LOVE IT, HATE IT: THE DECLINE OF CIVILITY IN SPORTS

LOVE IT, HATE IT: THE DECLINE OF CIVILITY IN SPORTS

–Kenny Rice

 

“Words they’ll try to shake you

Don’t let them break you or stop your world from turning”

Words by Train

 

Living vicariously through an athlete or celebrity has always been a part of society. When Alexander Graham Bell started making phone calls, people were already cheering or booing; second- guessing and arguing about a big play or player. The origin of ‘fan,’ derived from fanatic, is believed to have first been used to describe followers of baseball, our oldest American made sport.

The culture has radically changed though over the decades.  No more is this apparent than with the rise of social networking in the last ten years. At worst, it is a venue to unleash the most impersonal without consequence responses from fans. Our heroes of the court, cage, diamond, and field are frequently in the crosshairs of the disgruntled fan wielding a 4-G keypad who can type faster than human thought allows.

A Facebook message or Twitter response can become a weapon of cultural mass destruction. Some choose to not be accountable, creating a nom de plume to spew venom, release frustrations over the Internet. These folks possess an inordinate amount of hostility, far from the release, that cathartic experience, sports has provided us (or at least used to provide us).

At best, it is an amazing communications outlet.  A college coach uses it as a tool for recruiting and satisfying fans that will never get to meet him in person. An athlete uses it to promote product endorsements and as their own news outlet. UFC match-ups are now tweeted as much as formally announced. Fans have instant information.

The cyber world has created a whole new galaxy, where one can be thrown into an orbital plunge of anger as easily as a gravitational pull of happiness.

“I don’t understand why a person who apparently hates me will follow me on Twitter.” UFC heavyweight Pat Barry says. “If I don’t like someone, I sure don’t care what they’re doing or saying. I wouldn’t go out of my way to pretend interest, only to tell them I hope they lose and that they suck.”

Ironically, MMA popularity was cultivated via the Internet.  It remains the medium for MMA news while the majority of the mainstream newspapers and publications have limited, if any, space for reporting on the sport.

Strikeforce Bantamweight Champ Miesha Tate sees its extremes. “It’s surprising someone would want to go out of their way (to criticize). There’s a mean spirit about it. But the majority are interested and supportive. They want to know what’s going on in a positive way.”

“I like the ones who tell you what you have to do to win the fight,” laughs UFC light heavyweight Phil Davis. “You wonder how many of them has ever been in any kind of fight? I’d like to know their background.”

After Davis suffered his first loss as a professional to former champ Rashad Evans last month, he got more ‘tips’ from followers. “There must be a lot of good fighters out there,” he smiles, unconcerned.

In 1968 when Andy Warhol predicted “15 minutes of fame” for all in the future, it was beyond comprehension. While outlandish then, had it existed no doubt fans would have offered pointers to Muhammad Ali. Cyber heckled Michael Jordan from the safety of their basement for him missing a rare big shot. Magic and Bird would’ve been socially provoked to spar via tweets.

“The one [tweet] I remember getting was telling me I was doing to die in the ring by taking this fight. Die? Based on what?,” Mark “Fightshark” Miller recalls. Last year he returned to fighting after a four-year absence because of heart surgery to replace a malfunctioning aortic valve. “So I wrote him back to ask him if he was a heart specialist, because my heart specialist has cleared me to fight. I didn’t get a response.”  Miller went on to a triumphant ring return with a first round nine-second knockout.

No law requires participation in social media, it does seem even a bit pretentious. But most are Gaga about it–the Lady has 10 million following. This powerful device is also an invitation to whoever wants to try pushing the buttons of any celebrities trying to push their agendas.

If we don’t necessarily want to antagonize, we certainly don’t mind watching it in others. Reality TV is filled with conflict. People put their heart on their sleeve and stick it straight into our living room to watch it crushed if they don’t get a rose. Housewives turn on best friends and turn over tables. It makes Marlin Perkins’ iconic “Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom” TV series look tame, and that had actual wild animals– lions, tigers and bears.

