The idea of sportsmanship is one of those things that young athletes are taught from the moment they step onto their respective fields, pitches, rinks and courts. We’re taught to respect the opposing team before, during and after the game at all levels of play. It isn’t something that we so easily forget, even after we’ve hung up our equipment and gone on to other things.
Of course, sometimes it’s really hard to see that given the way that both players and fans can behave.
A lot of it is decidedly unsportsmanlike. Between vicious insults being thrown around (particularly at opposing players and referees), racial slurs and chants, post event rioting and death threats, it’s difficult to imagine that sportsmanship is anything but an archaic, idealistic fantasy that we teach young athletes.
A recent(ish) example that sticks in my mind was the reaction to a singular dirty play that left an ugly and bitter taste in a lot of mouths a little two years ago.
On April 28, 2011, the Colorado Rapids were playing the Seattle Sounders at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo. Rapids defender Brian Mullan, frustrated by an uncalled foul, flew into a sliding tackle that shattered Sounders foreword Steve Zakuani’s leg. The reaction was swift and justified. Mullan was ejected from the game with a hard red card, suspended for ten games and fined $5000, and Zakuani was facing immediate surgery and the possibility that he might never walk again.
The fan reaction was just as swift. Rapids fans were quick to denounce Mullan’s play, and were more than satisfied by his suspension. Sounders fans, on the other hand, flew into a berserk rage, at best calling Mullan’s punishment woefully inadequate and at worst calling for his head.
And they didn’t even necessarily mean Mullan’s head either. A few months later, they were chanting “Let him die!” as Rapids player Conor Casey left the Sounders field with a torn Achilles Heel. The mentality of “blood for blood” appeared to definitely be running high.
In the interest of fairness, at the time I was (and still am) an avid Rapids fan and was more than willing at the time to defend my team against what I perceived as a blood vendetta against Mullan and the Rapids.
While the above example is particularly gruesome, it is by no means unique. Chanting “Let him die” is something of a thing for Sounders fans, and not uncommon amongst American soccer fans. The fans of the Portland Timbers, for instance, have been known to chant “No Pity” when they believe opposing players are faking injuries or milking falls for penalties.
As with a lot of sports, fan bases can get caught up in an almost religious fervor for their chosen sides, and that can lead to a lot of unbecoming behavior that reflects poorly on both them and their teams. While some of it can certainly be excused as the culture of sports (I will never advocate that CSU fans give CU a pass, the dirty hippies), a lot of it is inexcusably awful behavior.
Chanting for players deaths, or screaming for bloody retribution for admittedly nasty fouls goes against everything that we’re taught at children. When it happens, it’s hypocritical in the extreme, and casts a very bad light on everything related to sports. Everyone can point to a soccer riot as a stereotypical soccer-fan behavior. Everyone points the drunken lunatics at football games, or the over the top parents at youth events.
And it’s hard to dispute that stereotype when it’s correct more often than not.
But there are still beautiful moments of solidarity that can make being a fan absolutely worth it. Whether it is opposing fans wearing shirts in support of an opposing player about to undergo a liver transplant in Spain, or (closer to home) welcoming a player back to the stadium that almost cost him his ability to play.
A couple of weeks ago, Steve Zakuani returned to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park to play opposite Brian Mullan, and a section of the Colorado Fans were singing his name.
Moments like that give me hope that we can all transcend the soccer rioter stereotype. It makes me glad to say that I’m a soccer fan, and that sportsmanship is still alive and well.
Editorial Editor Caleb Hendrich is a senior Journalism and Political Science double major. His columns appear Wednesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.