Why are the people watching us so angry?

Many of us on the field of play have seen it, heard it, or felt it. The insults from the spectators in the stands. The screaming parents. The furious “supporters” who look ready to tear the place apart. Sometimes it’s directed towards the officials; sometimes towards each other. Sadly, it sometimes gets directed towards us.

Most of us like a crowd when we’re competing. It’s can help us feel that what we’re doing is engaging or important, even for others. Many athletes state that their performance is raised when all the seats are filled, and some are even driven to do sport because of the masses that assemble to see them compete. Does that give them the right to abuse, demean, or threaten those involved in the contest – including us?

Our society asks us to answer the question, why do we do sport? The answers are, of course, deeply personal. We’re all free to answer, “for the fans”, “for our family” or any number of other reasons. A follow-up question then might be, where do your fellow athletes rank in comparison?

Sporting values vs. spectator values

The witnesses of sport may themselves be athletes. They may even belong to our Society, and give thought to their own sporting endeavours, much as you are doing here. But many are not athletes at all. Such people might not understand or consider being part of our Society. They may view our Society as pure entertainment, or as an identity (“my team”). They may even feel they have some kind of ownership or authority over us, because they have been loyal (or even paying) fans for a long, long time.

Others, such as parents or coaches, might be so personally invested in athletes’ performances that they live vicariously through them. They may be part of the sporting movement, but don’t toe the line in the same way that a member of our Society does.

Both cases can mean conflicts in values. Our Society has one set, and those outside of it may have others. They could value the financial or social capital of sport than comes with investing in or witnessing it more than personally participating in it. This might lead to incongruencies or conflicts arising between our Society’s priorities and other parties’ interests.

And, just as we sometimes lose our cool when a fellow Society member breaches some of our values, the spectators of our sport might do the same. The problem is, our sport is not about their values and interests. It’s about ours. As soon as we start thinking about their interests, we’re no longer playing on the field we should be playing on. We’re vacating our role as an athlete and becoming something else.

It’s about the athletes, stupid

So once again: Is the public’s abusive, demeaning, or threatening behaviour acceptable? Obviously not. What such behaviour shows is a complete misunderstanding of sport, and what we are doing in it. Two key postulates, 7 and 8, illustrate this misunderstanding well:

  • Postulate 7 states that a competitor that diminishes the contest or its competitors is no longer valid (that is to say: no longer welcome). You demean or act injuriously towards someone, and you are penalized, disqualified, sent off, or banned. Our contests and their values are clear about this in almost all cases. For those watching our sport, the consequences for such behavior are not at all the same.
  • Postulate 8 states that the contest is no longer valid if it diminishes its competitors or their vitality. Looked at it in another way, this means that contests can’t be taking more out of its participants (us) than it’s giving back. If spectators or other non-athletes are making the contests so unpalatable – and sometimes just plain scary – that the competitors are mentally or physically deteriorated, then it’s clear that they are not interested in the athletes’ best performances.

Perhaps the most important, though, is postulate 9: Only those that enter and participate in the contest under these auspices are entitled to determine its outcome, and its overall development. Any rage-filled idiot that is acting like they know better how the game should be played – or what its result should be – should be rendered null and void, according to this postulate.

Feeling the fury? Try this.

Anybody who is throwing insults, vegetables, or any other unwarranted advice at you from the sidelines should get their chance to prove they know best. Invite them to put on the kit and have a go when the next appropriate opportunity arises. If they show up, give them your best. Either you’ll start the recruitment process for another member to our Society, or you’ll make them think twice before acting the same way again.