Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Moralizing About Fans

By now, the immediate outrage of what happened at Game 3 between the Caps and Flyers last night has probably subsided. What started with a dangerous and frankly disgusting hit by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare on Dmitry Orlov devolved into Flyers fans throwing the light up bracelets attached to the seats at Wells Fargo Center to be used for the Ed Snider tribute onto the ice. Philadelphia sports fans are not know for their subtlety, or grace in defeat or anger, but last night felt like a new low. But is that because many of us at large spend so much time moralizing fandom and the conduct of fans, particularly in Philadelphia?

It's no secret that I grew up outside of Philadelphia obviously in a sea of Philly sports fans when I myself loathed most all Philly teams. When my elementary school held a pep rally for the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX (I was in fifth grade), I wore my Byron Leftwich Jaguars jersey to school that day in protest (and was forced to go to the pep rally anyway even though I made it obvious I had no interest), and had beer dumped on me at a Phillies game when I wore a Mets shirt, so maybe my views here are slanted in one direction. Or maybe, after dealing with the Philadelphia sports scene ever since I started following sports, maybe my experiences can shed more light on the situation. The real answer here is: fans and media love to moralize fandom, particularly for dissident groups and vocal groups of fans outside their own hemisphere.

What happened last night was obviously heinous on the part of the Flyers fans who threw bracelets at Dmitry Orlov on the bench, and after that. Lou Nolan even said in essence, "what the hell are you people doing?" to the fans who wouldn't admit their team was outclassed. Having all of this boil over on the night the team honors Ed Snider punctuates the situation even more. The outrage that followed is not surprising, because this is another incident to throw on the pile of incidents that defines Philadelphia sports fandom which includes throwing D-Cell batteries at J.D Drew, snowballs at Santa, a courtroom inside the Vet, fighting Tie Domi in the penalty box, etc. One of the most popular Philly sports blogs is called "The 700 level", after the cheap seats at the Vet, so Philly fans know their history. But last night felt like the end of the rope for the town and its fans, even from those who accept this kind of behavior because "it's Philly". Even Ryan White showed complicity in "endorsing" what the few Flyers fans did at the end of Game 3. But moralizing fandom and condemning other groups of fans is nothing new, and with the internet the moral outrage is louder than ever.

Every group of fans has its bad seeds, though it seems Philly's bad seeds sprout bigger and uglier flowers. One of Twitter's favorite running jokes is about how St. Louis Cardinal fans proclaim themselves to be "the best in baseball", and then jump on them when some do stupid and insidious nonsense like calling now Cubs OF Jason Heyward the N-word. That rightfully deserves outrage, but not all Cardinals fans do that, just as not all Flyers fans would throw light-up bracelets at injured players from the opposing team. Hindsight is always 20/20, so saying that of course the Flyers marketing staff should have seen what occurred coming but they aren't cynical enough to actually believe anyone would do it, particularly on Ed Snider night. The media and other vocal fans can use that lens freely, while others can't. Whether it's #NotAllFlyersFans or #ItsJustBandwagoners, you could replace Flyers fans with any other group of fans across the world and name something stupid they've done. In Italy, fans of one soccer team threw flares at the head of the opposing goalie, and that's somehow common. It wasn't actually Canucks fans who incited the riots after losing Game 7 in 2011 to the Bruins, it was "anarchists in Canucks jerseys who aren't really fans". The emperor continues to find new clothes to wear, but still gets stoned every time.

Immediacy begets sweeping generalizations, not just in sports but everywhere. One of my tenets of sports fandom, like fandom of bands, actors, etc., is that it's inherently irrational. No rational human being would stake happiness and well being to the performance of a team playing a child's game for insane amounts of money that we the fans have no control over. It's the Roman Gladitorial Arena for the modern generation. What fans will "endorse", or let slide in the name of their team, will often times be slammed in all other instances because fandom is irrational. While what Flyers fans, Cardinals fans, etc. did is disgusting, sweeping generalizations of an entire group of people based on the actions of a few is what in other terms would be called "racism" or "sexism" or any of a number of other synonyms. Why in a sports context is this acceptable?

My sentiments of distrust and anger towards Philly sports teams and their fans has cooled as I have grown older, which means my own reaction to last night is vastly different than it would have been if I was younger. Maybe that misplaced anger and those frayed nerves have shifted to other groups of fans, but I still regret what I used to do and how I used to color an entire group of people wrongly because of the actions of a few lone wolves. There are plenty of Philly fans who would have thrown bracelets onto the ice that weren't at Wells Fargo Center last night, and plenty of fans at the rink who walked out in despair because of what they witnessed. What we shouldn't do is moralize and condemn an entire group of people because of this, because fandom comes in all different shapes, sizes and forms and some people take it too far.

While it may be easy to judge an entire group of people based on the actions of a few, we need to attempt to act rationally to prevent that. It's no doubt difficult, just like it is for those who wore the same Ed Snider shirts as those who threw solid objects at an injured player to accept what they've seen. Fandom isn't rational, and trying to rationalize irrationality only bring about more irrationality.

Such is sports, such is fandom.

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