Ah, that empty, lonely feeling that shrouds your heart this time of year. Infinite possibilities with the New Year? Resolutions, new activities? They are pathetic attempts to fill the black void in your soul.
The end of the holiday season? No, my friend. It’s the end of the regular NFL season. December 26 has nothing on December 31, when millions of fans found out their teams didn’t make the playoffs. Of course, some teams’ prospects had been quashed long ago (ahem, Cleveland Browns), but now their legions of faithful fans must at last come to grips with the prospect of not seeing their team play again for eight long months.
For diehard fans, losing a playoff game is like being dumped by a high school sweetheart. It’s soul-crushing. Demoralizing. Agonizing. If you want to see a barely hyperbolic parody of Seahawks fans grieving after losing the Superbowl in 2014, watch this.
Don’t get me wrong—I love football. The strategy, the athleticism, the sheer level of intensity packed into every play. It’s impossible not to watch the game and get caught up in the excitement. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but unfortunately a minority of fans are constantly threatening to ruin fandom for the rest of us. And it’s not okay.
Ain’t Nobody Want to Be Next to the Drunk Guy
To illustrate, let me tell you a story. Last month, my husband and I went to see the Seahawks play the Jaguars in Jacksonville. The stadium was packed for this much-anticipated matchup. The Jags had built up an outstanding defense, which used to be what Seattle was known for.
It would be up to the offense: could Russell Wilson out-scramble “Sacksonville?” Would Blair Walsh lose the Hawks yet another game by missing a field goal? We waited to see these questions answered from 30 rows above the corner of the north end zone. We were pleasantly surprised to see our section was packed with Hawks fans. This would be fun.
How naive we were. Just two seats over, some guy, maybe mid to late twenties, was sitting unusually still. He was nearly passed-out drunk and vomiting on the seat in front of him—a seat that belonged to a young child of maybe eight years old.
This dude was so drunk he couldn’t even talk. As you might imagine, the family in front of him was not down with being in the puke radius. His buddy, whose smack talk was incessant and liberally sprinkled with profanity, had to speak for his intoxicated friend. What lame excuse could he give? “He just had too much to drink—he didn’t mean to.”
After multiple witnesses begged for several minutes, security finally removed the pair. They tried to come back after halftime, when the drunk man’s belligerent friend started a fight with the other fans who wanted him removed again.
You can imagine my annoyance. Here I am, trying to be a good fan with my Lockett jersey, screaming myself hoarse on third down and freezing my tail off in flipping Florida, and some jerk has to tailgate so hard he vomits, and his friend is so wrapped up in his fanaticism so as to take genuine offense that the families around would ask him to leave.
That wasn’t even the worst behavior at that game. As we exited the stands we could see fights breaking out among players on the field. As staff tried to escort the second ejected Seahawk, Quinton Jefferson, back to the locker room, he was drawn into a shouting match with a Jags fan. Then another fan threw a can of beer at him, nearly hitting the defensive end in the head. He lunged over the rails, trying to get to the offender. It was ugly and should have been deeply embarrassing to the Seahawks, their fans, and other Jags fans.
As we walked away from the stadium I dimly remembered one of the messages that played on the Jumbotron near the beginning of the game. Some elderly gentleman was monologuing about respect for the coaches, players, the game, our country, etc. At first I took it as a thinly veiled swipe at players who sat for the national anthem. But then, after the disgraceful behavior that had basically ruined the experience for me, I thought that message of respect was deeply needed and perilously neglected.
What You Think Is Fun Makes Misery for Others
The flag controversy has monopolized outside coverage of the NFL this year, but the truth is that respect in such an intense game with intense fans is a lot less about traditional patriotic gestures and a lot more about self-restraint and common courtesy.
But you might say that the problem isn’t fandom, it’s really alcohol. That was the common theme for ill-behaved fans that night, after all. But for many diehard, ritualistic fans, trying to separate drinking from sports fandom is like trying to separate coffee and office work. It’s a culture problem. Once they’ve had a few, the seriousness so many people bring to their fandom is a catalyst for stupid, embarrassing, and even violent behavior.
It’s one thing if you want to be a crass jerk in some sports bar down the road that’s 21 and up, or in your tailgate party before the game. It’s another to be a crass, drunken jerk in a section full of young kids who’ve been looking forward to seeing a game with their parents for weeks.
Inevitably, some fans will bristle at this criticism, as if I’m condemning all fans everywhere for being enthusiastic about their teams. “People work hard,” they say, “They need a release. They need something to look forward to.” Besides, the most rowdy NFL fans are mild-mannered compared to soccer fans in Europe or South America (we haven’t had players stabbed or referees beheaded here). Basically, “Why can’t you just let people have their fun?”
Well, that’s precisely my point. I want people to have fun. Fandom is fun until it clashes with genuine fanaticism, and the true believers who not only imbibe the Kool-Aid of fandom (i.e. several pints of domestic beer), but think it’s their destiny to conquer all other fandoms and reign supreme forever. Those people have to come and puke all over our parade.
It’s a Game. That Means Not Serious
Too-high a level of emotional energy invested in a sport you merely watch eventually leads to a painful sense of loss that is not easily swept away. For hardcore fans, there’s no such thing as not being a sore loser. Have you ever been on a long car ride with someone whose team just lost a big game? It’s like being stuck in a train car with a Dementor. Being at work the day after the local team loses big is like working with hungry forlorn vampires.
So you can insist that “people need a break” and that we must “let them have their fun” all you want, but how good for you can it be for you if you’re that deep into it that it so negatively affects your personal life?
Football is wonderful, and fandom is wonderful. A good rivalry can bring people together like Christmas parties never could. But please enjoy fandom responsibly. That doesn’t just mean knowing your limit with alcohol consumption, it’s knowing when you’re at risk of losing perspective: it is just a game, a very tiny portion of your life experience.
Even if you are occasionally part of “the 12th man,” you’re much more a spectator than a participant. So not only is belligerence and gratuitous smack talk unnecessary, it ruins the experience for the rest of us. Even if you’re simply too emotionally invested and don’t cope with loss well, you can seriously ruin other people’s day.
So enjoy playoff season. Gear up and get loud. Just don’t take it too seriously.