It’s not often in this town that you get to say without equivocation that MLSE got something right. It’s even less comfortable to say it.
But for once MLSE, owners of everything, got something right. In having the ticket holders who threw their team jerseys on the ice during play Monday night in an expression (presumably) of frustration with the Toronto Maple Leafs latest soul destroying slide into competitive oblivion charged by the Toronto police for mischief (eventually they were fined and the criminal charges dropped) and banned from the ACC for a year, the organization has made clear that behaving like a tool in public won’t be tolerated.
This is good, and necessary.
We’re in the age of Fan as Boob, where being a fan has become less about a group of people coming together in support of a common cause – or to share crushing disappointment – and more about taking the opportunity to have a real-life selfie; less look at the game and more look at me.
Any steps that can be taken to curb the tide should be applauded, even if it’s by a company that demands top dollar from its fans to watch teams that have not won a single playoff series in the last 31 seasons of hockey, basketball and soccer combined.
Which is different than saying the Leafs don’t deserve to hear, in full throat, from fans who have reached their theoretical limit (when it comes to absorbing pain being a Leafs fan is a little like being one of those masochists who run ultra-marathons across deserts; there is always more pain to be had) how they feel about another shattered season.
But throwing jerseys onto the ice while the game is going on, which happened three times during the third period of the Leafs 4-1 loss to Carolina is where being bitter crosses the line. It’s unlikely the three fans who tossed their sweaters were any more angry, sad, or disappointed than the 99.99 per cent of the crowd at the ACC who simply booed, stared straight ahead as if medicated or did the sensible thing and left. It’s just the three that tossed their jerseys on the field of play felt their feelings were more important than everyone else’s; let alone the health of Leafs defenseman Korbinian Holzer, the Leafs defenseman who came oh-so-close to tripping on one of garments.
The essential message that needs to be communicated to Fan As Boob is this: how you feel and what you believe is not how everyone feels and what everyone believes. That people don’t protest when you scream insults at the top of your lungs; do your own live Bob Cole impersonation or become increasingly drunk and belligerent over the course of a game that isn’t going just your way isn’t a sign of approval. It’s that right-thinking people consider what it might take to get you to shut up and figure it’s not worth it.
Once upon a time it was fine to simply boo. Booing is great. Booing seems like the kind of thing that any fan can’t rightfully object to coming from another fan. It’s fairly innocuous sounding, but meaningful.
Best of all, booing is a team sport, like cheering. If one person starts booing and you agree, you can boo along. It’s easy. It’s not crude. You don’t have to cover your kid’s ears or explain why it’s okay for thousands of people to scream things in public things that would be detention worthy in school. You don’t like what you see? Boo, and if your opinion is shared, you’ll know soon enough.
Contrast that with heckling – or more specifically shouting abusive things at person from a distance because they’re on another team; or they play for your team and they’re ruining your happiness. The lone, leather-lunged heckle is all about the person doing the shouting. It’s a chance for one of the 20,000 people or so at sporting even to stand up, pick a (relatively) quiet moment and speak their mind and make sure everyone, for a moment, knows they’re there.
Is an increasingly secular society, sports has become one of the few binding agents and leagues and franchises have made big business exploiting the need for people to have a cause and a common ground.
The upside of this is the sporting spectacle we have now, which would be unrecognizable even 20 years ago. Everything is bigger, better and more brightly lit, and fans carrying debit cards are drawn to it like moths to the light. For the most part it’s a great thing: there is always a game on and thanks to social media you never have to watch one alone. But too often the need for those same teams and leagues to suck every possible dollar combined with the outsized place we’re so often told sports deserves has created a sense of entitlement that easily spills over into to sports-fan-as-jerk territory.
These are the people featured in fan fight videos on YouTube or who feel like shouting at a television in a bar is proof of how much you care. Or streakers. Or people who pound the glass in delight when a player on an opposing team gets concussed right in front of them, and lays dazed on the ice.
On Friday night at when the Toronto Raptors were getting trounced from beginning to end by the Atlanta Hawks a fan sitting near the media work area at the top of the upper bowl at the ACC spent the entire evening screaming, as loud as humanly possible, "Let’s Go Raptors." Even as the game got more and more out of hand and there were no takers on his forced enthusiasm, the screaming went on. He badgered other fans to join and made faces when they didn’t, recognizing that chanting when your team is down 20 comes perilously close to mocking. Undaunted the solo chanting continued and as the beers piled up and game got out of hand, the garbage-mouthed vitriol came too. People around him stared at the court, trapped by his noise.
It wasn’t fandom; it was narcissism.
Which is why in the age of Fan As Boob, where the old idiom that the price of buying a ticket allows those holding the ticket to do as they please a little too literally, MLSE struck the right note on Tuesday.
And as for Leafs fans who feel the urge to toss a jersey? Put a bag on your head; make a sign or perhaps maybe its time to make a real statement about an organization that has profited handsomely while failing you year after year:
Keep your money and stay home.