Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Shocking Behavior–The Philly fanatics and the decline of fan civility in American sport

The aptly named Philly Fanatic, beloved mascot of the Philadelphia Phillies

From the forthcoming 5/21 edition of The Real Views Magazine

A fan, by nature, possesses an intense and often irrational enthusiasm for something (“fan,” after all, is short for “fanatic”). And as go irrational beliefs, so often goes irrational behaviors.
In the November 21, 2008 and March 6, 2009 editions of The Real Views Magazine, I wrote about unruly fan behavior and the emergence of the “fan-athlete altercation.” These altercations involve incidents in which fans at professional, organized sporting events engage in actions which promote or prompt sometimes unsavory (but after close analysis, often justified) reactions from professional athletes. In the incidents I cited, fan resentment, sometimes the result of racial animus and other times, the product of perceived class division, created a backdrop for what would often be characterized as unlawful behavior on the part of fans. However, in a world where such fan behavior is sanctioned to the point that it sometimes becomes a point of pride for an organization, such actions are often forgiven, and, moreover, subtly encouraged.

Most upsetting in these situations is the double standard to which athletes are subjected – that it is somehow permissible for fans to act in such a fanatical manner, but athletes, because of their exorbitant pay and perceived privilege are to just shut up, play, and cater to the desires of the season ticket purchasing fan. In the end, the media often actively participates in cementing this dichotomy, blaming the athlete by characterizing their actions as part of a narrative where all fan misbehavior is good clean fun while the ensuing responses from athletes are almost always overreactions, temper tantrums, or the expressions of individuals whose wealth and privilege create a warped sense of the world and of limitless entitlement.

Sometimes, however, the fans themselves display behaviors that make us question their worldviews, and their sense of entitlement to be entertained and sated by the teams that they root for – to the point that they feel entitled to let hell break loose should the home team so much as lose a game or two.

Philadelphia is a sports town that self-consciously prides itself in its fandom. They believe their fans to be among the most passionate in the country, and they have gone more than the extra mile to show it. From the Dec. 15, 1968 Philadelphia Eagles game when fans booed Santa Claus simply because they were in the middle of a 2-12 season. They also pelted him with snowballs, a minor offense given that Santa is from a place that gets snow 300 days out of the year, but still. In William Kashatus’ “Dick Allen, the Phillies, and Racism,” he details the Philly slugger, who hit 200+ home runs in his 6+ years with the team, who would be cheered for hitting a home run and then roundly booed if he were to strike out. He later demanded to be traded because of the virulent racism he faced from fans. No different than Philly’s treatment of Donovan McNabb, a college standout who was booed on NFL Draft day, went on to lead the team to NFC Championships and a Super Bowl appearance, and was still regularly chided as the team’s leader.
For the “City of Brotherly Love,” these two brothers received very little.

In 1989, Eagles fans hurled snowballs at the visiting Cowboys, and one future governor Ed Rendell was even among the hooligans that day. A decade later they would cheer after Michael Irvin, of the archrival Cowboys, suffered a career-ending injury and lay motionless on the field before being removed by stretcher. And perhaps it went unnoticed because fighting at hockey games is like free throw shooting at basketball games, but in 2001, a Philadelphia Flyers fan actually assaulted a Toronto Maple Leafs player after he drunkenly stumbled into the penalty box.

Philly fanatics, indeed.

Two recent incidents at Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies, prove that fan incivility is on the rise and is at a feverous pitch, and the target of the incivility is not always a professional athlete.

In a mid-April incident, a 21 year old man from South Jersey was arrested for vomiting on a man and his child. On purpose. He has been charged with assault, reckless endangerment, and disorderly conduct. He has also managed to take the bar for fan behavior, in a town that seems to wear it like a lapel pin, and lower it beneath the earth.

Then, in an incident that gained much more air time because of its extreme idiocy, a 17 year old fan, who allegedly asked his father for permission first, ran onto the field at Citizens Bank Park for nearly a minute before being subdued by a Taser. In an age of heightened security measures and palpable fear of terrorist attack (just three days before, a Nissan Pathfinder full of rudimentary explosives was found on Times Square), police moved quickly to seize the fan. For all those police officers knew, he could have assaulted one of the players, or harmed himself or them in the process. If one is drunk or brazen enough to run on the field during a professional sporting event, who knows what behaviors might follow.

Both of these fans were arrested, and will be fined and are punishable by law. And the security measures taken were swift, appropriate, and evidence of effective event security measures in place at the venue. But the culture that produces their behavior should be the focus of the analysis. Their behavior, part of a decades’ long trend in Philadelphia, is more than a question of event management and security, and certainly merits a more stern response than “Well, you know Philly fans …”

At the very least, there should be a serious reconsideration of the city’s nickname, or an acknowledgement of its fundamental irony.

A special thanks to DJ Gallo of ESPN’s Page 2 for his May 4 compilation of Philly fan misbehavior, “Philadelphians can read the phine print”

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