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Fandom, pride and the irrational mind

Aaron S. Bayley

If pride is a sin, what is gay pride?

That was the first post to pop up in my newsfeed when I logged into Facebook while sitting in a coffee shop in the summer of 2014. It was late June, Pride Week in Toronto was wrapping up, and the FIFA World Cup was in full swing. The post was written by someone who fears homosexuals and loves soccer. At almost the exact moment I read it, a young man walked past the window waving a large German flag.

Perhaps you see where I'm going with this.

The post was deleted shortly thereafter, but I'm unsure whether its author was aware of his painfully obvious double standard. It takes a monumental lack of self-awareness to label gay pride a "sin" (a decidedly religious term which he ascribes to others under the myopic and asinine assumption that everyone is a Christian) while being oblivious to the largest celebration of pride on the planet—soccer's World Cup. For how else can you describe the jingoist, chest-thumping memes circulating on social media, the faces painted in national colours, the cosplay-inspired costumes, the car hoods draped with Portuguese or French or English or Italian or Mexican or Colombian or Indian or Polish or Serbian or Dutch or Nigerian flags—the ostentatious display of national identity? Yet by the Facebook troll's own twisted logic, gay pride is an abomination while national pride gets a free pass.

Clearly, there is nothing wrong with being proud of your culture and heritage and celebrating your fellow countrymen and countrywomen for their athletic or artistic accomplishments. But there's a distinction to be made between the healthy pride felt by decent human beings for a job well done and the need for self-aggrandizement and feelings of superiority over others. The former is fuelled by acknowledgement of effort and perseverance; the latter, by selfish ego and low self-esteem. Pride Week is about demonstrating support for members of marginalized LGBTQ communities and celebrating their identities, identities which throughout history have been oppressed, stigmatized, and relegated to the sidelines. It is not about boasting that you're better than everyone else, or fighting for more rights than the average citizen (although transphobes and homophobes would have you believe otherwise).

But what is it about sports fandom that turns people into irrational beings at best and abject morons at worst?

In their 1999 article classifying sports fans, researchers Kenneth A. Hunt, Terry Bristol, and R. Edward Bashaw identified five types of fans: temporary, local, devoted, fanatical, and dysfunctional. Soccer has a long history of dysfunctional fans behaving badly; of riots, racist chants, stampedes, and fatal beatings. On Saturday, Argentina beat Brazil 1-0 in the Copa America final, giving Barcelona striker Lionel Messi his first major tournament victory. Four days earlier in Bangladesh, an argument between an Argentina supporter and a Brazil supporter over a game played between Brazil and Peru led to attacks between the two fan bases, with several people being beaten and one hospitalized. Fans of hockey's Montreal Canadiens are no strangers to irrational behaviour. On Thursday June 24 in downtown Montreal, some Canadiens fans celebrated the team's series win over the Las Vegas Knights by drinking in the streets, climbing lampposts, and flipping a police car. It was tame behaviour compared to the April 2008 riots, when fans celebrated the team's series win over the hated Boston Bruins by vandalizing stores, throwing rocks and bottles at police, and setting police cruisers on fire. And the infamous Richard Riot of 1955, which occurred after Maurice "Rocket" Richard was suspended for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs, was a significant enough event to gain its own Wikipedia page. Rioting over sporting events, usually attributed to "a small group of troublemakers" by mayors and city officials, is an act of violence stemming from frustration over an unwanted outcome, usually the loss of an important game. When the Vancouver Canucks lost Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final to the Boston Bruins, hooligans spilled into downtown Vancouver and wreaked havoc: shop windows were smashed and stores were looted, police cruisers and Canucks jerseys were set on fire, and several people were stabbed.

While sensible people condemn fans' bigoted comments and alcohol-fuelled public disturbances and violence as illogical and pathetic, apologists defend the perpetrators as "patriotic" and "passionate," as die-hards who just want to have fun and make a little mischief. The inebriated, overly emotional fanatics who take to the streets in protest over something as inconsequential as a sporting event are, in many cases, treated better by law enforcement than activists who take to the streets for issues far more pressing, like racial justice and climate change. That's because Black Lives Matter activists and environmentalists are a threat to the status quo. Drunken sports fans are not. Soccer fans salivate over Bill Shankly's trite quote that "Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that." I assure you, it's not. There are much more important things to protest than a missed call in the Euro Cup semi-final.

