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.