April 21, 2015

Fan Decorum


In light of what has occurred over the last 36 hours or so, I chose to come here and to comment on the issue at hand. Yesterday, the New York Islanders defeated the Washington Capitals in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The overtime heroics of John Tavares, and the stellar goaltending of both Jaro Halak and Braden Holtby were, for a time, the biggest topic of conversation amongst the National Hockey League community. It wasn't until long after the game that another story, one much darker, overtook what had been a wonderful day at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

By now, we have all read the story of the New York City Capitals fans, and how they were treated by a group of Islanders fans. The story has gotten national attention, and now has people pointing fingers at each other. The arguments and personal attacks have gotten uglier as this story has picked up steam. As someone who has not only been a fan, but also an employee of a professional sports franchise, I found it appropriate to come here and put all of my feelings out in the open. I'm not here to point fingers. I'm not here to call anyone any names. I'm not here to blame any one particular person. I'm only here to clarify my feelings on fan decorum.

Let me start off by addressing the risks involved with being a traveling fan attending a game on the road. Plain and simple, you are a target. You have infiltrated enemy lines. You have walked into someone's house, and whether you want to admit it or not, you are going against everything they support and believe in. You are against the grain, and against their allegiance. You also know that this is the risk, and for the love of your team, you walk through the doors full steam ahead. Kudos to you. I say that because I have been in your shoes many times. It's intimidating, and it can be uncomfortable. It takes courage to do so, and a lot of people don't have the guts to try it.

You will be singled out. You will be cursed at. You will have victory rubbed in your face. Worse off, you will have a victory ruined by sore losers. It comes with the territory, and you know that going in. Anyone claiming ignorance to this risk is either completely naive, or completely full of lies. I say this because every single person who has attended any sort of sporting event has been witness to visiting fans being taunted. This happens in every arena, in every single sport. I had to laugh last night when I had people tell me on social media that their fans "have never" taunted any visiting fan. That is an out-in-out lie.

I have been to hundreds of sporting events in cities all over the country, both as a fan and as a spectator with no vested interest in either team playing, and I have seen this in every single building. Do us all a favor, and don't lie for the sake of convenience. I have seen the ugliness of fans from Boston to Tampa, and from Uniondale to Chicago, whether the visiting fans deserved it or not. I'm either the unluckiest sports fan on earth, or I'm seeing what we have all seen as fans time after time.

With that said, the issue at hand is not the typical ribbing that occurs between home and visiting fans. The issue is when it escalates to the next level. To attack someone, based upon their race, creed, or gender is over the line. To destroy someone's property is over the line. To enter into a physical confrontation with someone is over the line. It is inexcusable, and should not be tolerated by anyone, period. Acting out in this sort of way takes the fun out of the game for all of us. For that much, those who acted out in this way share part of the guilt, in my opinion.

On the flip side, as I stated previously, if you are a visitor, you know the risks. If you plan on walking into a building to stir the pot, you best be prepared for push-back, especially once you add liquid hops and barley to the mix. As someone who attended the Islanders/Capitals game yesterday, I was a witness to some Caps fans (not necessarily the group in question) who were also using derogatory language and gestures towards us. There were plenty of people in Capitals gear who had been far over served, and were the instigators of some confrontations both in the parking lot and on the concourse. I was witness to Capitals fans who were stone cold sober (or so they seemed), who were instigating trouble with Islanders fans, more so than your average trash talk. Those who acted in such a manner share part of the guilt as well.

The point is, today's fan experience has become aggressive. There are far too many people who don't know where the line is drawn. I remember about five or six years ago when the new Tanger Outlet Center in Deer Park had opened. My mother and I were walking from store to store looking for deals. I was wearing my New York Islanders hoodie. As we were walking into a store, I was approached by two guys in Rangers attire. I was greeted with, "The Islanders ****ing suck, you piece of ****". Not only had I done nothing to deserve that type of insult, but it wasn't even at a game!

