Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Bullying culture - sports connection?

So, I realize I've been a bit quiet the last couple of weeks.  They've been busier than I've seen it be in quite a few months.

The hours I usually have in the evenings to watch news and catch up on what my family has been doing all day was taken up in the kitchen - you guessed it...doing dishes.  Amazing how long that takes to do by hand.  Goodness gracious.  Now that I have a new one in place and I can sigh a breath of sweet relief with the hope that once again I can find out what the weather is supposed to be, I can also reconnect with what's happening around me.

Last night, the Toronto Maple Leafs just barely lost game 7 of their first quarter final series in nearly a decade.  I'm no avid sports follower, and sports news infuriates me beyond compare most of the time.  But as my husband loves to watch his hockey, we've watched quite a bit of it.  At the beginning of the season, it looked like there would be no hockey at all.  A players strike chewed up half the season and resulted in a compressed schedule that started in January.  It's suffice to say, the teams and players were under a lot of pressure, regardless of what team they played for, to win back the hearts of millions of fans in North America, and win back millions of dollars in revenue lost from the gaping hole of the first half of the season.

All teams did their level best to address the issues resulting from the players strike.  I don't think a game was likely played without a real desire to push forward and win the best they possibly could.  There really was more at stake this year than there have been in previous years.

Let's look more closely at the Leafs culture overall.  The Toronto Maple Leafs haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1967.  You could say this is likely the longest losing streak any team has ever experienced in likely any professional sport in all of history.  Still, fans of the game and fans of the team have propped them up and made them one of the most profitable franchises in the National Hockey League.  In fact, they sell the most expensive seats, and are widely known for dinging fans the highest price tags on merchandise.  From a business perspective, they've been ridiculously smart to have leveraged the blind loyalty of the city and the fans who flock and watch them habitually, and from a familial sense of heritage.

The typical Leafs fan that I know, is really simply pleased to see the team win.  They're not aggressive, and by in large, because of the steep cost of merchandise and concessions is just about sober.  And beyond that, with the scarcity of publicly available tickets, a Leafs fan cheers for great saves, great goals and boos as politely as you could imagine a "boo" sounding for goals against them.

Quite seriously, any of the Leafs fans I know were stunned and amazed the team had gotten as far as they had making it just to the playoffs.  Most would have put money on them winning maybe 1 game in the first 4 of the series.  And they were all glued to their televisions as the series was tied up and then when it got to game 7, I can guarantee you millions of Leafs fans were secretly wondering if this could be the year we go several rounds.  Every single one of them wished (absolutely silently for fear of jinxing anything) if this could be the miraculous year when this team, who has defied all odds and who have demonstrated the best skill of any leafs organization in the past 9 years, could actually be the team who delivered Lord Stanley's cup back to hockey central, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Which brings me to the fall out of the observing "non-leaf" fan who was inevitably on the edges of their seats wondering if their team would have to be the next ones to meet them in Round 2.  And if their teams were outright eliminated from the playoffs altogether, either they were watching the Leafs out of sheer curiosity  in fact, maybe even the rubber necking instinct of simply not being able to look any other way, to see if this long time loser could make a good solid run of the playoff season.  Could they really pull it off, and deliver what so many people have dreamed of seeing at least once in their lifetime?  But there are a lot of hockey fans out there, of other teams who simply use these opportunities to talk about the Leafs, in witness of a die hard Leafs fan, in such a way that berates the team (unwarranted by most accounts) and moreover the fans who support them.  Again, I have yet to meet a Leafs fan who is so belligerent that it requires that sort of proactive aggression from any fan of any other team.  That said, I'm not naive, and I'm sure they exist.  BUT, I have seen quite a lot of fans of other teams, be proactively ignorant, aggressive and belligerent  in response to simply the sight of a Toronto Maple Leafs emblem.  And therein lies my concern around the concept of bullying culture.

Where does well intentioned ribbing and "joking around" turn into vehement dislike or at best tolerance of someone else, on the basis of what sports team someone enjoys watching, regardless of their reasoning for choosing that team?  My non-scientific, observer of life hypothesis is that it started in grade school when captains were chosen by the gym teacher and they got to pick their teams.  

My husband recalls being at an Ottawa Senators game years ago and they were playing against the Toronto Maple Leafs.  He wore his Leafs jersey, and recalls being berated throughout the game by complete strangers who were rooting for the Senators.  He also recalls being hit once by a Sens fan, though I'm not sure if it was the result of ill natured banter that escalated.  I read just a couple of weeks ago, how a similar exchange happened at a Senators game wherein a child was frightened by an exchange between Senators fans and a completely innocent bystander at a urinal, because he happened to be wearing the wrong jersey.  In fact, just a short month or two ago, the actual franchise of the Ottawa Senators publicly requested that seat holders NOT sell their seat tickets to known Leaf fans.  This has to be the epitome of exclusionary bullying tactics if I've ever seen it.  It certainly blatantly promotes a sense of ire between the fans of two opposing teams.

Luckily, the friends in my circles are a little less in your face about things like this, but I noticed this morning some definitive statements that were bothersome.  Some commented that their newsfeeds in facebook were clearly the battle ground between fans and that good natured jabs had in fact turned sour.  And one other stood out above everything else I read, highlighting (and I'm paraphrasing because somehow it's been deleted) that it's "hard for the person to stand most leafs fans as it is, was glad they lost so that he wouldn't have to hear their smugness" and other statements that implied there would be "a riot for sure that would deface the CN Tower".  I suspect it got out of control and perhaps that's why it's now been deleted.  But my question is "What fans, and what smugness could the fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs have?"  Seriously.  The team is known for it's history of not making it far enough in any season to win a Stanley Cup, where others have long since won them, and several times in many cases.  So what could be so smug about a Leaf fan that it draws ire?  Perhaps it all boils down to legacy, heritage and loyalty that's unconditional.  Really, at the source of all these rivalries is jealousy over one thing or another.

What it really makes me concerned for though, is how this is translating outside of the arena's, complexes and fields.  If we understand that bullying and picking teams, berating, jabs, and teasing begins as young as preschool, this neanderthal behaviour of berating and degrading others for the team they happen to like is only reinforcing it in the most complicated and irreversible way.

I am not a parent who believes that kids shouldn't learn about competition.  They in fact should learn all about healthy competition and how to use it to fuel them to improve themselves, to refine their skills, and to reinforce the lessons that practicing anything helps to deliver.  Paramount of these lessons is how to be as gracious and good a loser, as you are a winner.  This shameful behaviour is reinforcing precisely the opposite lesson, and it makes me rethink how I should be integrating my own child in the world of sports and competitive play of any kind.

Shame on you hockey fans.  Shame on you.  Please credit the Leafs for getting as far as they have done, and let them close their season with the dignity they have very well earned.  Ensure you pay the same respect to the Montreal Canadiens who have more than once shown the world how skilled and talented they are.  They too deserve your respect.  The fans that support them equally deserve your respect for they are no different than you.  Let's please all remember the golden rule, and remember too - that what goes around comes back around - and if you are a belligerent Ottawa Senators fan who has in fact commented on the behaviour of other teams or fans, do yourself a bit of good kharma work, and apologize.  Make it right.  Round 2 is underway, and it wouldn't be so great to hear about what gaffes, bad plays and poor behaviour you've demonstrated in your quest of failure.

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