Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Fans and What They Deserve

Allow me to begin by being perfectly clear. The fans are completely off base and out of control. They need a reality check and an attitude adjustment- pronto.

I suppose I should have begun with the standard statements of disapproval- something along the lines of no player should ever go into the stands. But something more basic is missing from that statement. No fan should ever throw any object at a player or in the direction of the playing court/ field. No fan should ever attempt to personally denigrate an athlete (i.e. the Kobe rape chants of last season).

Somehow, fans- in professional basketball and across the board- have developed a sense of entitlement. Michael Wilbon not only captured but endorsed this sense recently when he wrote, "The price of a ticket allows a paying customer to boo, even taunt, players from the stands. It does not allow for turning concessions into projectiles and throwing chairs." The proposed remedies- locking up the guilty, suspending beer sales late in games (or as The Sports Guy gamely suggested yesterday, a 60 day beer sale suspension in Detroit), or moving fans back from the action (or, as ESPN's Marc Stein offered, have the Pistons play a game before an empty house)- fail to address this sense of entitlement. Beer sales are not a right. There is no alcohol to be purchased at Maryland games and I suspect that's fairly common across college sports. But patrons still show up. Beer sales are not a right, but they are a cashcow. Moving the fans back simply condones the loutish behavior by attempting to move them too far away to have an impact. And would, similarly, hurt the league's wallet.

Taking a step back for a moment, the remedies and punishments toward fans are, universally, recognized by those who suggest them as dead letters because doing so would hurt the bottom line. No one, however, seems concerned about that problem. They recognize what is 'right', realize it won't happen because of the almighty dollar (i.e. greed), and just drop it. This is a problem, no?

The Game goes on, with or without the fans. For every NBA arena packed with 20,000 fans, 20,000 schoolyards and driveways are hosting games without a spectator. Fans are a nice addition, not a necessity. They are the guests at someone else's show.

Instead of tough love for fans, we have statements from a Tony Kornheiser arguing, "only the players are under the system of law that Stern operates... He [Stern] had to do this to regain the confidence of the public. You can't ever worry that if you buy a ticket to a game, your life will be in danger from large muscular men running into the stands with mayhem on their minds. If you don't feel safe going to the game, you won't buy a ticket." Or, from Jennifer of Akron, OH,
"There is absolutely no excuse for what happened at that game. There was no reason for Artest to go into the stands, whether he got a cup in his face or not. NBA players are professionals and have a level of professionalism to maintain. As a first grade teacher, I am mortified that these professional players that my students want to be just like, would demonstrate such irresponsible behavior. Whether players want to be role models or not, it becomes part of their job due to their visibility. Yes, fans need to be under control and not throw things at the players. But, Artest's choice to go into the stands escalated the situation to what it became last night... it is clear that what happened last night would not have if Artest did not charge the stands."

I cannot think of a single incident- at least on the professional level- of a player going into the stands unprovoked. Previous incidents in baseball have been instigated by fans grabbing players belongings (see, Dodgers vs. Chicago), for instance. To all the fans worried in the way Tony K. warns, the solution is simple. Don't throw items at players, don't cheer if it happens. Or, in short. Don't go around picking these fights. Speaking of role models- how about the fine upstanding citizens- fathers and mothers of first graders, no doubt- who showed themselves to be quite the role models themselves. Kids do look up to athletes. But they are far more likely to be fans than participants as they grow older. They should emulate neither side's behavior.

Thus far, I have avoided the divide between players and fans. "It begins with the question: has the sport become too edgy, too young and culturally black, for the predominantly corporate and well-heeled white audiences." The overriding frame of these discussions goes something like: the players had better right their ship and re-sync their values and behavior. Which implicitly assumes the fan culture is right. I see no evidence to support that assumption.


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