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Fan or fanatic?

When things tip into verbal abuse, violence or threats of violence, you know you’ve gone too far. Written after the Warriors’ epic collapse against the Grizzlies on January 6th and the social media storm that followed, this piece discusses the real dangers of sports fanaticism.

2016 NBA Finals - Game Seven
And when the star player stops splashing 3s?
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Somewhere, Russell Westbrook arranged a bouquet of red poppies for his former teammate: 37 flowers — six with the heads snapped off. A gesture to symbolize the Warriors’ 31-6 record following the team’s ugly loss to the Grizzlies last week.

Poppies are a symbol of consolation.

Given Westbrook’s standing as second pettiest NBA superstar according to The Ringer’s 2016 NBA Pettyweight Championship — and the antics he pulled that earned him that title — it wouldn’t be shocking if this actually happened.

Or ...

Maybe it will be trolling fans from rival teams that send Kevin Durant the flowers. Hell, if the inferno of hot takes from dispirited Warriors’ fans is any indication, someone in a blue-and-gold jersey could be the one to pull off such a mean-spirited prank.

A tweet by Golden State of Mind’s Mike Brady says it all:

Sure, it would be an embarrassing loss for any team. But it’s an even sourer grape to suck for a team made up of the best sharp-shooters on the planet — players with a propensity for breaking records.

But let’s cue the dramatics — a summation of social media sentiments, from various internet camps, following the loss:

  • Kevin Durant is the devil.
  • Durant’s Q4 fail was karmic comeuppance.
  • This mofo is a traitor.
  • The Warriors are arrogant — got what they deserved.
  • Told you Bob Meyers ain’t shit.
  • Steve Kerr still has a job?
  • They got lucky before and the luck has run out.
  • I’m going to kill myself if the Warriors lose.
  • Warriors: one-hit championship wonder.
  • What goes around comes around.
  • This game gave me a pounding headache.
  • God, I’m so depressed now.
  • This was ugly — pass me the bottle.
  • Charles Barkley is saying, “told you so.”
  • Signing KD was the doom.

Two things were at work: 1) Warriors’ fans were devastated by a fourth-quarter meltdown reminiscent of the 2016 NBA Championship Game 7 loss; and 2) fans of rival teams were rejoicing in the team’s and the team’s fans’ misfortune and misery.

It was a toxic brew.

All fans of all sports are devastated when their teams lose and celebratory when they win; this is all normal and fine. A little trash-talking here, some ribbing there — harmless and expected parts of the game. Heck, even after the Grizzlies’ dominant come-from-behind win, surely more than a few hardcore Warriors’ fans would chuckle at this:

Or, roll their eyes at this:

Jeopardy! Sports taunts Warriors.

But most people aren’t going to crack their beer bottle in half — turning the neck into a shiv — and slice someone’s throat open over a little taunting. When the Warriors win, the fans taunt the defeated team. It’s just how it goes. But the reactions to wins and losses seem to be intensifying beyond good-natured fun, and this level of intensity is now becoming accepted as the new normal.

Is it normal or healthy for rival fans to taunt so hard that people are ready to take matters off of the internet and into the streets? For people to malign coaches and players as if they’re not human beings? Call for their jobs — or even their heads — over human mistakes? Become so upset about a loss that their sadness tips into depression and despondency?

Think these questions are an overreaction?

Here are some of the many dangers of sports fanaticism that say otherwise:

Fan suicide

Although likely meant as a derisive quip (hopefully), threatening to commit suicide falls into the realm of extreme fan behavior because one person’s tongue-in-cheek is another person’s reality. This isn’t to slam the hammer down on a hardcore fan, but to kindly point out that there are people out there for whom a loss by their favorite team is the final straw that tips them over the edge.

No, a team’s loss would not cause someone to jump off a bridge. But for someone already suffering from clinical depression or dealing with major life stressors, the L could be the thing that causes one to say “fuck it,” and dive.

Some may think this is unrealistic, but it has happened before.

A Brazilian soccer fan killed himself after being taunted by rival fans.

A Manchester United fan jumped to his death after his team’s loss to Newcastle.

An Arsenal fan hanged himself after his team’s defeat.

Yes, these suicides are all by soccer fans. But fans are fans — fanatics. And there is nothing stopping a fan of a team in any major U.S. sport from following suit. As reactions to wins and losses intensify, the likelihood of a tragic suicidal outcome increases.

Athlete suicide

And then there is the normalcy with which media and fans pounce on players and coaches in the face of loss — or in the face of anything they don’t like — as if these people are not human.

The unstated rule that athletes deserve to be subjected to online abuse, vicious taunts and media scrutiny/condemnation on repeat — just because they have fat bank accounts — needs to end. A hefty bank account does not replace a person’s brain or feelings. Yes, most athletes are tough and use losses and adversity as improvement fuel. But neither the money nor the use of taunts as fuel makes a person immune to the effects of cruelty.

