Monday, 28 November 2011

When Sporting Fandom Becomes Fanaticism

By Shane Thomas

In recent weeks, an alarming aspect of sport has come to the fore. The partisanship of supporters - normally a crucial component in the heft and resonance that makes it such an appealing aspect of life for some of us - has descended into a ugly sump of rabid, one-eyed protectionism. It seems that there's no heinous act that won't be defended - as long as the accused represents the team that you like.

Last month, both Liverpool's Luis Suarez and Chelsea's John Terry were accused of racially abusing opposition players. I think anyone with a core of decency in them would state that these are two racial incidents too many. Suarez has been charged by the FA, while the Terry case is ongoing, as the Metropolitan Police are now leading the investigation.

The issue is here is not to attach any alleged guilt to Terry or Suarez. Our justice system is founded on the principle of "innocent until proven guilty", and as such, they should be treated as innocent citizens until the requisite authority decrees otherwise.

However, this has not stopped football fans taking to the radio airwaves and the Internet to either condemn Terry and Suarez or defend them with a zeal redolent of religious fundamentalists. Terry has been more in the spotlight as he's a divisive figure and is also the England captain. Many have used the controversy to decry him with fierce abandon, while the same fierce abandon has come from his defenders - primarily Chelsea fans.

This has bought the issue of racism - a poison thought to have been eradicated from our shores - back into the public consciousness. Former black professionals who have used their Twitter feeds to declare that this is a necessary wake-up call to any who would bury their heads in the sand have received a ton of the most vile abuse. They have been told to shut up, and to stop bleating over a problem that doesn't exist - and these were the relatively polite responses. Some have gone so far to send these ex-players reams of vile bigoted tweets - the type of repugnant rhetoric that seems to be the preserve of many a Twitter page. Terry and Suarez may not be guilty of racism, but these troglodytes posing as football fans certainly are.

But why stop at racism, let's throw child abuse into the mix as well.

It's fair to say that college American football isn't a sport that gets a lot of coverage outside North America. However, when a sex abuse scandal broke out at Pennsylvania State University, then Penn State became worldwide news.

Longtime member of the coaching staff, Jerry Sandusky has been arrested after being charged with sexually abusing underage boys between 1994 and 2009. As Sandusky was arrested by the local police force, it was revealed that knowledge of these actions went up the Penn State chain of command. Head coach of the football team, Joe Paterno was accused of being made aware of Sandusky's conduct 9 years ago, and did what police have described as the "bare minimum", alerting the college's athletic director, Tim Curley, before washing his hands of the situation.

It seems that Curley did the same, as well as the senior Vice President, Gary Schultz. Police have charged both men with failing to report the suspected abuse. The parallels with the peadophilia prevalent in the Catholic Church is chilling, and Paterno has paid for it with his job.

Feel sick yet? Well if not, students of the university took to the streets in angry protest. Which would be perfectly understandable if it weren't for the fact that the protests were in aid of Paterno being fired.

Yes, a man who was possibly complicit in a lengthy period of underage boys being raped, is the good guy in the eyes of the students. They point to his long years of service, his stellar coaching record, and all the players who have gone to have successful careers after playing for Penn State. The gist of the argument was essentially, "what about all the people who haven't been raped?"

Not only that, but the first victim who sparked the scandal has received such vitriolic bullying from his classmates, he has been forced to leave the college. Yes, in Penn State, after you've been (allegedly) sexually abused, your torment doesn't stop there.

What is that makes people behave in such a way? To take the most unconscionable actions, and try to spin them as if they were a mix of Karl Rove and Peter Mandleson, all because a person happens to have a sporting talent. You can be sure that they would be little support for Paterno had he been an average coach.

Like religious zealots, sport is fast becoming a church where you don't just follow a team and its players, you worship it with immutable devotion.

But this isn't being a fan, it's being a fanatic. Having a demented belief that all that comes from your side is good and right. To borrow from The Bible, people like this believe that their club is "the way, the truth and the light", and any who question or oppose it are heretics who must be silenced at all costs.

Is this the start of a disconcerting trend? The conduct of some of these fanatics is frightening. But what's even more frightening is the thought of this behaviour becoming the norm for the next generation of sports fans. Be it Suarez, Terry or Paterno, in the eyes of some people, these men can do no wrong. It makes one wonder what the reaction to O.J Simpson would have been if his infamous court case occurred while he was a star player in the NFL?


- After the saddening and shocking news of Gary Speed's death, a word of acclaim must go to the Swansea City and Aston Villa supporters who showed sporting fandom in its best light on Sunday afternoon.

Only two hours after the news came through of Speed being found hanged at his home in Cheshire, there was an understandable mix of horror, confusion and sadness throughout the Liberty Stadium. As the players lined up around the centre circle, there was an announcement on the tannoy that there would be a short period of silence in memory of the man.

As the whistle blew, the thick smog of reverential silence permeated around the ground. But it wasn't enough...

Ripples of applause began to emanate. It was clear that fans felt this was a more apposite way to commemorate him. The ripples grew into a full-blown ovation from all 20,000 supporters. But it still wasn't enough...

Chants of "There's only one Gary Speed" began. First from tens of fans, then hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands. This wasn't pre-arranged. It was people taking it upon themselves in a spontaneous moment of decency to honour a man that many feel was a paragon of Welsh football.

And yet it still won't be enough. Nothing will replace the sense of loss felt by all who care about the game, least of all his friends and family. But it was still a wonderful moment of grace on a desperately sad day for football.

- Last week, the surprisingly entertaining Test series between India and the West Indies ended with the Indians continuing their recovery after a moribund tour of England with a 2-0 series win. However, the main story was Sachin Tendulkar still failing to get that elusive 100th international century. The great man has been stuck on 99 tons since March, and people are beginning to wonder whether he can find a way to get over this last major hurdle of his career.

Everything was in place for him in last week's 3rd Test; playing in front of his home fans in Mumbai, on a featherbed pitch - surely drained of any life to play into Tendulkar's hands. He made it to 94 before cutting Ravi Rampaul to second slip. There was a gasp of horror from the crowd, followed by many placing their hands on their heads in dismay.

Like the greatest batsman of them all, Sir Don Bradman, Tendulkar many yet end his career with one statistical box unticked. Bradman was out for a duck in his last ever innings, failing to retire with an average of 100.00 (he ended on 99.96). Is Tendulkar to suffer a similar fate of bowing out with a statistical blemish on his record? It'd be a nice imperfect symmetry for the two greatest batsman the sport has ever seen

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1 comment:

  1. I completely agree: a moment of grace sums it up beautifully. From what I could gather watching, the crowd were silent from the moment the players lined up around the circle. The stadium announcement was easily audible. The crowd effectively held a silence even before the ref blew his whistle. It felt, to me, that those people got it exactly right: repect and remembrance.