Oh my, we aren’t the same society. But sports fans have always had a certain passion bordering on ecstasy and sorrow. A hit or miss concept that is zooming close to out of control on the information highway.

University of Kentucky psychologist Dr. Richard Smith notes research done by Robert Cialdini and other psychologists in the mid-1970’s. Commonly known as the “The Football Field Study.” The study reached the conclusion more students wore team colors and school sweatshirts after a victory than after a defeat. The “bandwagon effect” basically that permeated campus and community alike.

“It’s a self identity even though illogical, that one’s self is connected in some way with their team. The word ‘we’ is used more with victory,” Dr. Smith explains. “”Not so much a team always but with certain individuals as well. In some ways you might say with particular fighters there is a connection, an identity self-based on how they are doing. Again while it sounds illogical, that’s the way it is.”

Dr. Smith recalls stopping at a rural restaurant shortly after the Giants won the Super Bowl in 1987.  Eli Manning was six at the time, to further illustrate that there is nothing new to sports hero worship. “The waitress came to the table and out of the blue greeted us with ‘I know Phil Simms,’ who was the MVP of the game. There was certainly nothing wrong in that, it showed she had great pride in identifying with Simms and his accomplishment. She wanted to share that. Sports fans love to share in good times.”

The “Football Field Study,” created a well-known acronym in psychology, BIRF–basking in reflective glory.  That an identity that can be strongly related to a coach or an individual star.  An identiy too strong for some, who – while they bask in a win – feel an excessive personal failure in a team or individual’s loss.

We have to disagree, it’s an either-or society. No compromise. The adage ‘never talk politics or religion’ among friends has vanished.  Daily those are debated on the in-our-face 24-hour news cycle networks. Even they regurgitate topics to the point where pulling clips from competitors is the norm. We don’t have anything else to add — but we disagree with those guys.

Flexibility is now a weakness. If elected officials and journalists want to figuratively slug it out, why should stadiums and arenas be safe havens for logical debate about who might win a game or a fight? Maybe the overall decline in respectful confrontation is only being reflected in sports. No wonder brawls break out at preseason football games where the score doesn’t matter.

It is a love-or-hate situation. And I hate that. Even at the end of this article, we will post “Love It” or “Hate It” let us know at HDNet. Can’t we just sometimes mildly agree or disagree somewhat or simply be indifferent?  Life isn’t always red-hot or ice-cold, there’s a bunch of lukewarm in the middle everyday.

In the not-so-long-ago 20th Century, we didn’t have this regular feeling of having to have an opinion.  Perhaps this is related to the overall uncertainty of the times. The precept of being disenfranchised is so overwhelming to an individual there is a need to lash out.

Dr. Smith talks about “narcissistic behavior” becoming more prevalent among sports fans. In 2006, Dr. Kirk Wakefield of Baylor University, in collaboration with Dr. Daniel Wann of Murray State, termed it “dysfunctional fans.” The Baylor paper, The Lariat, reported Dr. Kirk’s findings that identified these fans are more likely to: use alcohol beyond average consumption, be loud and obnoxious, yell at other fans as well as the referees, and were obsessed with talk shows and fan sites. “They enjoy being a minority at games and enjoy confrontation,” the article quoted Dr. Kirk.

However, yelling at the opposition or ref isn’t always bad. In Dr. Kirk’s study, painting their bodies and wearing elaborate dress to show team support are not signs of a dysfunctional fan. He labeled them “highly identified fans.” They had a pride in their team, the true school spirit that made for the excitement inherent to sporting events.  They were there to have fun.

The fun is missing for many in sports. There are some good old-fashioned basics to perhaps bring that back. Several sayings from your grandmother, or great-grandmother:  ‘Don’t let them get your goat,’, ‘Don’t get in a public spitting contest with a skunk,’  ‘Don’t take the bait,’ and ‘Don’t have a thin skin.’ If you feel challenged unnecessarily consider them, they aren’t out of style.

