Be Excellent to Each Other. Except in Sports

It was some time in the early 80s when I took a trip to Boston Garden for a hockey game. That was the time I learned to never wear your team’s jersey into an opposing team’s arena. It seems in retrospect like a lesson I should not have learned first hand, like it’s something I should have known going in. But I was young and naive and thought everyone would be good natured about it. A few months after that I went to the Philadelphia Spectrum to cheer on my Islanders. I didn’t wear the jersey but I did root for my team. For that I was smacked upside the head by an irate Flyers fan.

So what’s the deal? Is it ok to see your favorite team in other stadiums? If you do, do you root for them very quietly so as not to enrage the locals? Am I ok if I don’t fly my team’s colors while I’m sitting in a section full of rabid fans of the other team?

I went to an Islanders/Capitals game yesterday at the Nassau Coliseum. I saw a smatter of Capitals fans wearing their Ovechkin jerseys and there was some good natured ribbing going on between them and Islander fans. You know, people shouted “Ovechkin sucks” and they responded with middle fingers raised. And it was left at that. Or was it? Because a while after I got home from the game I happened to read this little open letter to Islander fans. Apparently there were some Capitals fans that did not have a very good time at the game. They claim they were harassed, physically assaulted with water bottles and beer, had racial and homophobic insults hurled at them and had their cars keyed.

There are conflicting reports; some Islander fans say they were sitting in their section and that wasn’t the way it unfolded. Their were reports of the Capitals fans pretending to wipe their butts with the Islanders’ rally towels and acting otherwise provocatively toward Islander fans, instigating an exchange of words. And as much as there are conflicting reports, there are conflicting feelings on the events. Is this — including the car keying — all part of the game or was it taken too far?

I operate under the pretense of “be excellent to each other.” I don’t like fights or confrontations. I think we should all be nice to each other and celebrate our differences instead of condemning them. But apparently I am in the minority here. When I took to twitter to apologize on behalf of more docile Islander fans, I was met with a barrage of angry replies from fellow fans who all said the Caps fans deserved what they got. And then I was hit by Caps fans — some of whom were there, most of whom I had to block — who overall were angry, aggressive and not interested in any kind of reconciliation. To be fair, most Islander fans weren’t interested in a reconciliation either. It was a case of one side insisting their anger was justified and another insisting their actions that caused the anger was justified.

So what exactly is the sports protocol? What are the standards? Is there some unwritten rule that says you don’t fly your flag in opposing arenas? A sort of “Don’t ask for it” mentality? Or is there a rule that says it’s ok to wear your team colors, but we reserve to the right to be assholes to you if you are assholes to us? Either way, there’s some hard questions to ask ourselves about how we behave at sporting events.

It’s true that sports brings out the worst in some of us. Especially during the playoffs. Tensions are high, adrenaline is flowing, loyalty is fierce. Those things combined make for a pretty volatile situation when you have fans of two teams together in one place where the atmosphere can be akin to gladiator fights. The “kill ‘em all!” mentality persists throughout a game and only gets more intense as the game goes on. We become savages in a way, behaving in ways we would never behave outside the confines of a sports stadium. It’s like the enclave of the arena gives us the green light to let go of boundaries. We get lost in our sports fandom, maybe take it to another level.

And that appears to be what happened to both sides at the Islanders game yesterday. Emotions were taken to another level. A simple rivalry became a war between a handful of fans and the ensuing battle over the incident became the battle of who was more right; the Caps fans who taunted the home team crowd or the home team fans who responded?

You could say the response was overblown. Resorting to physical violence and vandalism to make a point is never a good idea. But so many people back the idea of “if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen” as if this is all part and parcel of going to an away game that it makes me question my need to be nice to everyone, even in these circumstances. Maybe there is no nice in sports. There is no nice in rivalries. There is no nice in the playoffs. It’s a war, a fight, and the arena is a battleground where if you move into enemy territory you should expect to be treated with hostility. Is this expected or even accepted behavior? When I entered Boston Garden in an Islanders jersey all those years ago should I have willingly accepted a beer shower as a matter of course?

This isnt’ something we do in daily life. If you walk into Bob’s Deli wearing a t-shirt from Jimmy’s deli no one is going to jump you or throw salami at you or go outside and key your car. It just doesn’t work that way. So why does it work that way in sports? Why is this behavior accepted by most as standard protocol?

While I’m embarrassed at the way a few Islanders fans behaved, at the same time I feel like the Caps fans behaved in a similar offensive manner. Maybe this should all be written off as a lot of people behaving badly and be done with it. Sort of give a big shrug to it all. But I can’t help but feel somewhat chagrined about the whole thing, like we can do better. We all can do better, as humans, as sports fans. As @AnthraxJones put it on twitter:

“what it comes down to: if you’re a visiting fan, be a fan, not an asshole. If you’re a home fan, treat the visitors like friends.”

That’s the very idea I subscribe to. Be excellent to each other, even in the arena, even in sports fandom. However, I know that’s not going to happen. I’m not that naive youngster who went to Boston and Philadelphia and Toronto and Montreal expecting to be greeted with civility and friendliness (though I have to say the Toronto fans were exceptionally nice for the most part). If I were to go to an away game now, I wouldn’t wear my jersey. I would be respectful. You’re entering someone else’s house, wipe your feet before you come in the door. Don’t drag the mud in.

What happened yesterday is a shame, but it’s something that happens in all sports, at every arena and stadium. Does that make it ok? I’m not sure anymore what’s ok and what’s not. Sports standards are vastly different from standards outside the arenas. So do we subscribe to those standards or do we do better to act like we do when there’s not a heated game going on?

We can do better. All of us. No matter what color we’re wearing. Sports makes enemies out of fellow human beings. They say all’s fair in love and war. They should add sports into that.

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