What makes a sports fan so obnoxious once he’s in a crowd?
If, while walking down the street one day, I suddenly launched into a tirade of filthy abuse at a complete stranger – going out of my way to cross his path before insulting his mother or his girlfriend in the vilest manner possible – I’d most likely attract the attention of any law enforcement officer who happened to be nearby. I might then be escorted to the local police station, soon to be charged with some form of ‘disturbing the peace’ offence.
If, in addition to the verbal abuse, I also spat or threw a bottle in the direction of my victim, I would open myself up to a wider raft of offences, such as assault and wounding with intent. And possibly a court appearance.
Furthermore, as I performed my series of ‘entertaining’ acts, I happened to be egged on by a support crew of like-minded friends. These friends laughed riotously whenever I directed a particular ‘hilarious’ bard towards my victim, who – let us remind ourselves – has done nothing to warrant the attack. Neither can he do anything to respond or retaliate.
Finally, I happened to be highly intoxicated while engaged in my anti-social binge. I can therefore look forward to ‘drunk and disorderly’ also being added to the charge list.
Carrying out these acts on the city streets would be bad enough. And yet, if I performed the exact same acts while part of the crowd at a major sporting event – with the target of my vitriol being one of the opposition players or supporters – I’d most likely receive a hearty slap on the back from my fellow supporters. And another pint of lager.
If anyone dared to accuse me of offensive behaviour, I’d quite happily tell them to f-off, accusing them in return of being a spoilsport.
I was just having a bit of fun. It’s just ‘banter’.
A. The Gabbatoir
It’s like being in the Roman coliseum two thousand years ago. The defeated gladiator slumps in a pool of his own blood. Will the crowd spare his life or dispatch him to the lions?
The nature of the crowd hasn’t changed a great deal since the days of the Romans. The crowd still demands the same core elements: blood, struggle and spectacle. The sports fan can therefore get away with the sort of manic and excessive behaviour that wouldn’t be tolerated in normal society. Imagine if the office decided to work in a similar way. People would be screaming across their cubicles at one other for the entire working day, their voices never relenting in pitch and obscenities. Get a move on you lazy bastard, I want that projections report now.
The sports crowd throws together a group of otherwise disparate people and turns them into a single unified force. Men from all walks of life take their place as part of the fan collective, an exclusive but surprisingly diverse cohort of people. Rowdy, anti-social behaviour is by no means a problem that affects the so-called ‘lower classes’ only (the eponymous ‘working man’). Many of the fans have professional careers – along with wives and children – and otherwise perform as regular members of society.
(As you might have seen from elsewhere on this website, I try to avoid sexist language in my writing. However I’ve never actually seen a woman or a gay man engage in this type of boorish behaviour, so I think the heterosexual male assumption is justified in this case.)
Do these ‘fans’ ever stop to think about who they are insulting? Most sportspeople are young, highly-motivated professionals looking to seek a short-lived career in their particular field of expertise. Some of them are barely out of their teens. They have mothers and grandmothers, brothers and sisters. They have fought hard and dedicated much of their life to sporting success, making a serious amount of sacrifices along the way. In their short lives, they have already achieved much more than the average Joe Bloggs sitting in the crowd.
But sports fans don’t think in that kind of way. It didn’t take me long to discover that sports fans are a breed apart, often representing the human species at its nastiest and most feral.
As a twelve year old watching the cricket between Australia and New Zealand (at the Gabba in Brisbane, appropriately nicknamed the ‘Gabbatoir’), I was taken aback by the loud and raucous chants of ‘Hadlee is a wanker’, directed towards the champion bowler from New Zealand. The chanting seemed to come from all sides of the grounds, a concerted attack against a quality sportsman (since knighted for his services to sport). Even though I was only a child, something about the incident made me feel queasy. I liked Richard Hadlee and didn’t understood why he warranted such abuse. Hadlee too looked dumbfounded.
Yeah, yeah, I know, I don’t have a sense of humour and am spoiling all the ‘fun’. It’s just banter, I’ve got it.
B. The Age of Crowds
Over a century ago, a Frenchman by the name of Gustave le Bon puzzled over a similar conundrum, wondering what turned otherwise rational people into mindless brutes whenever they formed part of a crowd.
‘The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind’ was first published in 1895, just as humanity was on the cusp of some serious upheavals of its own. For the first time ever, the ‘old guard’ was being seriously challenged by various forms of ‘people power’: trade unions, women’s suffrage groups, child and animal protection agencies. No longer were the populace satisfied with the rule of a single authority figure. Le Bon suggested the human race was about to enter ‘the age of crowds’.
The divine right of the masses is about to replace the divine right of kings.
The English translation of le Bon’s book uses the word ‘crowd’, but le Bon’s principle idea is perhaps better captured by the word ‘mob’. Le Bon is not interested in the random group of people who happen to be gathered together in any one place, such as in a traffic jam. These crowds typically lack what we’d now call a ‘hive mind’. Rather, le Bon is more interested in the ‘psychological crowd’, one that develops a distinct personality of its own, with the vast majority of its members fixated on one outcome. A political rally or sports crowd are prime examples.
But here’s the curious thing about the psychological crowd. Any one member of the collective does not exactly ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ with the sentiments of the collective as a whole. In other words, ‘agreement’ does not accurately define the relationship between individual and mass entity. The process of reaching ‘agreement’ implies some form of analysis of the facts, followed by a conclusion.
