“Hello, Newman”: Why Are Americans So Obsessed with Rivalry?

We never explain why I dislike Newman.  I don’t have an answer.  The real answer is that it just seemed funny to hate Newman.

Jerry Seinfeld, during a Buzzfeed Brews interview

Well, it’s College Football Rivalry Weekend. For the next two days, enormous fan bases around the country will fight the temptation to be hostile to friends and complete strangers over sports, and many will succumb, especially on social media. But man, what a weekend for rivalry.

I won’t call any names, but two of the most influential people in my life are on record as saying they would rather see their chief rival lose instead of their favorite team win. One of them will not root for his enemy even if it helps his team win a championship. This isn’t as rare as you might imagine, as you can see here with Ohio St. vs. Michigan.

Doesn’t this mean that people hate (in a sports sense) more than they love? I’m not sure, but this testifies to how powerful the concept of rivalry is in our culture.

It goes beyond sports, of course. Countless works of fiction in just about every medium have centered around a protagonist’s ultimate battle with an antagonist. What is Star Wars without Luke vs. Vader?  How else was Harry Potter going to end but with Harry vs. Voldemort? This may be the most common trope to masterful story-telling.

And there are other types of rivalries. I want to look at five types that we consume in the United States. And more specifically I want to look at why we love them.

1. Sports Organically Create Rivalries 


What happens when you put two major universities in the same small, football-loving state with no big cities or pro teams to compete for allegiance and these two teams playing each other every single year with everyone in the state divided between the two and having to live with each other the whole year?

Carolina vs. Clemson. That’s what.

Or Auburn vs. Alabama, which often has more at stake. The Saturday after Thanksgiving may as well be as big a holiday as Black Friday in the South.

My brother Ashley once said something about the Carolina-Clemson rivalry that has stood out to me for a long time: He said that one thing that separates this rivalry from many others is that in South Carolina, they talk about this game year round.  It’s a topic of conversation in April even though the game is in November.  These people work with each other, they go to church with each other, they live next door to each other.  For sports, it’s what they have.

In SC’s neighbors to the North, you can see how proximity–11 miles–has played a part in making UNC and Duke hate each other. I can feel the animosity radiating from the TV when I watch them play basketball.  In the Northeast,  you can see how playing the same division and having two major media markets has made Yankees vs. Red Sox a  huge deal.

Some rivalries depend on team success, which is why I think Bird vs. Magic–and NOT Lakers vs. Celtics–was the true rivalry in the NBA in the 1980’s.  Feel free to disagree but there is something about two teams that hate each other on sheer principal that makes the rivalry more real to me. I’ll never forget the Gamecocks-Tigers game in 1998.  USC was 1-9.  Clemson was 2-8.  And a capacity crowd of 81,000 people showed up to watch.  It’s as pure a rivalry as there is.

2. Fantasy Heroes and Villains appeal to an innate good over evil desire all humans have. 


Is there a more stunning, epic plot twist in movie history than “Luke…I am your father1”?  That added so much to what was already the quintessential underdog hero vs. the iconic dark villain main plot.

Yet I doubt any movie has cause me to think about what I saw for days quite the way The Dark Knight did.  Because it took the simple good vs. evil narrative and added logic and twists that disturbed me in the most glorious way possible.  Beyond the acting, and Heath Ledger may have the most impressive performance in any movie I’ve seen, the dialogue stayed with me for days.  Alfred’s story of the jewel thief and the Joker not wanting anything but “to watch the world burn” blew me away.  The Joker’s comments to Batman about people not caring about a homeless man dying, but going crazy over a politician made me evaluate how I treat people.  Batman’s decision and reasons to take the fall for Two-Face kept me awake at night, for a long time.  This is definitely my favorite Superhero movie and one of my 5 favorites ever.

Additionally, part of why I love Harry Potter as a book series (and less so as a movie series) is how absolutely perfectly it ends.  The climactic battle could not be any more fulfilling to me, after the long journey through 4100 pages in 7 books.  I get chill bumps on top of chill bumps during the last few pages  every single time.

And even though there is not one major Luke vs. Vader, Harry vs. Voldemort type rivalry in The Lord of the Rings, I love Book Four (the second half of The Two Towers) significantly in part because Gollum is on the journey with Frodo and Sam.  While very different, it is in its own way just as good as any protagonist/antagonist subplot that I’ve read.  It’s funny, dramatic and filled with intrigue.  Sometimes I can’t believe that I love Gollum so much.  I think it has to do with yin-yang type relationship he has with the hobbits.  Their goodness and humility is magnified by his wickedness and pride2.

We love it when good triumphs over evil, as humans with God’s image imprinted on our very being.  It’s the most natural thing there is.3.


