Sports Fans Need to Get it Together
Tons of sports fans are stupid. I'd even go far as saying that many of them are very stupid.
The passion which drives people to invest their time in sports goes far beyond the love of the game and the appreciation and enthusiasm that counts as "team spirit" is thoroughly rooted in competition. The desire to be the best of the best. It's the reason why sports betting thrives and how the desperate degenerate gambling portrayed in the Safdie Brothers' anxiety-driven film "Uncut Gems" is quite realistic. It's also why "who's the GOAT" arguments endlessly persist and devalue the massive statistical accomplishments of huge stars by sorting everyone's feats into pointless rankings. Some of these trivial online disputes have even spiraled into physical altercations (See the "Meet Me in Temecula" incident).
Not joining a specific fanbase allows people to objectively soak in all of the best parts of fandom without having to experience the downfalls. But most souls aren't wired like this. As someone who gets heavily invested in whatever entertainment I set my eyes on, the idea of being able to regularly watch a sport without choosing a favorite is futile. The dark side of this one-team commitment is when loyalty towards a team ticks drastically close to a blinding ride-or-die mentality. With this mindset, every unfavorable action laid against the team is taken at a personal level by the most dedicated members of this fan community. They take it upon themselves to absorb the slander for athletes that will never know their names. Yet it becomes a divine personal mission to defend these essentially teflon figures, and when these players inevitably betray the perfect vision conjured up in fans' heads, they become lifelong enemies.
Take Kyrie Irving for example. In game 4 of his Brooklyn Nets' first-round matchup with the Boston Celtics, Irving had a stellar performance, scoring 39 points and leading his team to a 141-126 victory. For his efforts, he was greeted with a hodgepodge of "Fuck you Kyrie" chants from the Boston crowd, a fanbase that once adored him and thought of him as the tested leader of a potential championship squad. The fractured relationship between Irving and the Celtics organization is no secret to NBA fans, and it's deteriorated swiftly since Irving surprisingly left the team in free agency following the 2018-19 season. The resulting discontent for Irving has a stronghold in the Celtics' fanbase and fans particularly blame Irving for abandoning the team.
Following the game, the Nets point guard moseyed over to the center of the Celtics' home court and stepped (some say stomped) on the head of Lucky the Leprechaun, the Celtics' team logo (and no it's not the Lucky Charms mascot from the commercials). Now there are years of outdated sports tradition that says stepping on logos is a massive sign of disrespect and yada yada yada. Let's just say it's a big no-no to some people, even if it's a bit meaningless. Naturally, this action sprung the Celtics defense force into action and one particularly unserious Celtics fan took it upon himself to avenge Lucky the Leprechaun by chucking a water bottle at Kyrie Irving's head as he exited the court. Luckily, the bottle narrowly missed. Sadly for Mr. Celtic, he was arrested and now faces assault and battery charges. On top of that, he's been banned for life from Boston's TD Garden. A prime example of when keeping it real goes wrong.
At the post-game press conference, Irving explained how some fans forget that they are promised an entertaining game and not engagement with real people. "You can see that people just feel very entitled out here," Irving said. "They paid for their tickets -- great, I'm grateful that they're coming in to watch a great performance. But we're not at the theater. We're not throwing tomatoes and other random stuff at the people that are performing."
This revolting treatment of Irving borders upon sub-human. It follows the same philosophy of consumers who truly believe that the customer is always right when anyone who's worked a single day in retail or food service would testify that this saying is entirely fictitious. Customers take out their frustration on employees and fans treat players as emotionless characters solely roaming around for their enjoyment. Anytime they deviate from what the fans want, they become a target.
Irving's Nets teammate Kevin Durant also chimed in with some very important points about the incident. "I know that being in the house for a year-and-a-half with the pandemic got a lot of people on edge, got a lot of people stressed out," Durant said. "But when you come into these games, you've got to realize these men are human. We’re not animals; we’re not in a circus."
I wish I could say this sort of occurrence is rare, but it was far from the first attack of its kind that's occurred during the 2021 NBA postseason (let alone any other period in basketball). A 76ers fan poured popcorn on Russell Westbrook's head just days earlier as he left a game with an injury. The night after, A New York Knicks fan spit on Trae Young's shoulder as he inbounded the basketball. Ja Morant's dad was told by a Utah Jazz fan "I'll put a nickel in your back and watch you dance, boy," and that barely even cracks the top 3 worst comments Morant and his wife received while watching their son play in his first NBA playoff series. There's even been a recent uptick of videos from baseball games showing fans getting cold-cocked or engaging in all-out warfare in the bleachers. I mean LOOK at this fight between a Padres and Rockies fan. Like I know baseball is a bit of a slow game and you need to occupy yourself but fighting feels a BIT excessive.