Similarly, and many years prior, I was in Boston, Massachusetts. At my own risk, I wore my New York Yankees hat to Quincey Market. I wasn't looking for an issue, but knew that representing my team would draw negative attention. I didn't care. After about a half an hour of walking around, I was approached by a child who couldn't have been any older than 5 years old. This young man walked up to me, kicked me in the shin, and said, "The Yankees ****ing suck!". He ran back to his father who was not only laughing hysterical, but had a hand extended for a high-five. I share this story because it proves two points: this is not a "New York" thing, and there are many people who take their sports fandom way too seriously, and to a bad place.  
I can share dozens of stories like this, but I'd rather share a positive one. In 2006, I was attending school in Tampa. I attended a game between the Lightning and the Islanders at the St. Pete Time's Forum. Sure, I was cursed at. I was taunted. I was the enemy, and I knew it. I embraced it, but I kept to myself, watched the game, and didn't feed into the nonsense. Eventually, the ribbing ended and we all went on to watch the game. After it was over, bear in mind the Islanders lost the game, I was approached by a number of people who were sitting around me, presumably to give it to me one more time. To my surprise, they extended their hands. I remember specifically one guy saying to me, "You came here to support your boys, and you did so without being a jerk. I give you a ton of credit, good game."

We shook hands, shared a smile, and parted ways. That's how it always should be. You see, we as fans all share the responsibility to keep the integrity of the fan experience in tact. Yes, there are arena personnel who are hired to patrol the stands and try to keep the peace, but it really shouldn't even come to that. The fact that it gets to that level falls on the fans, supporting both the home and away sides. This all falls back to the nature of the games, or being a fan in general, going to an aggressive, ugly place.

When I was working in professional sports a few years ago, I vividly remember one of our mascots suffering a facial injury, after a fan of a rival team walked up to him, and punched him in the face before running off. This mascot was there to entertain children and add to the fun. What exactly this fan proved aside from the fact that he was an idiot remains a mystery to this day. Despite all that I had experienced as a fan, both at home and on the road, it was the first time I had thought to myself, "we have a problem in this culture".

About a year later, Bryan Stow, a San Fransisco Giants fan, was severely beaten, nearly to death, outside of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. He was in a coma, came out of it brain damaged, and is on a regiment of over 50 pills per day to keep him going despite his injuries. All of this for being a fan of a rival. But can we expect no less from a society where you can't even feel safe going to the movies? Or to school or work?

Professional sport is meant to be an escape. It is a form of entertainment, and it is a game. I have spent my entire life watching the Islanders crush me year in and year out, and I am still here. Whether they win or lose has no bearing on my physical life. Sure it can determine my mood, but I wake up every day and go to work and pay my bills like anyone else. In other words, life goes on. I take my passion to the next level each week when I, along with Chris, bring you all NYI FYI, a once a week podcast dedicated to the team that we love. Why? Because it means something to me. It is a part of me, just like any of your teams are a part of you. That is, in fact, the fun part of all of us.

It is a fun part that dies a little every time we read a story, such as the one that broke last night. The fact of the matter is, we all bare a responsibility to each other as fans. Put your personal interests aside, because at the root of it all, we are all hockey fans first. We love and respect the game on all levels. It is from there that we draw a line in the sand and determine which side we take, whether it be the New York Islanders, Washington Capitals, L.A. Kings, or Toronto Maple Leafs.

After you do pull that sweater or that hat on, you should wear it as a coat of pride, and know that the way you conduct yourself can directly represent those teams you so dearly care about. In the time span of three hours, the Islanders fan base went from the most passionate fans in professional sports, to the most unruly and aggressive, in the eyes of the average fan. Why? Because a few bad eggs out of 16,000 went to an outrageous level, and for what purpose?

We all as sports fans, of every sport in every city, have a responsibility to each other. Let's cheer together. Let's cry together. Let's rib each other and bust chops, but in spite of it all, we need to do it in a tasteful way that doesn't take the fun out of it for anyone. Let's also remember that at the end of the day, as much as we love our teams and our players, that it is just a game and life does go on. That's not meant to demean said players, or the staff of the franchises around the world, but they know what their job is. They take theirs seriously (most of the time), now it's time for us to do the same.

-Sean Croft 


LouieNY said...

Great read, I will be sharing this. I couldn't agree with you more. I actually feel you have a certain responsibility as an opposing fan in enemy territory. Conduct yourself with class and for the most part you will be left alone other then a minor verbal assault

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