When forming part of the mob, the individual rarely weighs up the argument in his own head. He enters what le Bon terms a state of hypnosis, his own thoughts and beliefs now shunted off to one side. The omnipresent and charismatic force of the crowd completely overwhelms his mind. ‘Groupthink’ is another variant of this idea. People go along with an idea not because they necessarily agree with it, but because they want to be accepted by the group. They do not want to do anything that would cause them to stand out.
The individual in the crowd gets sucked head-first into the ‘black hole’ that represents the crowd’s ‘extreme mental inferiority’. The sentiments and ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one and the same direction, and their conscious personality vanishes.
As the individual delegates his reason and rationality to the larger entity around him, he expresses a curious yearning for the simplest relationship known to mankind: parent and child. Despite his bluster and bravado, the individual man in the crowd accepts that he is small and puny, while the crowd is large and domineering. Since his own thinking cannot possibly compete with that of the crowd, the answer is simple. Don’t bother even thinking then. If the crowd is yelling that Hadlee is a wanker, well he must be a wanker then.
Father – or should we say ‘Big Brother’ – knows best. Listen and obey.
Here’s another way to think about the infantilising effect of a major crowd. Most revolutions in human thinking first start out as a single thread in the brain of an individual creator. No great idea spontaneously came into being through a committee. If idea-generation were to be plotted along a spectrum, the solitary, thoughtful individual would be at one end of the spectrum, which means the mindless mass entity – the crowd – would have to be at the other end. If we accept that people who lead a solitary existence are more likely to spend their time thinking, we must also accept that the more time people spend in a crowd, the less actual thinking they do for themselves.
The crowd also introduces an element of what could be called ‘dilution of responsibility’. It’s similar to the well-known observation of the ‘bystander effect’.
If you’re out in public one day and could do with a helping hand, you’d better pray that only a few people are around you. A sole individual will probably give you that help. If however you’re surrounded by a larger group of people, there is less of a chance of someone stepping forward to assist. Those forming part of the larger group are likely to be more more hesitant and uncertain. Since they assume someone else is going to help, they don’t feel so guilty for failing to act. The onus was not completely on each person one hundred percent. When part of a larger group, you can always fall back upon a convenient excuse: ‘Don’t blame me. I was just doing what everyone else was doing.’
This, incidentally, is often used as a justification by those who participate in committing human atrocities, such as the Nazis working at concentration camps.
C. Get a Life
Although Gustave le Bon expressed a poor opinion of crowds in his book – saying that ‘crowds are only powerful for destruction’ – I can understand why people desire to seek refuge and relief in a crowd. Modern life is a nonstop alarm clock of rules and responsibilities, feeling as if we have to constantly react to the demands of others. The fan therefore welcomes his anonymity in the crowd as a release of tension and a release of responsibility. Forming part of a crowd makes the individual feel invincible, delivering a large boost to self-esteem.
Very occasionally crowds provide a positive return to the human race. Because they act unconsciously and without rational thought, the crowd can be mightily effective in raising the bravery and confidence levels of those within the crowd. Suddenly everyone feels like a superhero, a soldier going off to fight on the frontline. Crowds also benefit from having a contagious effect, working a bit like gravity. The larger the mass of the object, the greater the pull it extends on objects around it. Crowds are seriously powerful instruments of change, possibly the most effective way to topple an authoritarian regime.
Perhaps then, it’s not the crowd that is the problem. Rather, it’s how people react once they’re in the crowd, taking advantage of the crowd’s empowering effect to let their inhibitions – and occasionally their clothing – fly free into the winds.
While a regular release of tension is almost mandatory for survival in today’s high pressurised world, I still can’t think of any possible benefit to abusing young sportspeople with regular salvos of coarse language. Does anyone honestly think that the players are listening to your advice? Is there not some more beneficial way to release pent-up frustrations? One possibility is playing the sport yourself rather than bellowing at others.
The advice you so promptly and gleefully deliver is saying more about you than it is about the athletes on the field. Despite the fact that hurled abuse is often labelled as ‘banter’, many sports fans are far from playful in their behaviour. On some occasions – perhaps when his own team is playing poorly – the sports fan displays a fierce streak of anger and resentment, one capable of getting real ugly real quick. This is the man who screams from the side-line during a children’s football match or lambasts the players on his own side for being ‘poofters’. Most likely the fans in these cases pine for sporting glory of their own, but those days have long since passed in mediocrity and dodgy knees.
Incidentally, the ‘poofters’ example represents an actual instance of abuse I once overheard at a rugby seven’s match, played at the Commonwealth Games. The Australian ‘supporter’ in question later admitted to a nearby spectator he had a young nephew playing in the side. When you have friends and family like that, who needs enemies…
Captain Kirk actor William Shatner once famously told ‘Star Trek’ fans to ‘get a life’. Such comments are typically directed towards those who pursue minority or alternative lifestyles. No one ever tells a sports fan who spends his weekends screaming foul-mouthed abuse at innocent young athletes or children to ‘get a life’. Could you not argue though that those who seek solace by putting others down might have a large void to fill in their own lives? Perhaps it’s worth putting one’s own rickety house in order first before criticising others.
Click here to comment on this post and put the Running Mutty in his place