Athletes are at the top of their game, but fans could do much better
Time has been kind to professional sports. Almost everything is significantly better than it was 20 years ago.
Everything but us.
Athletes are bigger, stronger and faster. Analytics have made everyone smarter. Advancements in health and nutrition have spawned an era where Tom Brady competes for Super Bowls at age 42, Roger Federer wins majors at age 38 and Vince Carter is still dunking in his 40’s.
But the fans? We’ve grown intolerable. And we’re getting worse.
Proof was on display in Indianapolis, where Colts fans booed Andrew Luck as he walked off the field, after news broke that he was retiring before the 2019 NFL season. When his final pass was on the sport itself, the lack of humanity was sickening.
It was on display in Toronto during the NBA Finals, when Raptors fans cheered a serious injury to Kevin Durant, displaying the class of grub worms. They nuked their classy reputation with one awful, villainous, self-indulgent reaction.
Both cities are known for benign and happy fan bases, the kind of people you wouldn’t mind babysitting your children. Both cities will live with a great deal of shame from these incidents moving forward, if there’s any shame left in the world.
I saw this coming in October 2003, on the night in Wrigley Field when the mitt hit the fan. Moments after Steve Bartman interfered with history, I jumped from my seat in the press box, racing down ramps to the left-field concourse.
When I spotted Bartman, he was being funneled blindly, on the catwalk high above me, escorted by frantic security, with a jacket draped over his head. Around me, I witnessed the horrifying, salivating spectacle of a lynch mob ready to kill one of their own. For attempting to catch a foul ball.
Sick. Rinse. Repeat.
For two decades, I have spent NFL Sundays with the Cardinals, in Arizona and beyond. The drunken violence and toxic masculinity escalates with every passing season, from inside stadiums to adjacent parking lots to sports bars on the periphery.
You want to find someone who is sick of sports fans? Talk to service personnel who work double and triple shifts on a football Sunday, just to pay the rent.
For whatever reasons, fandom in the 21st century is ripe for revolt. Social media gives everyone a voice and a direct line to the athletes in their crosshairs. Many athletes are disoriented by all the voices in their head, for the passion they mistake as hatred.
Those deeply invested with fantasy sports have commodified their fandom to a dangerous level. They are no longer just fans. They are also players, at least in some convoluted fantasy realm. They are also de facto owners, creating a world where the players work for them.
All of these changes have helped fuel a world where we cheer individual athletes more than we do the teams. We cheer for our self-interests and what they can do for us, not the name on the front of their jersey. And the climate is only going to get worse, after sports wagering becomes mainstream, legal and available to the masses, when bets are made and paid inside our athletic stadiums.
So, welcome to an ever-growing athletic dystopia. Most marquee franchises are now valued at over $1 billion. Sports remains the rare activity that can attract and captivate a live audience, serving as the Great American Campfire. On a base level, the covenant between athletes and fans remains intact. To wit:
Athletes need us.
Who else will glorify them for hitting or throwing a ball, allowing them to earn millions for frivolous playground skills? On the flipside, we need them to thrill and entertain us, to get our minds off the mundane, testing themselves against like-minded humans in angry competition, thereby revealing the boundaries of human achievement.
That has never changed. So why all the current animosity?
There are no hard answers here. Except that our obsession with sports has always been a window into the American condition, a country that loves achievers, celebrities, dynasties, winners, champions of the human spirit and quarterbacks who get the girl in the end.
Maybe the current level of toxicity in sports is proof of the uncivil world beyond our playing fields. And that we all need to get better with time.
Reach Bickley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.