Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Right to Wear Your Team’s Jersey Safely

The right to physical safety is fundamental. All other rights suffer if a person cannot expect physical safety. Sadly this matters for sports fans. In the United States the simple act of wearing your team’s jersey is inciting physical assault at games. This crosses a profound ethical boundary and encourages the slow advance of European hooliganism. Protecting the safety of fans, even fans wearing the other team’s jersey, must be fought for at every sports venue.

At this week’s 49er/Seahawks game the Seattle police announced they would haveundercover police wearing 49er gear. These actions extend a policy the police initiated to respond to assaults on fans wearing the opposing team’s paraphernalia at Seahawks games. In one case a Packer’s fan was jumped in a bathroom and in another a Viking fan was sucker punched. The growing problem gained national attention when Giants’ fan Bryan Stow was severely beaten and his brain damaged at Dodger Stadium in March 2011.

The collective egoism of fandom can transmogrify into ugly hatred of the “they” of opposing fans anywhere. It lurks as part of team and pack loyalties.  Political and religious fanaticism depends upon this primordial in-group glorification and out-group demonizing. In Europe, England and Latin America this dynamic spawns hooliganism and organized alcohol driven armed violence between opposing team fans, in some areas abetted. In the Byzantine Empire the pattern of violence spawned by the Greens and the Blues factions around Hippodrome races and gladiators could overthrow empires.

I don’t want to see American sports fans importing the moral ugliness of hooliganism. Yet it can sneak easily into the drink saturated, jaunty, rousing and fan craziness that surrounds many growing MLS soccer franchises. It already lurks in beer sodden bathrooms of football and baseball.

To me the police response with undercover officers makes strong sense. Teams have been strengthening codes of conduct and need to relentlessly eject people for drunken and unruly behavior. It helps when stadiums stop selling alcohol at earlier dates such as the Giants stopping sales after half time.

Now all this may seem silly to protect fan’s rights to wear a jersey.

The paradoxes of sports loyalty often connect to a sense of personal identity. Individuality gets constructed by weaving multiple loyalties and connections together. Many fans intertwine family, geographic, ethnic or school connections through team loyalty.

They share affiliation with others in thick or thin communities. People can hand it on through family. Team loyalty can be quite personal and idiosyncratic, but for true fans, it matters.

Individuals express their loyalty and individuality in many ways but often and simply by wearing gear. Wearing my Mariner’s hat manifests my loyalty to the team and love of the game and place as well as my stubborn and hopeless stupidity. It expresses my self and my loyalties.

Wearing a team’s jersey or hat or other paraphernalia, not only makes profits for the team and leagues, but also it permits the person to assert themselves and their loyalties. As much as I may dislike it when more Red Sox jerseys appear at Mariner’s/Red Sox games, I understand that wearing these to a “home” game often connects a person to their roots or history. 

It may not be the wisest thing to wear the opposing team’s gear to a home game; but people have a right to do this without fear of assault. Just as much as fans have a right to stand at a game with their children and not have the children abused with morally ugly language.

Nothing outlaws surly and boorish behavior. Free speech and free association permit and encourage fans to root and cheer and even boo during games. Ribbing and verbal sparring remain a part of the game; a person who wears their team’s colors to an opposing team’s game can reasonably expect the verbal sparring and razzing that comes with that territory.

But fans have the right to be safe in their person from physical assault and from moral assault. 

Who knew something as simple as wearing a team’s jersey to a game could involve real ethical stakes?

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