Ronda Rousey felt she was “nothing” and contemplated suicide after the first loss of her career in 2015, to Holly Holm.

Back in the basketball universe, Bill Robinzine committed suicide in 1982. A New York Times article penned after his death alluded to the “transitory profession,” “on-going need to prove himself,” and his lack of a plan about what to do after basketball as potential causes for him to take his own life.

Sacramento Kings forward Ricky Berry killed himself in 1990. The suicide note he left and the statements of family and friends indicate that career pressures played at least some part in his suicide.

None of these people seemed unhappy. “He was all smiles,” was the standard refrain from these athletes’ loved ones.

Fan-on-athlete violence

It probably doesn’t get scarier for an athlete than to think about something like this happening:

A fan runs out onto the pitch (court or field) and begins to take his frustrations out on the players. If it’s one person, he’ll get his ass kicked because the player-to-fan ratio would be 10-to-1 in basketball, for example. But what if multiple people had run out onto the pitch? Or just one person who happened to be in possession of a weapon?

Durant has taken a lot of guff for parting ways with the Thunder in search of a championship ring with the Warriors. Despite being a generous, charitable guy, he has been accused of being traitor. He is a clean player who is well-respected by the refs, he is valued for his leadership abilities by the coaches and he is well-liked by his teammates. But, like LeBron James before him, he became Public Enemy No. 1 when he accepted a job with a new employer in a different city.

No basketball fan should want to see the kind of vitriol that was directed at James be slapped onto Durant — or any player, for that matter. We all remember the ugliness of Cleveland fans burning James’ jersey on the night of “The Decision.”

LeBron James’ burning jersey.

Setting a jersey on fire is basically burning the player in effigy. It is an act of violence spurred by fanaticism that should be taken seriously. No matter how anti-LeBron one might be, no one should want to see harm befall him or any other player, which is why the following incident was so disturbing:

It is fortunate that the man who ran onto the court was a fan making an attempt to woo his favorite player back to Cleveland. But evidence following this fan’s arrest showed him to be a fanatic whose stunt was considered a “calculated extension of a fixation” on LeBron James.

When a person runs onto the court, no one knows the intentions. Some obsessed fans want a little attention, while others want revenge or violence. With everyone hating on James at that point, this situation could have gone an entirely different way.

Just ask Monica Seles.

Thankfully, it didn’t.

Fan-on-fan violence

And then there are fans who turn on each other — taking things off of Twitter and into the streets, out of the stands and into the parking lots.

Threat of violence was severe enough that Marlins fan Laurence Leavy, a World Series regular, missed Chicago’s Game 7 victory because of death threats from Cleveland fans.

“After getting dozens of death threats and hundreds of threats of violence against me, thousands of people I had to block [on Twitter], I decided it wasn’t worth my safety or health,” said Leavy, an attendee at 94 prior World Series games and 27 Super Bowls.

He had previously been accosted at games in Cleveland and undoubtedly wanted to avoid being beaten to within an inch of his life — if not to death — over a game.

He did not want to end up like:

And on and on and on …

A collective chill pill, shall we?

What causes people to tip from passion and enthusiasm for a pastime that is supposed to be fun into violence, despair and mayhem? Why do fans take sports so seriously that any of these scary episodes could spin off from them? Why do we need our team to win?

Alcohol may be a part of it, but something deeper is going on here in terms of root causes — desperation, perhaps.

Desperation for a reason to smile … for an escape from one’s problems … for pride and bragging rights … a lasting high.

This doesn’t mean sports’ fans are bad or that all sports lovers are dangerous fanatics. It simply means we need to take a collective deep breath — all of us, in and out. It means we need to consider how our fandom affects our individual lives, mood and psyche, and how our behavior as fans might affect others.

Even when in a drunken haze, we must blink our vision clear to make sure we know where the lines are. Using basic Merriam-Webster definitions, we can pinpoint the behaviors that fall within the lines of normal fandom or cross outside of them.

Fan: an enthusiastic devotee (as of a sport or a performing art) usually as a spectator. Near synonyms: groupie, admirer, buff.

Fanatic: a devotee with excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion. Near synonyms: extremist, zealot, maniac.

A fan has a measure of control about his or her enthusiasm; a fanatic does not. A fan may not like seeing a person wearing a rival team’s jersey in their city, but it’s a fleeting moment of disdain. A fanatic, however, will mad dog the rival fan until he or she challenges the person to a fight or gets the hell out of there. A fan simply cheers for a team, but a fanatic takes on the persona of a gang member.

The jersey is the gang color.

Blood in, blood out.

Which are you?

Follow Tamryn Spruill on Twitter

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