Monday, September 08, 2008
We've all experienced it: the boorish fan who knows nothing about the game, but insists on educating referees, players, coaches, and spectators on the finer points of the competition as he or she sees it. I am constantly amazed at how these lessons come wrapped in expletives and personal attacks. They assault my ears with their off-key utterances. I wonder if these "professors" conduct themselves the same way when running a meeting or grocery shopping – "Hey you idiot stock boy. Vegetables should be displayed alphabetically by scientific classification." You might expect, however, that parents of college soccer players who have played the sport for upwards of 15 years would have both better knowledge and restraint.
Not so I discovered last weekend when I went to watch Bryce's college team play. A cadre of fathers from the opposing team kept up a barrage of expletive laden "advice" for anyone in earshot. Unfortunately their advice was ill-informed or in many cases ridiculous. And worse, the intimate seating meant their advice was heard by all. To add insult to insult, the opposing team won the game. I believe in karma, but I will have to wait for its realization at a later date.
I'm not immune to my own outbursts. It's difficult not to get caught up in the frenzy of the game, especially if I feel my own child is being unfairly targeted. But I've learned to let him take the bumps and bruises on the pitch and handle it himself. Sometimes he'll get a call in his favor when he shouldn't, just as he'll get a call against him when he shouldn't. Referees' skills vary just as much as players' and coaches' skills do. I know a referee must be terrible if both teams are complaining, but that doesn't help mitigate the frustration that a bad call brings. Undisciplined and outmatched teams may resort to hacking in order to regain some control of the action, which can make many a parent see red as their child is mauled on the field. Coaches may unwittingly or purposely feed chaos on the field by their own sideline admonishments. I had to sit and listen to a coach encourage his players to "take out number three by the ankles," meaning Robbie. Natural protective instincts urged me to leap across the field and ring the coach's neck. But the very skills Robbie possessed that prompted such an order would always exist, so Robbie had to learn to handle the pressure on his own.
This past weekend was a study in contrasts. Robbie played in a high school tournament. His team played three teams, two of which are significant rivals of his high school. The crowds were huge since students came out to support their players along with parents. Yet the overall tone was civil and encouraging. There were occasional jeers at a call or groans when a play didn't succeed. But there wasn't swearing or non-stop criticism. At Bryce's college game the foul language was constant and the condemnation never-ending. The parents verbally assaulted their own players for perceived lapses, blasted Bryce's teammates for their play, and name-called the referees with every possible put-down. The entire experience was not only uncomfortable but unsettling. I wasn't sure where this outpouring of vitriol would lead. Luckily in the waning minutes the team scored and some of the tension deflated.
The difference could have been the standards put in place prior to the games. In Robbie's case, the high school rules and state amateur athletic association promise swift and binding consequences for bad behavior. Parents and students are well-aware of the expectations and for the most part adhere to them. There's also plenty of peer pressure to keep the behaviors under control. When a parent shouted out, there were ten parents "shushing" the outburst. For the college game no warning about good sportsmanship was given prior to the game and by logical extension no consequences applied. Parents had no standard they were told to adhere to, so they didn't.
It would be comforting to think that we could all be self-editing, understanding that cursing and criticizing don't add to the game's enjoyment by others in the stands or on the field. Yet all too often I attend games that rival the FA Cup finals in fierceness of fan vocals. While I am excited about growing a more enthusiastic fan base for soccer in America, I would like to see it happen with more courteousness and self-control than are found in our fellow fans in Europe and South America. We have the opportunity to show that a devoted fan doesn't need to be rabid. While "fan" starts fanatical, we do have the opportunity to chart a different course in team support. Enthusiasm doesn't need to go to the dark side and become ugly and attacking. Perhaps there should be swift and certain retribution for being a loud-mouthed oaf no matter the level of the game.
Next weekend I'll be watching my four year old grandson play soccer. I trust the game will be free of cussing and name-calling. If we can do it with our pre-school players, we should be able to do it with our college, amateur, and pro players. It just requires a little self-restraint and a positive outlook. I know, I know … Little Orphan Annie should break into "Tomorrow" at this point. But I'm just naïve enough to hope we can find the right tone for all soccer games.