This week, Ask Mormon Girl takes a foray into the wild world of sports.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the unruly behavior San Diego State University Aztec basketball fans directed at Brigham Young University on Saturday, January 23, when a few dozen SDSU fans dressed up as LDS missionaries (complete with name tags and bike helmets), held signs taunting illness-stricken BYU guard Jimmer Fredette (“Jimmer, which one of your wives gave you mono?”), and compensated for their 71-69 loss by chanting “You’re still Mormon!” at departing BYU players and fans.
The episode caught national attention when Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis called the Aztec fan behavior “classless.” Two days later, the Deseret News picked up the story, and the following letter appeared in the firstname.lastname@example.org inbox:
Dear Mormon Girl:
Don’t you live in San Diego? Don’t you work at San Diego State University? Can’t you control your people???!!!
Yes, J.D., it is true that both my husband and I are full-time employees of San Diego State University, where we have grown to love the beautiful campus and its diverse, bright, hardworking students (many of them first-generation college). I adore the Aztecs who populate my lecture halls, especially when they manage to restrain themselves from thumb-typing illiterate little screeds into their magic phones and focus on the assigned reading.
But in the world of the sports arena crueler speech customs reign. And my visiting teacher, a multi-generation local, tells me that SDSU animus towards BYU is deep and longstanding. It gets unruly down here at the southwestern fringes of the Book-of-Mormon-belt, where we Mormons are numerous enough to constitute a definite element of the cultural landscape but still few enough to be a small minority. And I bet many folks are feeling a little tender about homemade signs with polygamy jibes and anti-LDS chanting given that only a year has elapsed since the difficult days following the passage of California’s Proposition 8.
Among the Cougar faithful, reaction to the SDSU incident has broken two ways: some giggle at the missionary dress-ups and dismiss the harsher jibes as regular trashtalking, while others call it “hate speech” and say it would have never been tolerated if the targets were, for example, gays or lesbians or Jews.
Not so fast, I say: the question of what exactly constitutes “hate speech” deserves sober reflection, and anyone who thinks that gays and lesbians and Jews have it easy should sit down and read the latest California hate crime statistics. Personally, I’d feel more comfortable using the term “hate speech” if someone could identify for me a way in which Mormons are today systematically and structurally discriminated against as Mormons on the basis of our Mormon identity alone, besides encountering bias when one of us runs for president. Does the simple fact of being born Mormon make it statistically more likely that we’ll be turned down for an apartment or a mortgage, or incarcerated, or targeted for public beating, or die an early death? No, no, no, and no.
And yet, even as I was preparing to finish this column, my husband (who is Jewish) came home this afternoon and related the conversation he had with our neighbor (also Jewish), an SDSU basketball fan. “I can’t stand that Jimmer Freddette,” the neighbor complained. “Man, I hate the Mormons.”
Did neighbor Aztec fan mean he actually hated the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Did he mean he hated me? Or me and my husband’s children? Or was there in his speech a quiet transformation of Mormons into mascots, a metonymic substitution with ugly side effects? Do people say “I hate the Catholics” when they root against Notre Dame? I don’t think so. I don’t know. I’m not sure I have a good handle on the strange, complex, and shifting place we Mormons occupy in American society, and I study religion and race for a living.
So, J. D., you asked mostly in jest, “Can’t you control those people?” And my unexpectedly serious answer is nope, no one can. All we can control is the way we react to them.
As clever and giggle-worthy as the missionary dress-up routine was, no one likes to hear the name of their religion hurled as a taunt, especially Cougar fans who look forward to BYU games as a chance to bleacher-bond with the grandkids and other Mormons.
But it helps to remember that the word Mormon itself originated in the 1830s as a pejorative and has since become a word that we’re proud to own.
And in this we do have a clear common experience with other American minorities, including Black folks, Jews, women, and gays and lesbians, who know that the quickest way to neutralize a word designed to wound is to take it back and use it yourself–with pride, with style, and with flair.
So if this Mormon Girl were in the bleachers that night (I was just across the freeway at my daughter’s preschool benefit) and she heard the “You’re still Mormon!” jeers ringing across the arena, her very first instinct would have been to tuck her Young Womanhood medallion inside her blouse, shout out something in the key of J. Golden Kimball, and huck her leftover nachos at the offending Aztec fans.
Then, mustering a modicum of self-restraint, she might have quietly devised a clever counter-taunt, something along the lines of: “That’s alright! That’s okay! We’ll baptize your dead someday!”
Finally, reaching deeper, she would have resolved that the best response to the accusation “You’re still Mormon!” is a resounding “Yes, I am!”
Readers, what would you do or say?