U-G-L-Y: When fan behavior isn’t pretty

Jamie Kapalko

A cry rose up from the crowd of Penn fans at the football game against our Wildcats a few weeks ago. Hundreds of students triumphantly shouted, “Safety school, safety school!” across the field. This oh-so-clever dig was an attempt to put a damper on our victory by reminding us that our SAT scores may not have been as high as theirs’. Ouch. Zinger.

This kind of thing gets me wondering. Why do sports fans get such a kick out of flinging hurtful insults at players, coaches, officials and other fans? Is everything fair game, or are there some things fans just shouldn’t mention? What, you say? I’m being uptight? Well…

It gets more serious than pathetic bragging about college admissions. An all-boys Catholic high school near my hometown (which I will leave unnamed, since an abundance of its graduates are currently Villanova students) is infamous for its outspoken fans. I will grant that some of their cheers are funny, but oftentimes they cross the line.

Public schools were teased with the chant “Hooked on Phonics,” an ignorant and arrogant comment, but undeserving of little more than an eye-rolling.

Ethnically diverse public schools, on the other hand, were slammed with a modified version- “Hooked on Ebonics.” The first? Immature, but harmless. The second? Blatantly racist. I speak of these slurs in the past tense because so many people complained that the school put a priest in the stands with the fans to curb rude behavior.

Many people think these cheap shots are inconsequential, but some people truly take them to heart.

Last fall, a high school acquaintance of mine caused a minor uproar at Penn State that resulted in dozens of letters to the school’s president. This clamor was produced by the prominent featuring of said acquaintance on College Gameday amidst a crowd of rowdy fans, proudly hoisting a sign proclaiming, “Ohio State is for poor people.”

Nice one, buddy. Hey, I have an idea. If you can get such a great laugh out of insulting poor people at a football game, imagine how funny it would be to hold up a similar sign in West Philadelphia? There’s tons of poverty there. Just picture it. We can walk up and down the streets with our sign: “West Philadelphia is for poor people!” Maybe we can even pick up the high school fans I just mentioned along the way and let them yell about ebonics in front of some of Philly’s public schools. No, you say? Why not?

It’s not just opposing fans that have to bear this kind of derision- more often, it’s players. T.O. haters across the country began brainstorming as soon as reports of his rumored suicide attempt hit the newswire.

Eagles fans gleefully dressed up like pills for the Cowboys’ visit to Philly last week. That’s really clever. Hey, in fact, it’s so clever I think we should put on our pill costumes and head over to the psych ward of the hospital. There are lots of recovering suicidal people there. It would be hilarious! Are you up for it?

No? Why? Oh, I get it. It’s only okay for us to hurl vicious verbal attacks at sporting events.

That makes perfect sense!

In all seriousness, I think there are a few reasons that people say things in the football stadium that they would never dream of saying anywhere else. The first is the mob mentality. If everyone else is ragging on someone, we think that we can too. And if hundreds of other people are mocking someone along with us, we won’t be singled out as wrong.

The second reason applies mainly to jeers directed at other fans. Sporting events are full of adrenaline and testosterone, emotions and intensity- all kinds of stuff that keep people from thinking straight. We turn into animals- animals that get a self-esteem boost out of offending the opposition.

The third reason, in reference to player persecution, is that we view athletes as superhuman. They aren’t normal people, and to us, they shouldn’t be affected by what we say. And besides, they can’t hear us anyway.

But what about the little kid sitting next to you who turns to his dad after your genius comment and says, “Daddy, what’s an abortion? And why is this guy saying that A-Rod’s mom should’ve had one?”

I’m not saying everyone should play nice and hold hands with opposing fans and give Munchkins to both teams at the end of the game, win or lose. A little heckling about underperformance never hurt anyone; there’s nothing wrong with a heated but friendly fan rivalry; I’m all for reminding the guy that the girl really was just 14, because whether he knew it or not at the time, he’ll sure never forget it now.

I’m just saying that we should use our heads. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want your priest, your grandma or your future children to hear. Being cruel to someone else shouldn’t be essential to your enjoyment of a sporting event, and if it is, well, that’s pathetic.

So next time you’re in a crowd and a cheer rises up, stop and think for a second. If it’s something you wouldn’t say to the face of the subject of the taunting, hold your tongue. It may be tempting, especially if the other team’s fans toss some taunts your way, but I promise you’ll enjoy the game just as much without firing back.

And if you don’t? Well, take comfort, because that’s alright. That’s okay. They’re gonna pump your gas someday.