Competing Against Civility

I work in the world of athletics. I’ve always maintained that athletics is an amazing venue in which to learn life lessons. I’ve also always felt that athletics tends to bring out the best in the athletes and the worst in the fans. I’m guilty as charged. I become someone I don’t recognize when my favorite football team gets what I regard to be a bad call from an obviously biased ref. It takes all the self-control I can muster to calm down and not go off on the refs.

Did sports ever have a universally agreeable playbook on expected fan behavior? It seems to be the norm that for some reason we have deemed it acceptable to not just state our opinion, but to bully and torment without remorse or repercussion. In my latest book obsession “The Geography of Genius,” author Eric Weiner argues that what you honor as a culture grows.

It’s frightening how the arena of sports allows and encourages a Roman Colosseum-type of environment. How can we expect ourselves to go to the ugliest part of ourselves and switch it off once we get outside the arena? Or do we not expect that? Maybe we’re bringing our frustrations from the outside world into the arena and feel it’s an acceptable space to express our discontentment—as if getting heckled has its own page in the playbook that refs and athletes should understand.

How did we get here? Somewhere along the way we have mistaken civility with weakness. Is it not possible to be a rabid fan while maintaining civility and respect for the opponent? It always cracks me up when fans yell, “You SUCK!” or worse… to the opposing team. The only reason they’re so fired up is because they, in fact, don’t suck. The only times such vile ugliness comes out in fans is when the opposing team is a threat. We fans literally lose our minds. And when I say literally, I mean it. Recent neuroscience shows that when we get into this frame of mind the critical thinking parts of our brain stop lighting up. We actually lose the capacity to process new information.

There is a lot of finger pointing going on in the world these days. Many athletic events are now a microcosm of what’s going on in our country and the world. We have allowed our emotions to strangle the better parts of our humanity by turning us into reactionary animals. It is absolutely frightening. There is no longer an expected ethos of civility, decorum, common decency or God forbid accepted diversity.

How amazing would athletics be if we could enter the arena with the mindset of opportunity instead of adversity. As spectators, we can view the opposition with appreciation and respect. Respect they have earned through preparation and a willingness to compete. As competitors, when we appreciate our opponents for the challenges they present we can more easily cut to the truth of our strengths and weaknesses because, as I believe, iron sharpens iron. Let us view sport as a place to demonstrate the best of humanity; to challenge strategy, talent and philosophy, but not civility.

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30 Comments on "Competing Against Civility"

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I admit that sometimes I get a kick out of trash talking, but only on a friendly level. When it gets malicious it’s ridiculous. When I first started going to gym meets I was pleasantly surprised at how fans could cheer for both teams. I recently told a friend about the atmosphere of the meets and that we actually don’t cheer *against* the other team. Just like Tiana’s Dad, I recounted the story of how UCLA fans booed the judges on Ebee’s score. I think it helps that we don’t actually have to beat the other team during the regular… Read more »
Fans can be so crazy!! I have so many memories of stuffing myself onto local weekend trains in Germany when they were filled with crazy drunk football (soccer) fans singing at the top of their lungs. And there was that one time in Pittsburgh when I happened to be in town when the Steelers qualified for the Superbowl and everyone went wild. People were dancing and yelling in the streets and I saw a sign that read “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” Sports are intense!… Read more »
I have also found myself saddened by the mean and inappropriate behavior of sports fans. I remember when I was in college and my school was playing our rival school in football at the other school’s field, one of our professors told his classes that if they were going to the game they needed to remove all bumper stickers, decals, etc. with our school’s name from their cars because their tires would get slashed, their car would get keyed, and their windows would be broken by fans from the other school. He said this had happened many times to his… Read more »
Love this. It’s actually why I love going to Gymnastics meets. People of course root more for their home gymnasts – but I’ve had privilege of attending two of the FIG World Cups that have been held in Glasgow, the Commonwealth Games and World Championships. What I love is that when a gymnast falls or stumbles, no one cheers in jubilation to the fact their mistake has given an opportunity for their gymnasts to win, but applauds when the gymnast (hopefully) gets back up again. Here in Scotland, the main sport is football (soccer to Americans!) particularly if you are… Read more »
Ashley DBD
I was so sad to hear of the treatment of UCLA by the Utah fans. I went to a Utah meet several years ago and remember the fans being appreciative of good gymnastics but obviously more appreciative when it was good Utah gymnastics. I think fans that have been gymnastics fans for years will cheer on any one that performs well and be disappointed when someone makes a mistake but those reactions are more intense when it comes to their own team. I, for example, love UCLA gymnastics but cheer on the other teams as well, especially in the PAC… Read more »
Katie Szurpicki
Miss Val, watching your team compete at Pauley fills me with immense joy. I am such a giant fan of yours, not only because you have an amazing team, but because of the standards you set. You set the tone and have expectations for everyone in attendance, and I love it. The feeling is positive. Last year when Utah was at Pauley, it was a great match and everyone around was enamored with the entire meet. I read the above comment and I remember how everyone felt Ebee should have received a 10! My favorite moment over the last 10… Read more »
So good and so much truth, Miss Val. I’m not a big sports girl (don’t play them and don’t watch them…with the sole exception of NCAA gymnastics), so I’ve often been left scratching my head at the vitriol that comes out of people’s mouths when it comes to sports teams. I’m a graduate of Florida State University, arch nemesis/rival of the University of Florida (and to a lesser extent the University of Miami). The rivalry between these schools is so intense, I’ve had people say to me that my University “sucks” and that I “must have had terrible grades” to… Read more »
Elizabeth W.

Thank you Miss Val. This is the reason every time someone asks me who I root for in gymnastics I can’t give them an answer. I am a DU alumnae. However, I love, love, love UCLA. It is also exciting to watch Cal, Boise, and UK grow and improve. How can anyone pick just one?

Similarly, how are we going to ever find answers we need as a society by not appreciating multiple perspectives.

Now as far as football… could you and Bobby please explain that sport to me? Lol. I don’t get it.


Football season is relentless in my family, especially between my brother and I! We like rival teams (because at a young age I decided to love the team he hates) and our shenanigans have turned into a sport of its own, complete with family & friends joining in & cheering us on. If he leaves me one more piece of cheese to remind me my team lost the Super Bowl to Green Bay years ago…….. I am all for cheering at the top of my lungs, yelling at the television, and questioning whether or not the ref, umpire, or judge… Read more »
Tiana\'s Dad
Thanks to you, Miss Val, for helping encourage that respect and appreciation for your opponents at UCLA meets. I’ll never forget the home crowd at Pauley Pavilion booing when a visiting gymnast scored a 9.975 on a seemingly perfect routine. After the meet you addressed the crowd and thanked us for our appreciation of a great routine, regardless of the uniform on the athlete. I was so happy our children were there to hear that, we bring up that specific incident whenever the topic of sportsmanship comes up. Thanks again for teaching your athletes as well as the rest of… Read more »