Supermodel Gisele Bundchen, wife of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, became the biggest post Super Bowl story when she railed back at a heckler. Those brief seconds of outburst will live on. Defending her husband is an admirable trait, yet this momentary meltdown is the object for most out-of-reach taunting: a form of acknowledgement from someone perceived to be at a higher station in life.

Miller understands this though it is not easy to always accept.  “Why is that bothering me or affecting my day? It isn’t. If you go to the guy’s site who tries to upset you, he almost always has three followers, if that. He lives for the moment when you do respond. Especially if it’s from a fighter with thousands and thousands of followers. He got them to say something and if he has any friends he can brag about it forever.”

Golf superstar Phil Mickelson has taken a different approach, two weeks ago filing a defamation lawsuit against a Canadian Internet company for “vexatious statements” allowed on a blog site by anonymous person or persons.

Mickelson has boldly called out the anonymous bullies. If he wins, there will be a flipping of the cyber world axis where web sites that rely on fan blogs for the majority of their ‘content,’ could have to only use responses from those not afraid to use their real identity. This responsibility might be too much to ask for those if the heavy veil of secrecy is lifted.

Dion Guest is an honored ex-Marine, or has he has said, “you are always a Marine.” Guest is also an instructor of Krav Maga. No one would argue his toughness. He is also a prominent attorney who understands that being tough is not always conducive to arguing with an unknown cyber assailant from a legal standpoint.

“There is the time and cost perspective. It plays a huge role.  Defamation suits can be very costly to pursue. From a legal standpoint the question many times is ‘who is a public figure’? People have a lot more latitude to say something about a famous person. It’s harder to defend a defamation claim against a person considered a public figure,” Guest explains.

“There is a heightened legal standard when it comes to proving a defamation suit against a public figure. A private person?  In the United States the question is under what circumstances will an average citizen be deemed a “public figure?”  In the United Kingdom for instance the laws are more favorable to a public figure because they do not distinguish between public figures and private citizens. It is an easier case to make so long as they prove each element of either libel or slander.”

The famous who consider retribution, most of the time pull back to see the bigger picture. Perhaps those who try to goad them into an angry response are of this. There is too much litigation anyway and a small minority put any stock in outlandish statements, slanderous claims from someone using an alias on one of the numerous message boards. They are smart enough to consider the source.

Most athletes I’ve interviewed, even some that have disagreed with me, have said they are far more likely to answer a fan who poses a legitimate question and gives their real name and address. They relate to a person more than a screen alias and understand better a logical question, though it might be challenging, than some outrageous accusation or some borderline slanderous posting on a page.

It’s never advisable to take the matter into your own hands, although Barry responded in a manner most athletes and celebrities wish they could at least once. He noticed fans high above the railing mouthing expletive filled insults toward his friend Brock Lesnar as he walked out of the arena after losing to Alistair Overeem. Barry walked up the flights of steps.

“I told them to tell me exactly what they wanted me to tell Brock for them,” he laughs hard as he recreates their hand gestures as they hoped to wave it all away. “The guy doing most of the talking, well his buddies were leaving, no one has his back. He is shaking and goes ‘no, I didn’t do that, I didn’t mean anything.’  I smiled and left. It scared them more than a punch would’ve.”

This might not be the way to correct things, even if you are a 250 pound UFC fighter. But in the purest form of expression, it’s in the vicinity. Someone disagrees, you ask them why.  Debate can be friendly and resolved without violence or further anger, and you know exactly who is saying what to whom. It’s the heart of sports. Hmm, maybe I’ll tweet that.

Perhaps you might even agree, mildly.

 

Mildly agree? Have an iota of discontent?  Let us know on Facebook or twitter, or on Kenny’s new twitter account.

 

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