it hasn't all been spite and bile in our house. We've used the metaphor of basketball (and the philosophy of Carolina's storied coach, Dean Smith) to show our kid the value of hard work, the importance of team over self, and how to learn from mistakes and keep going.

Last weekend, the Tar Heels lost. We were all devastated that our amazing, hard-working team wouldn't have a chance at a ring. But -- as our daughter might remind us -- at least we didn't lose to Duke.