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Media must demand humanity, responsibility from overzealous sports fans

It is a story that has been re-told so many times that it has become part of NFL lore, like the Heidi game between the Jets and Raiders and Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception”. On Dec. 15, 1968, Philadelphia Eagles fans booed Santa Claus. Threw snowballs at him, too. You can do a lot of things and be forgiven. But booing Father Christmas? For shame.

Of course, it wasn’t the real Santa. He was stranded in Atlantic City because of a snowstorm. (How’s that for irony?) So, the Birds enlisted a 20-year old kid who had worn a Santa suit to the last game of every season for a while and asked him to head out onto the field carrying an equipment bag as his sack of toys. It wasn’t pretty. The Eagles were awful that year, and the fans were angry. So, they took it out on St. Nick. Nearly 45 years later, the incident remains the default criticism of Philadelphia fans: They booed Santa.

Yes, they did. But as bad as that was, at least they didn’t cheer him when he was down on the field after getting leveled by a 330-pound nose tackle. That happened Sunday in Kansas City, when Chiefs’ QB Matt Cassel, a recent target of fan and media ire, sustained a concussion after Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata blasted him on a pass play. As Cassel was led off the field, many at Arrowhead Stadium erupted in cheers. Some rationalized that it was an ovation for backup Brady Quinn, although that’s highly unlikely, given his spotty history. No, this was an ovation for the injury that knocked Cassel out of the game. And it was disgusting.

Two days earlier, Braves fans reacted to a horrible, senseless infield fly rule call by littering the field with debris on two separate occasions. It was a wildly inappropriate reaction to a rotten call, and it spoke to the growing sense of entitlement that fans feel, just because they happen to be paying top dollar for tickets.

I’m not going to paint every fan with the same brush as I am using to tar the cretins in KC and Atlanta who misbehaved. And, of course, it wasn’t unanimously poor behavior. Not everyone was out of line. But enough were that the two incidents made national news. Now, it’s time for those who report that news to help America’s sporting public begin the long trip back to civility at sporting events.

There is a growing sense in this country that being a “real” fan requires a “passion” that borders on malice. Since those who buy the tickets lack control over the outcome of the contests they view, they need outlets for their frustration. I get that. But there is no reason to turn that aggravation into the kind of behavior that lowers the bar for everyone. Fans are acting as if the price of admission gives them the right to do anything they want. It doesn’t.

In today’s media climate, calls for restraint and civil behavior are often dismissed as not being “hard” enough. Those who offer reasoned analysis and a measured response don’t get the Twitter followers, aren’t asked to appear on televised screaming matches and fail to register substantial page hits online. Those who try to educate are often shouted down and regarded as hopelessly out of touch.

Well, it’s time for the media to take a little heat for doing the right thing. There should be a rousing chorus of sensibility from writers, broadcasters, bloggers, tweeters and anybody else with an audience. Fans must be made to understand that it’s fine to cheer, boo and razz, but the line of poor taste cannot be crossed. When a player is hurt, it’s time for humanity, not barbarity. No matter how bad a call may be, there is no cause for hurling a bottle onto the field. Rival fans shouldn’t be subjected to violence or debasement because they root for another team. Jeer, yes. Dump beer, no. Believe me, it is possible to be loud and ardent without succumbing to the Thunderdome mentality. The homefield advantage shouldn’t include malevolence.

That is the message that must be delivered, time and again, even if it means being called “old school” by those who believe appropriate fan behavior includes bad taste. Again, there are those out there who don’t want to listen to a reasonable discussion. They want a nasty tone. Well, that’s too bad. It’s time to reclaim some class in the stands. It’s time to make sure fans understand that there is no room for loutish behavior, no matter how much the tickets cost.

So, get the word out, everybody. No more cheering injuries. No more throwing things. No more threats or violence directed at opposing fans. Let’s end the nasty, hard-edged approach that is gaining an ever-stronger hold on the minds of paying customers.

Oh, and absolutely no booing Santa Claus.

Even if he’s a stand-in.

Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on CSNPhilly.com, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.

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