There’s a documentary on ESPN, part of their 30 for 30 series, called “The Good, The Bad, The Hungry.” The feature follows two competitive eaters, Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi, through their journeys to become the world’s top eater, particularly in the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. Kobayashi is a six-time champion of Nathan’s, while Chestnut is an 11-time and current defending champion of Nathan’s. The two have a historic rivalry within the competitive eating world, and are credited with increasing the sport’s popularity considerably.
During the documentary, there’s a moment where Kobayashi reflects on a particular moment in his career. In the 2007 Nathan’s Contest, Kobayashi is defeated by Chestnut for the first time, ending his reign as champion. A clip of the contest shows Kobayashi attempt to congratulate Chestnut on his win, while the crowd waves American flags and shouts “Go home, Shanghai boy!” and “Go home, kamikaze!” In his reflection, Kobayashi commented, with tears in his eyes, “I was shocked. They used to cheer for me, and I started to feel I wasn’t welcome in America anymore.”
Here’s the thing — that’s not uncommon at all. Far from it. American culture across all sports is void of personal respect when it comes to winning and losing. The athletes are able to maintain a degree of professionalism, with some exception, but the true culprits are the fans. Fans that don themselves in team merchandise, paint their chests or faces with team colors and place the entirety of their personal pride in the hands of their favorite sports teams. Fans that scream absurdities at the players, the officials and at each other. Fans who believe personal insults, of any nature, are acceptable means of communication in the face of a loss, and that physical violence is, while extreme, not entirely out of the picture.
In 2005, a Boston Red Sox fan punched Yankees right fielder Gary Sheffield as he was fielding a ball in play. A separate fan then threw his beer at Sheffield, who threw the ball back into play and then approached the fans. He didn’t cause an altercation, and security escorted the first fan out. Had Sheffield wanted to, he could have escalated the situation by retaliating, justifiably. In 2004, the infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl occurred, wherein numerous players of the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons engaged in a brawl on court. At one point, Pacer player Ron Artest was hit by a drink thrown from a fan. In response, Artest, joined by teammates Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal, climbed into the stands and assaulted the fan, who was defended by other fans. The brawl turned from player vs. player to players vs. fans, and resulted in the charging of five Pacers players and five fans for various crimes. The initial fight was a hard foul deemed unnecessary. The extended fight was because a fan decided they were justified in throwing things at players and somehow immune from retaliation.
The reality is this: Fans have no right to engage with the players in any capacity beyond a friendly exchange. The interactions between fans and players that should and are celebrated, like a baseball player signing balls or gloves, a basketball player giving away shoes or soccer players escorting fans onto the field, are done with a mutual respect between parties. The politics of the sport, the tensions of the competing teams, all is forgotten in these exchanges. There is no justification for screaming at a player you don’t like simply because of their uniform, and there’s no excuse to be had when said player retaliates with words of their own. The age-old line, “They should be used to it,” is a weak attempt to dismiss the actions of the fans, which are often provoking players in the first place.
The majority of fans are not like this. They attend games, respect the players and officials, cheer and clap for their team and then return home. Yet, rivalries emerge between cities, many with tensions that seem warlike: Red Sox and Yankees, Red Wings and Blackhawks, Packers and Bears, the list goes on. In other countries, similar team disputes and fan treatment exists, but America has a particular concentration on winning that supersedes all else. The dignity of the sport begins with its players, but ends with its fans. Kobayashi learned this the hard way, when he was no longer winning. Fans learned the hard way that players are people, and not simply objects of entertainment, when they took haymakers from NBA players. We all need to learn how to engage with one another in the sporting world, from recreational to professional, without dissolving to petty insults and regional divides over something as arbitrary as which team you player or root for. At the end of the day, it’s just a game.