Monday, November 12, 2012

Sports Fan Ethics

Being a sports fan is an existential choice. It involves a way of being in the world and relating to other human beings. The point of the game is being a fan involves a moral stance. It means acting in ways that impact others and the game. This  means it involves obligations and responsibilities. As a friend of mine reminded me,  spectators refer to "the team" and fans use the word "we."

This all became clear to me when I realize how early this all starts. Last week a major scandal erupted in Florida where the parents and fans of little league football had been indicted for betting on the games and hiring coaches who had criminal records amongst other things. Along with the incredible cost to the young student athletes and the horrible role models this provided, it reminded me again of how deep and important being a fan can be to many people, a link that can cause the craziness of Florida or a fun and important way to link to community and study and admire a form of human mastery.

Games depend upon rules. Athletes depend upon rules and conceptions of form and excellence. The very idea of winning requires rules that define what constitutes excellence, achievement and winning. The essence of competition builds upon the idea that rules govern behavior. Competition without rules reduces to war.

As I suggested, fans shape the environment and impact the athletes and competition. This involves them in the game and their influence, unlike spectators and audiences, carries a set of obligations; to be a fan is a moral stance about loyalty, commitment and participation.

I don't want to go overboard here, but as fans, people act, influence others and model for others. They infuse social gatherings with their presence and they pass on loyalties and relations to those around them.

Ideally a fan appreciates the team and sport and athletes. A deep aspect of being a sports fan lies in the aesthetic enjoyment (no true fan would use words aesthetic enjoyment) of the beauty and pure form of the sport they love. Being a fan involves people in communities of like minded people, so they can share common identity, emotions and conversations. Fandom through blogdom, bars and office NCAA pools demonstrates  and creates a subculture of identity, community and conversation. It enables people not only to vent and gloat but to discuss and appreciate the fine points of the form of the sport and the dimensions of its players.

All this suggests that the moral world of being a fan should involve respect for the game, players and fellow travellers. It means that fans can argue and shout and scream and holler, but it should occur within the bounds of norms of respect (these are elastic norms since some groups can use profanity laced diatribes and still laugh with and at each other). Simply by actions, taunts, movements fans force the athletes brain do do more and subtly can subvert the attention needed for a fine motor skill activity under active stress. Fan actions matter and influence games, no matter what athletes claim.

Fans have obligations to at least understand the game; you often see this dynamic played out in teaching younger fans the nuances or the painful experience of watching two people on a date, one a fan and the other bemused but trying hard to attend to the fan's nuttiness. You also see it among fans who can acknowledge the other team's excellence, "good play,"  "nice call," "good shot." You try to teach this to kids and neophytes so that they understand this is about both the sport and the team.

The problems emerge because of the identity pathologies of any community. Fans can become more committed to winning than the team or sport. The obsession with winning can be tied to collective need to feel superior (welcome to war again). The winning drive can coexist with another dynamic of identity--the we/they black/white world of asserting my identity and value by devaluing another. Racism depends  upon this dynamic, so does sexism.

One of the crucial borderland obligations of sports fans is how to treat opposing players and teams. If the fans have overinvested their identity in winning alone (if a fan arrives at the point where they cannot acknowledge a great play by an opposing player, they have crossed a dangerous boundary). (I must confess I have spent a decade booing and hating Alex Rodriquez for his betrayal of the Mariners and still cannot bear to acknowledge that he has any worth as a player or human being for that matter).

Here is a critical boundary area for fan. It is part of the oblgation to root for their team. Heckling and getting into the other guys head is more problematic but fits for a good fan. But as a coach friend of mine said "if you heckle, be clever, be good, but don't be cruel." We all know and appreciate good heckling, but more than a few fans personalize their screams or worse they invoke racists, sexist or foreign baiting (I am amazed at the number of mindless fans who shout "USA" when an international player is under pressure even when their own team may have three internatioanl players of their own, but who said consistency had anything to do with fans.)

One of the classic ploys, in movies at least, is for a coed to flash an opposing player to deflect their attention. A very clever and very subversive act occurred several years ago when California coeds created a fake coed identity named Victoria who engaged in on line chats with a UCLA player. At the game the Cal. rooters revealed the "Victoria" cheer and even quoted textings in their jeers/cheers/heckles. It ruined the players night and revealed a very clever and subversive use of the social web world of athletes.

However more than a few fans stalk players, abuse players and coaches mercilessly with profanity, racist and sexist catcalls and remarkably ugly comments to the players, coaches and administrators on line and through web sites.  I've sat by benches where fans spat on the players and those  nearby. The pseudo anonymity of the web as well as the fact that internet flames are not tempered by any sense of how they impact the people encourages the same sort of amoral or immoral behavior of being in a crowd. People lose their sense of accountability, respect and appreciation of both the sport, the humans and their own responsibilities. People who believe they are anonymous or lost in a crowd will do things they would never do if held accountable as an individual.

Contagion is a psychological reality where the emotional and behavioral actions of one person can change the emotional affect of others. In economic terms bad fans drive out good fans. In social psychology the haunting example of the death of Kitty Genovese reminds us all that people will stand around while another person is murdered waiting for others to act. In fandom  this "bystander effect" encourages people to stand around while one obnoxious idiot spews invective to hurt the players and infect those around him. The picture here is of a young kid giving finger--is  this what we want to hand on as fans? Like racism, bad fanhood is learned and handed on.

Another crowd effect encourages the darkside of fans. Being in a crowd that feels anger and rage encourages people to feel release from their normal moral commitments. The crowd encourages a form of anonymity and people who believe they are anonymous will do things they would never do if alone and accountable. The soccer riots in Europe epitomize all these coming together. The recent killings of fans as people stood around and cheered resembled gang executions.

Moral and psychological life is strange. Every good aspect of being a fan carries a shadow. Identity, common fate and language, particpating with others in emotional expression, if turned ever so slightly, end up with vile cruelty to other teams, to human players and to other fans.

Being a good fan matters and carries obligations. 


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