Lessons from the first game

West Virginia University’s football season opener was a neutral-site game against Tennessee this year, which meant I and a few friends found ourselves in Charlotte, N.C., for a couple of days. It was a short trip, but turned out to hold a few eye-openers that had nothing to do with football.

(Well, mostly nothing.)

Often at WVU football games, there are preconceived notions about the fan bases. For goodness sake, we all know what WVU and Pitt fans pretend to think of each other, for example. But during tailgating, filing in to the stadium, a ridiculous weather delay and after the game there was a common theme. I kept hearing WVU fans mention how nice Tennessee fans were, and vice versa. We spoke to each other — there was camaraderie. I found myself wondering what was the difference. Why was everyone getting along so well?

Oh yeah. This was the first meeting of the two football programs. The fan bases had not been told for generations that they hated each other. Children had not been taught what to say about opposing fans on their way through the gates of their first football game. There WERE no preconceived notions. Just people, watching a football game, being decent to one another. Hm.

After the game –a sweltering experience during which it was obvious some folks had chosen to “hydrate” with beer –we were walking back to our cars when we happened upon a couple of very young (I would guess late high school or early college) WVU fans destroying a Tennessee tent that had been left standing in the parking lot. A gathering of Tennessee fans watched helplessly from a distance — occasionally yelling a plea to stop, but with no success.

I and my friends — all clearly marked as WVU fans by our t-shirts — began yelling at the young men to stop, and pick up the mess they had made. That got their attention. They stopped and backed away immediately. One of them even managed to look embarrassed. Then they turned and ran. It was painful to them to have been caught by some of their own tribe behaving badly toward — harassing — members of the “other” tribe.

Of course it was something as superficial as a t-shirt that marked us as one of “them,” but no matter. It worked. When someone who looked like them called them out, let them know their actions were unacceptable, rather than cheering them on or walking past without saying a word, they stopped. Hm.

Later in the evening, in a rideshare vehicle headed to explore downtown, we got a real shock. The driver, a black woman, said immediately “Ooh, more West Virginians. I’ve been driving West Virginians all day. First ones I’ve ever met.”

This woman was fantastic. She didn’t mince words and had no qualms about honest conversation. It was great. She told us she was surprised at how much she liked the West Virginians she had met. She admitted she had believed all West Virginians fit a type she saw on TV (and no, I’m not talking hillbilly, here … her ideas were based more on recent political coverage).

She said “No one I’ve had in my car has been like that. I’ve liked you all.”

So one of my friends said “Well you should come visit, I think you’d like it.”

The woman recoiled. I won’t give her exact quote, but the essence is that she was afraid something horrific would happen to her.

As soon as she said it, all three of us gasped. But, again, to her credit, she said “OH! I slipped right back into it, didn’t I? I’m sorry. I should know better now.”

My friend recovered herself before I did, and said “But don’t you know how our state was formed? It was during the Civil War. We wanted to separate from a slave state!” The driver said “Wait. That’s right! We never hear that. Y’all should promote that!”

More candid conversation followed — everyone should have more conversations like that in their lives — and on our way out of her vehicle, we again invited her to visit West Virginia. I hope she does.

Preconceived notions and cultural generalizations are a heck of a thing. They’re sticky. Even someone determined to learn more through new experiences and asking honest questions (and being willing to listen to honest answers) finds herself sucked back into letting them inform her thinking. But she knew she had made a mistake and she apologized; and the conversation kept flowing. We learned something from each other. Hm.