There’s a scene in 42, the film on baseball player Jackie Robinson’s life, where a father assails Robinson with hate speech as his young son watches. The crowd is ugly and the kid decides this is fun and shouts:
“N*****. We don’t want you here."
That was the 1940s but the booer is still here, still crude, still a coward who rarely works alone, more a long-distance lout, a misogynistic man-child of the mob. He takes many shapes. Sometimes he’s just a rabble-rouser in a suit in a TV studio, sometimes he’s the parent on the sideline mocking his 11-year-old son’s rival and rubbishing the voluntary referee.
I write often about the booer because he stains sport and I see him everywhere. At the cricket, at the Olympics in Brazil, at the US Open where he reduces Naomi Osaka to tears. This is apparently manly stuff. The booer drives Adam Goodes, the indigenous Australian football player, from the game because he knows the game will not do anything. Monkey chants continue in men’s soccer and homophobic remarks are hurled at women footballers. Sport can’t be an escape if it’s becoming as coarse as everywhere else.
The booer talks in the language of testosterone. Be a man. Suck it up. If he meets an athlete he has recently booed, he will say, no hard feelings, mate, nothing racist there, and can you please pose for a selfie with my son?
The booer will tell you the boo is nothing and sometimes it is. If it’s just a passing signal to express disapproval at an ugly tackle or instinctive disagreement with a referee’s decision, then we shrug, for sport is raw and emotional. But these days the boo never stops there. The boo follows a player like a stalker, it becomes a mean thrill, a rejoicing in someone else’s discomfort, a way to belong to the mob.
The booer will boo anything, even a national anthem. He has ostensibly come to witness human achievement even if he is not quite a reflection of it himself. When basketball player Kevin Durant of the Warriors re-injures himself in the NBA finals, some rival Toronto Raptors fans cheer his misfortune.
Booing is the child of partisanship and it is sport without humour or humility or an understanding that this is fun. Of course sport is a place for the childish, which is why we go there. It’s the world’s most joyous sandpit where we take sides. You Liverpool, me Barcelona. We find lucky positions in front of our TVs, swear at missed chances, issue coaching changes no one listens to and feel that empty ache when our teams fall to lucky bastards.
It’s a lovely, unreasonable affection that gives oxygen to sport as fans save up for tickets—as they have during the cricket World Cup—and fly far to declare their allegiance. This is the best of sport and there is a powerful faith at work here.
But the partisan fan demeans this faith, he diminishes it, he digs deep to find a religious slur, a sexist rant, he mocks Roger Federer, reduces Rafael Nadal, he’s shrill on Twitter and turns sport into something ugly, dismal, small. There is no levity to him, nothing light, and maybe he has never played sport because he doesn’t know how to lose.
He does not appreciate the great striving of humans, does not respect the concentration of will, cannot imagine the mornings of practice where the silence is only broken by skipping rope kissing wood. He sees sport as only win and lose, turning it into some binary world where national flags are worn as capes and clapping a rival is an act of sedition.
I don’t want to sit next to him, this partisan fan. Because even as athletes are imperfect people, I know they struggle, they search to be better, and bullying them has consequence. The Atlantic has a story about depression among teen athletes. The Guardian in March ran a fine piece by Sean Ingle where he refers to the “24-hour barrage of bile on social media". These stories speak of an awful truth: Sport is not fun for many of its participants. Perhaps athletes stand up for each other because only they truly understand each other.
I dislike the partisan fan because I know there are better fans out there. For 40 years I have visited stadiums, met strangers, shared lunches and grief, loved the quiet before play and the roar to announce Sachin Tendulkar, and I have faith that enough of this survives. Faith because Kohli, in an act of clarity and courage, stands up on a field and demands the boos stop. Faith because I read that fans at the India-Pakistan game in Manchester never forgot what was happening on the field.
Sport needs these people. It is nothing without them; without the face painters and trombone players; without the kids who good-naturedly bang on a fence and the mothers who turn off the TV when Federer starts losing; without the blind English gent who travels to watch cricket and my Australian pal in a small town who drives the district netballers to their matches in a bus; without my Indian buddy who locks himself in his house when his nation plays and the guy who collects ticket stubs after matches.
To them I say, this is your game and these are your stadiums and this is your sport. Stand up for it. Like the Raptors fan who sent flowers to the Warriors after the Kevin Durant incident with these words written on a ribbon.
“Canada is sorry, KD."
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.
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