3. We Just Love Capitalism 


I honestly do not care that much about Pepsi vs. Coke4 but so many people do.  Why?  Mac vs. PC has caused more arguments than politics in my church for years.  Why do people care so much?

I guess we just love the fact that we have choices and when a few (and especially when two) rise to the top, it turns into that whole sports and fantasy good/evil thing where we pick a side and trumpet it to death and consistently deride the other one.  This is probably a small reason why the American two-party political system will never die as well.

I’m amazed with things like Jello and Q-tips and Band-aids dominate the market so much that they as the name brand become the name for their generic category.  It’s so rare. I’m not an economics profeessional at all, but the fact that competition exists for our money and services is about as an American thing as there is.

4. Because Major Worldview Opinions Give Us Identity in Being Right 


I grew up with the phrase “Don’t talk about politics and religion” being thrown around constantly.  Yet, on social media this statement is ignored all the time.

Even though I know more and more people who are shedding political and religious labels like “Republican” and “Christian” they still call themselves something (like “Conservative” or “Christ Follower”) and they still see themselves as opposite of others in many arguments.  Their “rivals,” if you will.

I’m convinced that political and religious dialogue is entered into at times with good intentions (Christianity, or whatever you want to call the orthodox view of the Bible, demands we tell people about Christ), but often times it is done because we know we are right and we want people to know we are right.  Many posts and tweets get the approval of like minded people, like a person with a megaphone at a pep rally. And they gain the “Booing” of those who disagree.  In the end, many people have no aim but to be right, to win.  It’s very much like sports as well.

5. Siblings teach us competition from birth


This is not to discount the only children among us, but growing up with 3 alpha dog brothers I definitely learned how much fun, and yet how intense, competition could be.  When I played Tracy, Ashley or Jeremy one-on-one on our full-court cement basketball court, I wanted to thrash them.  I can still remember the first time Jeremy, two years and 9 months younger than me, beat me. I can recall a basketball game Tracy and I played to 40 where I was down 35-3 and came back and won.  That’s how significant it was.

I recall even at a very young age, barely old enough to have memories, my parents would allow my brother Ashley and I to box with actual boxing gloves we had and the whole family would gather in the living room to cheer us on with our tiny fists of fury.

I’m honestly thankful with the parents I had that allowed to process winning and losing with character and humility.  Believe me, I tried to be proud.  But they always redirected me.  Growing up with four siblings definitely helped.

So going back to Jerry’s quote above: it is obvious that Seinfeld was missing something that we all deeply desire.  It’s not enough to have four hilarious characters, incredible acting and outrageous dialogue.  No, by Season 3 they needed a rival for Jerry.  And not someone who changed every episode.  A consistent, unnerving presence that caused Jerry to think of all the evil that has ever existed as he greeted him.  They needed a Newman.


This is my theory at least.  As someone who has never lived without siblings, who loves Carolina, hates Clemson, rereads Harry Potter regularly and appreciates the contributions to fantasy of Gollum and the Joker as much as Frodo and Batman, I definitely have an opinion.  We love rivalry in this country.  Even when we don’t know why we want it.

  1. Please note the ellipses, you nerds wanting to say “But he didn’t really say ‘Luke, I am your father’!!”  He sort of did.  If you connect previous dialogue.
  2. And thanks to Sam, he rightly learns what “taters” are.  PO-TA-TOES.
  3. And, as REO contributor Phill Lytle wrote here, the main “rivalry” we can see over and over in fiction is not a hero vs. a human or supernatural villain, but resurrected life over death.  Death is the ultimate villain, has been vanquished in reality by Jesus Christ and Phill does a masterful job expounding on how this ‘one true myth’ is all over the most popular fiction works of all time
  4. Coke can take the rust off of a car battery, so I hear, so almost never drink it.

Gowdy Cannon

I am currently the pastor of Bear Point FWB Church in Sesser, IL. I previously served for 17 years as the associate bilingual pastor at Northwest Community Church in Chicago. My wife, Kayla, and I have been married nearly seven years and have a 3-year-old son, Liam Erasmus. I have been a student at Welch College in Nashville and at Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago. I love The USC (the real one in SC, not the other one in CA), Seinfeld, John 3:30, Chic-Fil-A, Dumb and Dumber, the book of Job, preaching and teaching, and arguing about sports.

4 thoughts on ““Hello, Newman”: Why Are Americans So Obsessed with Rivalry?

    • November 25, 2016 at 4:08 pm


      • November 30, 2016 at 11:26 am

        I love it as well.

  • November 30, 2016 at 10:47 pm

    Thanks, Phill.


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