18 February 2016

The Double Standards of Fans: The Subjective Nature of Sport

Daniel Gallan

Like a family member or loved one, our favourite athletes and teams reach into our hearts and souls and pull on certain strings that compel us to be biased. We can’t help it. There’s nothing we can do. Our athletes and teams are just and virtuous, and exempt from derision, while the opposition is the antithesis: deceitful, unsportsmanlike, unworthy of praise or achievement. The subjective nature of sport creates an environment where the same action or behaviour can yield very different responses depending on which side of the fence you sit.

Barcelona's three South American superstars Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar Jr (from l to r) celebrate a goal against Celta Vigo. The Catalan giants romped to a 6-1 victory.  Image supplied by Action Images / Albert Gea.

Barcelona's three South American superstars Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar Jr (from l to r) celebrate a goal against Celta Vigo. The Catalan giants romped to a 6-1 victory. Image supplied by Action Images / Albert Gea.

Barcelona romped to resounding 6-1 victory over Celta Vigo last weekend with their genius front three of Lionel Messi , Luis Suarez and Neymar all contributing with goals, assists and dazzling pieces of skill.

But as impressive as the result and performance both were, it was an individual play that grabbed all the headlines.

In the 80th minute, Barca were awarded a penalty when Messi was brought down in the box en route to his 300th La Liga goal. The diminutive Argentine is a sniper from the spot and all in attendance and watching live on TV must have anticipated the imminent milestone. All except the Blaugrana’s three South American superstars.

Messi approached the ball, and instead of bulging the net with it, played a cheeky square ball for the onrushing Suarez who duly slotted home into an empty net. Much to the chagrin of a handful of Celta players, the goal stood and an internet and social media frenzy ensued with many tweets and comments both supporting and criticising the incident.

ESPN’s Graham Hunter described the event as “rock n roll” football, stating, “It bewilders me that some viewers on social media thought it disrespectful. Anyone who can’t appreciate the nerve, skill, daring and vision of that penalty should be re-educated.”

Over in Madrid, Tomas Guasch, a reporter for the COPE radio station, overdramatically remarked, “If this penalty had been invented by Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema (both RealMadrid players), people would be saying they should be sent to Afghanistan.”

Histrionics aside, Guasch raises an interesting hypothesis. What if this penalty had been acted out by men in white at the Santiago Bernabeu rather than those in red and blue at the Nou Camp? Would the reaction have been as overwhelmingly positive? Or would the criticisms have rung louder as the football world targeted Los Merengues for spitting on the integrity of the beautiful game?

We’ve spoken before how positive brand equity and team identity can drive on-field performance, but they also have a dramatic impact on off-field perceptions surrounding a team. In the great rivalry that is Barcelona versus Real Madrid, most neutral fans can easily identify who the “good guys” are and who are the “villains”. Both teams spend enormous sums of money on players, both dominate their league, both regularly compete in the final stages of the Champions League, and both enjoy the support of millions of fans worldwide. Despite these similarities, certain qualities endear many neutrals to the team that claims to be “More than just a club”.  The same goes for fence-sitters watching games involving the New York Yankees, Manchester United, the Sharks (South African rugby franchise) or the Australian cricket team.

This disparity also applies to individual athletes. Much of the debate surrounding the penalty centred on the rivalry between Messi and Ronaldo. Many pundits and commentators pointed out that while Messi is being praised for his innovation and selflessness, Ronaldo would have been criticised for bringing the game into disrepute. Others argue that Ronaldo is too selfish a player to ever contemplate turning down the opportunity to score a goal. Once again, the list is extensive: John McEnroe, Mike Tyson, Roy Keane, Bakkies Botha, Shane Warne and countless other elite athletes represent the “bad guy”. We may love to watch them, even love to hate them, but there is no denying that certain athletes are able to act in a particular way, or attempt a particular play, without receiving the hostility we reserve for the pantomime villain.

AB de Villiers, the darling of South African cricket, got away with an act that would have seen any other player in the team get chewed up in the media and online. On the eve of the third Test with England, and with South Africa 1-0 down in the four match series, de Villiers took over as captain of the side after Hashim Amla stepped down.

In his first meeting with the press, de Villiers was quizzed on his commitment to the future of the team as well as to his new leadership role. De Villiers hardly inspired with some poorly chosen words.

“There has been a few rumours floating around and in most rumours there is always a little bit of truth,” he said, referencing reports that one of the world’s best players was considering an early retirement. “I’ve found myself on the pitch in the past few years, every now and then, not enjoying myself as much as I should be and that raises concerns.” Not exactly what a team 1-0 down in an important series wants to hear from their newly appointed leader. South Africa lost the series 2-1.

Michael Holding, AKA "Whispering Death" formed the backbone of the great West Indies fearsome bowling unit during the 1970s and 80s. He earned his knickname for combining an almost silent run-up with blistering pace. 

Michael Holding, AKA "Whispering Death" formed the backbone of the great West Indies fearsome bowling unit during the 1970s and 80s. He earned his knickname for combining an almost silent run-up with blistering pace. 

De Villiers escaped a backlash. If any other player, or any other captain in any other sport in South Africa for that matter, had been as blasé and non-committal as de Villiers was, there would have surely been repercussions. Can you imagine a Springbok captain portraying the same ambivalence to a leadership role and not receiving negativity?

Whatever the case, it is important to acknowledge the subjective nature of the sports fan and enthusiast. The stories and identities we associate with teams and athletes are little more than abstract fairy tales that help create a narrative around the games we love. Like any human emotion, the feelings we ascribe to teams and athletes are constantly shifting and are always constructed to suit a particular time and place.

Take for example the great West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s. We look back on that team with great awe and admiration. Their four pronged pace attack is still revered as one of the most devastating and dominant forces in the history of world sport. They terrified batsmen and swept aside all before them. But they were once painted as monsters and demons; athletic terrorists whose dirty tactics and bullying methods straddled the lines of what was legal, and overstepped the mark of what was considered gentlemanly.

The hypocrisy wasn’t lost on the West Indies players. In the brilliant documentary Fire in Babylon (2010), former greats including Clive Lloyd, Michael Holding, Gordon Greenidge and Viv Richards speak about their side’s famous rise to power and recall their first true test: the 1975-76 tour of Australia.

There they faced two lethal fast bowlers – Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson – and were destroyed by pace and bounce that Greenidge called, “A military assault on West Indies cricket.” At the time, no one raised any concerns on the fairness of fast bowling. When Australian crowds chanted “Lillee, Lillee, kill, kill, kill” they weren’t chastised. This was part of the game and the West Indies, dubbed “Calypso cricketers” in reference to the feel good music of the Caribbean, simply weren’t good enough.

It was only when Lloyd and his fellow marginalised cricketers from the Third World decided to fight fire with fire that cricket’s hierarchy suddenly had a problem with short pitched fast bowling. The old establishment of England and Australia were suddenly being beaten by a bunch of islanders and so the narrative surrounding fast bowling started to shift.

Now, in a world where both fast bowling and multiracialism are staples of modern cricket, the great West Indies team are given the respect they deserve.

The perceptions surrounding sports teams and athletes will forever remain fickle and fluid. It is impossible to attribute the same standards to everyone. Even if it were, that would take all the fun out of it. We need villains and we need heroes. We need to know that our champions, no matter what transgression or misspoken word, are always virtuous and fighting for our cause. Without bias and subjectivity, sport would degenerate into something mundane, and what a pitiful existence that would be. 

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.