Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 2, 2021

Don’t Blame The Fans

It is easy, when one is young.  The role of fan comes naturally to a child.  No time is spent weighing the responsibilities of one’s devotion or the limits of one’s allegiance, be it to an entire team or an individual athletic hero.  We quickly identify our loyalty, most often by geography, gravitating to teams and stars that are local.  Or perhaps it is a matter of heredity, attaching ourselves to the favored franchises of a parent or older sibling.  Whatever the basis, once established the bonds of fandom often last a lifetime, celebrating multiple championships or weathering years of despair with equal faith.  But the calendar turns, and in time each of us who is granted the blessed curse of growing up does as was foretold ages ago.  We put away childish things.  When we do, being a fan becomes far more complicated. 

That complex role was front and center in two sports this week.  In Queens, fans of the New York Mets began the baseball season with high hopes, thanks to a change in ownership.  Gone at last was the Wilpon family, whose stewardship had been financially hamstrung by their own fanlike devotion to the swindler Bernie Madoff.  The Mets’ new owner was hedge fund manager Steven Cohen, himself a lifelong acolyte of the Metropolitans.  Far more important to the team’s fanbase than Cohen’s historical rooting interest or his willingness to engage on social media was the fact that his enormous wealth made him the richest team owner in MLB. 

The faithful in Queens had visions of a parade of free agents arriving at Citi Field, enticed by Cohen’s open checkbook.  In truth, the new owner has proceeded cautiously, but even without wholesale roster changes the Mets emerged as the class of an admittedly mediocre NL East through the first half of the season.  But the dog days of summer have been marked by injuries and regression, with a division lead of four games at the end of July turning into a sub-.500 mark and third place by the last day of August.  The team’s souring record was matched by the attitude of those in the stands, with raucous cheers turning into waves of boos.

As the losses and the catcalls piled up, several members of the team started celebrating the occasional bit of good news, like the final out of a victory, by giving a thumbs down gesture to their teammates.  It’s not unusual for squads to have some such ritual, but the negative nature of the Mets’ chosen signal naturally prompted questions from the media.  Francisco Lindor, the team’s prize offseason acquisition, and Javier Baez, the big trading deadline pickup, eagerly explained that the gesture was directed at Mets fans, who were apparently not being sufficiently supportive of the team’s nosedive.

Meanwhile, the PGA Tour was a couple hundred miles south of Gotham, playing the second leg of the FedEx Cup Playoffs in the Baltimore suburbs.  Bryson DeChambeau, who it should be noted has a very substantial fanbase, came within one missed putt on the 18th green of shooting 59 on Friday, and finished the BMW Championship with the lowest score relative to par, 27-under, of any non-winner in Tour history after losing a six-hole playoff to Patrick Cantlay.  But while thousands in the crowd were cheering DeChambeau on, there were also many fans who were openly rooting against him. 

Over the summer, a shout of “Brooksie!” became the preferred jibe at DeChambeau after he and Brooks Koepka engaged in a running feud.  As has been the case at every Tour stop for several weeks, DeChambeau heard lots of “Way to go, Brooksie!” catcalls as he missed several key putts on the way to his eventual runner-up finish.  Two days later PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announced that these golf equivalent of boos amounted to harassment, and any fan uttering this newly defined slur would be removed from future tournaments.

It goes without saying, and it is said with great sadness, that fan behavior in general has coarsened over time.  It is a malady that inflicts virtually every sport.  Far too many players are subjected to language that is much more vile than booing or the derisive use of a rival’s nickname.  In his new autobiography CC Sabathia mentions, almost as an aside, fans screaming the n-word at him as he warmed up in Fenway Park’s bullpen.  And while no one knows which team will win the Ryder Cup when the teams from the U.S. and Europe engage later this month at Whistling Straits, it’s a safe bet that at some point the European team members and, worse yet, their wives and girlfriends behind the ropes, will be subjected to ugly abuse from some in the crowd.

Spectators like that – it would be linguistic homicide to use the term “fans” – should be shown the door, permanently.  But the Mets players and the PGA Tour commissioner are deluding themselves when they act as if the problem is solely with those in the stands or behind the ropes. 

For starters, the worst behavior is often fueled by alcohol, but beer and liquor sales at sports venues are controlled by the team or league or tour, all of which are loath to limit a rich revenue stream.  Not content with that money, MLB, the PGA Tour, and other leagues are eagerly signing deals with sportsbooks, giving their imprimatur to another addiction with even bigger dollars attached, in a way that until recently was unthinkable.  A year or three down the road, when DeChambeau’s missed putt costs some fan the serious money he has just wagered at the DraftKings kiosk next to the beer concession, a shout of “Brooksie!” may well be the least of the Tour’s concerns.  In that hypothetical, the betting kiosk is imaginary for now, but the sports betting giant is already the PGA Tour’s official betting partner.

But even a stone-cold sober fan is not obligated to genuflect.  Perhaps the first lesson learned when we put away childish things is that fandom is expensive.  Given the price of a day at the ballpark or the tournament, we fans have paid plenty for the right to express ourselves.  We walk in hoping that will be with cheers of joy, but if the players fail to uphold their end of the bargain, we retain the right to express our displeasure.  The inability of Lindor or Baez or other members of the Mets to grasp that reflects on them, not on the fans in Queens. 

Finally, in our social media age, it is folly for players or their leagues to imagine themselves in control of the player-fan relationship.  Early this year the PGA Tour encouraged its golfers to engage with fans by announcing a $40 million prize pool to be distributed based on various popularity metrics, including internet searches and social media interactions.  Whether it was real or not, the Koepka-DeChambeau gamesmanship surely drove up the measured results for both players.  But if either of them or the Tour thought there wouldn’t be many spectators who took the silliness seriously, they were deluding themselves.  Having done so, and now attempting to not just deflect blame but cast one of the instigators as a victim, the Tour and its commissioner have started down the slippery slope of defining harassment literally one word at a time.

Though that does open the door to one refreshing possibility.  Maybe the PGA Tour could start banning the louts who think the cleverest act known to man is to greet each player’s shot with a hearty scream of “mashed potato!”  Surely such idiocy constitutes harassment of every true fan.

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