The Self-Righteousness of Sports Fans

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Why does everyone get so mad about unsportsmanlike conduct?

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Emma Carmichael (writer, Deadspin),Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) try to understand fan reaction to athletes' antics.


Hey guys,

It happens every fall: Some professional football player (in this case,  Buffalo Bills receiver Stevie Johnson ) struts, preens, dances, or taunts his way into America's collective living room. In response, some paid sports bloviator (in this case, Bob Costas) immediately castigates said player for:

(a) A classless lack of sportsmanship;

(b) An unsportsmanlike lack of class;

(c) Acting like a naughty five-year-old;

(d) Inching our fair republic one step closer to Visigothian anarchy;

(e) All of the above.

Debate erupts, always the same, always numbing, forever rousing a pair of eternally warring camps: the Armies of Doing the Right Thing in Sports versus the Forces of It's Just a Game Out There. Yet rather than take a side—for what it's worth, I'm with the latter group—I'd like to ask the rest of you a related question.

Namely, why do sports fans get off on this stuff?

Fact: we definitely get off on this stuff. If there's one thing the hoi polloi love nearly as much as wins and losses—well, besides gambling, beer and cheerleaders—it's tinpot crime-and-punishment scenarios. Breakin' the rules and payin' the price. Discipline and drawing the line. Good and bad in the sense of right and wrong, and not in the sense of points on the scoreboard. Sports as morality play.

I have a theory: deep down, sports fans basically view athletes as children. We love children. They do the darndest things. But we also loathe them.  Because they do the darndest things. If we can't see them pull off something spectacular, then we'll settle for seeing them put in their places by some sort of authority figures, even if those figures often the same people who charge nine bucks for a warm cup of beer, then screw us on parking.

Actually, we might like seeing that even more. And that's why end-zone celebrations are never just end zone celebrations.

Emma, you've weighed in on the Costas-Johnson matter before. Am I way off-base? Or am I on to something?

–Patrick

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Sports Roundtable

Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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