A Thin, Yet Disappearing, Line: The Increasing Role of Fans in the Lives of Athletes

As if I needed another reason to hate the University of Michigan fan base. As a Buckeye, I must admit to being delighted by the death spiral that the hated “team up north” has experienced this season; a glee that has only lessened with the reality that their epic struggles would have a negative impact upon my alma maters, THE Ohio State University, BCS ranking via strength of schedule evaluation. Led by the obviously inept Brady Hoke, the hated Wolverines have seen their on-field struggles increase each year he has led their program.

However, just when the University of Michigan football fortunes appeared to be at rock bottom, comes a revelation from starting quarterback Devin Gardner concerning the voluminous amount of hate mail he has received from that school’s fan base. Gardner relates that he has received no less than 1,000 negative comments via Instagram and Twitter from Wolverine fans.

Just as disconcerting has been the decision of many Wolverine fans to call the young man a nigger. Gardner, who apparently refuses to use the racial pejorative, relates “I’ve been called the N-word so many times this year. One guy told me I was the N-word, and said I know N-words can’t play quarterback.” Although, the alluded to vitriolic racial hatred carries with it unspoken biases and prejudices from yesteryear that questioned the mental capabilities of African-American to handle the cerebral aspects of playing the pivotal quarterback position this posting is less about the shameful prevalence of racism in today’s sports world and aimed more toward an increasingly prevalent danger in today’s sports world; the danger I allude to is the tendency of some fans to believe that they have a role in sports contests beyond cheering and jeering.

As a Buckeye, I would love to take unbridled glee at Michigan’s woes. However, as an African-American male I simply cannot condone the hurling of the “N-word” at Devin Gardner due to perceived athletic inadequacies, nor can I deny the fact that such ilk finds not only a home, but also a community of like-minded individuals in any fan base; fans who attempt to stretch their role beyond being merely fans, they seek to interact with the athletes and impact the outcomes of games. Although I am not clairvoyant, I fear that if left unchecked such aspirations will result in disaster for some unsuspecting athlete in one way or another.

The alluded to individuals have done their absolute best to become a deciding factor in athletic contests regardless if we are speaking about pee wee football, middle or high school athletics, collegiate contests, and/or professional games. Such aspirations should be downright scary for today’s modern-day gladiators. How much longer will it be before some deranged fan harms a player who has not lived up to their lofty expectations?

While in Graduate School, I was honored to secure employment in my alma mater’s Student Athlete Support Services Office. One of the more frightening moments of my tenure were any days after defeating a rival because you simply had no idea what you would receive via the U.S. Post Office. Then it was “snail mail” today it is social media. One particular incident remains in mind, days after defeating a rival Big Ten opponent, one of our All-American players who delivered a hit on the other team’s quarterback that led those of us on the sideline to believe that he had killed him, received a package at the office. Within the parcel was a letter from a fan of the previous week’s opponent that related, in the most offensively racial language possible, not only his displeasure at this young man’s athletic performance that included his hitting ‘a white man’ with such force, but also included a blatant threat to murder the young man when he least expected it. Although we desired to laugh the incident off, included in the parcel were additional information that included a printout of this young man’s academic schedule, home address, and other pertinent personal information involving the young mans loved ones. To say that the parcel unsettled us all would be a drastic understatement. However, we were absolutely powerless in regards to either soothing this young man’s concerns or protecting him in any way. The alluded to threats appeared to be the cost of fame.

Unfortunately, with the general public’s increasing access to athletes’ lives, the line between athlete and fan has become negligible. Consequently, the racial harassment that Mr. Gardner is experiencing has become one of the unfair costs of being a renowned athlete as rabid fans have taken to social media to track down and interact with those that they cheer for on a weekly basis. One has to wonder, how long it will be before a fan totally crosses that line in a desperate attempt to increase his team’s chances of success and attempts to harm a rival athlete. I hope that I am wrong; however, I believe that such an incident will occur sooner, rather than later.

Dr. James Thomas Jones III


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