Sports teams and players and their fans have always had a complicated relationship, and that won’t change anytime soon. Athletes are often the most visible and popular people in a city or region, and at least in the professional ranks, fans are indirectly responsible for their salaries. Combine that with the role sports teams and athletes play in fans’ personal lives, as entertainment and vicarious dream fulfillment, and fans tend to develop a sense of ownership over their favorite athletes and teams.
Seattle fans currently find themselves in a couple of messy situations. One involves a high school student from Portland who happens to be one of the best basketball players in the country. The other centers around a 32-year-old man with a big bat and seemingly even bigger personal troubles. The stories are probably familiar to everyone by now. Terrence Jones, maybe the top uncommitted basketball player in the country, held a press conference on Friday to announce his choice of college. He picked the Huskies, but has yet to sign a letter of intent, which would make the choice official. There are next to no facts about the situation, but that hasn’t prevented fans and media alike from throwing accusations and judgments, at Jones for delaying the commitment, and at Kentucky coach John Calipari for trying to change his mind, and at anyone else involved, including Jones’ family and friends.
Meanwhile, Milton Bradley, a man with a well-documented history of blow-ups and suspensions, stormed off the field Tuesday night after striking out, and upon seeing Don Wakamatsu had removed him from the game, left the stadium. Wednesday, he met with Jack Zduriencik and Wakamatsu and later the team. He reportedly told them he was dealing with some very difficult personal issues and asked for their help. He’ll sit out for the forseeable future while the team tries to get him whatever help he needs.
The situations are very different, except that they both have more to do with off the field (or court) issues than anything to do with performance. That’s not totally the case, of course. If it were, fans would not be at all interested. Bradley’s issues affect his play and the rest of the team; Jones is a huge talent whose presence could lift any team to the next level. And so fans find themselves stuck between caring about their team and respecting the personal life of the athlete.
It’s a difficult place, but mainly because we as fans do not have a personal relationship with Jones or Bradley or any other athlete. They are the athlete who entertains us, but that’s all, and we don’t give anything back. Nearly any of us, if faced with a colleague or friend or family member who was asking for help or making a difficult decision, would try to help them any way we could. We wouldn’t deride them or criticize them. We might be disappointed in their choice or think occasionally about our interests in the matter, but usually we can set ourselves aside and be supportive of those we love.
I don’t see any reason why that should be different with athletes. I want to see Jones and Bradley playing and playing well in Seattle, and if they don’t I’ll be disappointed and maybe mad. But I won’t boo them or write insults and racial slurs on their Facebook pages. Rivalries and “sports-hate”, as Bill Simmons terms it, have a great place in sports. There’s nothing wrong with booing the Oregon band when they run into Husky Stadium. They know we’re booing because they’re from University of Oregon and anyone involved with the Ducks should be booed. They’ll boo us right back. The difference is that we all know that if we were Mariner fans and went to a game together, we’d probably have a great time. Or we might not, but it would be because we didn’t get along, not because they’re Ducks and I’m a Husky. If a rivalry is full of hatred to the point where that’s no longer true, it’s gone too far in my opinion.
So keep the the affection or lack thereof based on the field. Boo A-Rod when he comes to town, but don’t boo Milton Bradley because he’s going through some tough times, and don’t give Terrance Jones a hard time because he isn’t sure what to choose in the biggest decision of his life.