Eliminating this problem for good would mean closing sports venues to all of the biggest troublemakers. Since it's too hard to disseminate who would act out on their bad impulses, that means keeping every fan out. This would've been a foreign concept a couple of years ago but the NBA adapted during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and offered this stark alternative. For months, there were no fans, and barely any non-player presence outside of players' families and loose amounts of staff. Upon being welcomed back with open arms, many fans have gotten far too comfortable and think consequences don't apply. These are the same type of clowns who run their mouths on the internet because they can shield themselves anonymously behind a digital screen. When they get called out for doing the same thing in public, it gets ugly. Meanwhile, the players who confront them and decide to defend themselves get labeled as "difficult" but receive no help when they're being degraded constantly. Even if it's something they're expected to put up with it, players should not have to worry about fans crossing the line.
There's no rational excuse to warrant this sort of behavior and sports being intense by nature is no justification for going berzerk. If you have that much of an emotional attachment to a hardwood leprechaun (especially one that's dressed like an archaic Irish detective) you need to evaluate your priorities quite a bit. That especially goes for Celtics players like Kevin Garnett and Glen "Big Baby" Davis who came to the defense of an inanimate being before their fellow NBA brethren. Even then, I can at least understand actual Celtic players being upset about disrespect towards their former franchise, even if I think freaking out about stepping on logos is unwarranted. They gave, blood, sweat, and tears to their franchise but what did these whiny fans do? Buy a jersey? Watch games from their couch? Devoting your time and money to a team as a fan is a personal choice, you're not bound by any contract to represent your team. Fan input should not speak over the players or put anyone in danger.
Boston itself has an extensive history of problematic fan behavior, which often is underscored by overt racism. When Celtics legend and 11-time NBA champion Bill Russell had his jersey retired in 1972, it was in a small, private ceremony, unlike the deserved over-the-top festivities that greet any other player half as decorated as Russell. The reasoning? Russell didn't like the idea of having his big day in front of the people who'd racially tormented him during his entire career. Various baseball players who've played at Boston's Fenway Park say they were treated terribly through the years. In 2017, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones had racial epithets hurled at him, along with a bag of peanuts. Last year, retired player Torii Hunter explained that he had a no-trade clause to the Boston Red Sox throughout his career to avoid playing in a hostile environment. Hunter's been called slurs at Fenway various times and never wanted his family to attend his games at Fenway Park because he feared for their safety.
It seems like every year now there are new revelations that add to Beantown's racist reputation. Boston sportswriters instinctively try to come to their beloved city's defense by saying how racist interactions between fans and players happen nationwide. While still true, it fails to acknowledge the appalling lack of accountability that further alienates Black athletes in one of America's largest cities. When a Black player says that Boston is the only place they'll never play, people should take immediate notice.
The water bottle throw was extremely bad timing for a franchise already so steeped in racial strife. Before game 3 took the series from Brooklyn to Boston, Irving said he hoped there would be no "belligerence or racism." Celtics players Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown repeated Irving's sentiments, with Brown noting that "racism is bigger than basketball." As Celtic players themselves acknowledged the city's notorious racism, you'd think everyone in the organization would be cognizant of this history right? Right? Not really.
Less than a week before resigning, the Celtic's (then) president of basketball operations Danny Ainge responded to Irving's comments by saying how he had "never heard that from Celtics players in my 26 years in Boston." Now if things are this tone-deaf within the franchise, it shouldn't come as a surprise that their fans keep repeating their intolerant actions. Ainge's remarks only serve to encourages further these disturbing fan-player incidents by denying their existence and failing to recognize his own players' experiences. Just last October, Smart wrote an essay in The Player's Tribune detailing his battles with racial discrimination, which have only increased since he's become an NBA player. His experience included an adult Celtics fan calling him the n-word in front of her young child. So either Ainge wanted to save his ass by disregarding the racism altogether, or he genuinely had not seen Smart or any other Celtics' players' public comments during his tenure. Neither are great options and show how much he was unfit to lead an NBA team.
Though executives around the league must do more to protect their players' safety, fans have nobody to blame but themselves. With each new transgression, it becomes very clear how an all-out brawl between players and spectators like Malice at the Palace could've happened when fans continually cross the line. Every once in a while, things need to be put in check. You'd think that after having all this time to reflect on how attending games in person is a privilege, fans would be on their best behavior. However, it's produced more chaos than ever.
I don't think anyone thought they'd ever miss the eery silence of sports arenas but perhaps fans should be banned again. Their (once) temporary time-out could someday be extended indefinitely.