English comedian Russell Brand recently posted a video where he ponders whether the mania associated with soccer fandom and its ability to influence politics by inspiring patriotism and nationalist sentiment can be seen as a unifying force. Explains Brand, "When you see crowds clambering on buses and phone boxes you are forced to acknowledge and recognize the spirit, the energy of chaos, and from chaos comes change, from chaos can come evolution..." Indeed, when Maurice Richard was suspended in 1955, Montreal fans perceived the severity of his suspension as proof of discrimination against his—and therefore their—French-Canadian ethnicity and identity. The Richard Riot raised French-Anglo tensions, paving the way for Quebec's Quiet Revolution in culture and politics five years later.

Brand showed video footage of English fans celebrating in Piccadilly Circus after England defeated Denmark to advance to the Final. One man stated, nonsensically, "Football's from England! That's why it's coming home!" Another remarked that England's victory was better than the birth of his daughter in 2012. We may watch these men making ridiculous assertions with bemused detachment and brush them off as hyperbolic, but the drunken euphoria associated with fan worship of sports teams and their icons can be dangerous. For fans not anchored to reality, sporting heroes are infallible, especially those individuals who are responsible for a culture of winning, even if they are also responsible in part or in whole for heinous crimes. The cult of personality that surrounded Joe Paterno when he was a football coach at Penn State prevented his supporters from criticizing him for his role as an enabler in the child sex abuse that occurred on campus between 1994 and 2009. When Paterno was fired by the board of trustees, students were livid and rioted en masse, flipping a bus and clashing with police. For them, "JoePa" was both scapegoat and martyr. Many Italian soccer fans admire Benito Mussolini simply because Italian soccer thrived under his dictatorship in the 1930s. Pedophilia and fascism are easily forgiven by the morally ambiguous and less discerning when winning is at stake and when sport transcends all other priorities.

Part of the reason for the mostly male fanaticism and dysfunction associated with sport fandom can be explained by what political theorist and author Benjamin R. Barber calls the "infantilist ethos." In his book Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, Barber defines the infantilist ethos as generating "a set of habits, preferences, and attitudes that encourage and legitimate also serves capitalist consumerism directly by nurturing a culture of impetuous consumption necessary to selling puerile goods in a developed world that has few genuine needs." To be a child, Barber shows, means prioritizing impulse over deliberation, feeling over reason, certainty over uncertainty, dogmatism over doubt, play over work, pictures over words, images over ideas, pleasure over happiness, instant gratification over long-term satisfaction, narcissism over sociability, and the timeless present over temporality, among other dualities.

It doesn't take much imagination to see how traits like impulse, feeling, dogmatism, narcissism, and instant gratification effectively describe the fully invested fanatic who lives in a fantasy world. Sitting in a stadium dressed like a character from Mario Bros. or as a viking or wearing a giant foam cheese wedge on your head is a childish endeavour, yet it allows fans to participate in a carnivalesque atmosphere that serves as a safe space and confirms their authenticity. Soccer fans singing in unison are part of a collective identity; everything is emotion and pleasure and instant gratification. The sporting event—whether it is soccer, cricket, hockey, or football—is consumed by supporters who are all too willing to stoke the fires of corporate capitalism because, like children, they desire an escape, and escape from the responsibility of the day-today grind. The stadium is the timeless present, and the team is more than a mere profit-making machine: it is tradition, it is glory, it is nation, it is God.

Brand ends his video by saying, "Ultimately, when it comes to it, you have more in common with one another than the set of principles and institutions that seek to continually divide you." This is true. Also true is that the majority of fans are good-natured, even those who act irrationally on occasion. Of course, those for whom pride serves as a crutch to prop their bruised ego are too selfish and narcissistic to see themselves as part of a unifying whole. The fanatic regresses to childhood; the team is his security blanket. But the dysfunctional fan who identifies sport as his raison d'être and cannot see the world through anything other than his prism of team colours is pitiful. There is no separation between the team's identity and his own. Life is competition, yet he is a passenger with no control over power relations. Everything is transactional. A victory means bragging rights, and he will rationalize a loss, because it is a reflection of his own failure and impotence.

Fortunately, most sports fans do not sink to the depths of the dysfunctional. Life is messy and unscripted, and people are emotional beings prone to saying and doing stupid things, prone to getting swept up in the dramatic romance and tragedy of cultural events. Sometimes this results in chaos.

After Italy defeated England on penalties yesterday, Italians all over the world celebrated, while the despondent English fans in Piccadilly Square took a deep collective breath and reflected on the loss. Just kidding. They rioted.


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