Overgeneralizing fan bases after incendiary events often characterize and ruin moments in sports. How do we compartmentalize human mascots that tarnish images of teams and fandoms?
LeBron James signed with the Los Angeles Lakers on July 1, the first official day of the NBA’s free agency. Now this isn’t exactly related to the New York Knicks outside of how James’ movement affects the broader climate of the NBA, but LeBron’s arrival in Los Angeles introduced a difficult subject matter for Lakers (read: Kobe Bryant) die-hard fans. For many years, LeBron represented the “yang” to Bryant’s “yin”; the vitriol that permeated between sides of self-proclaimed Kobe and LeBron “stans” had to be neutered, considering King James has a new home court, the Staples Center—the same arena that housed many of Kobe’s accomplishments.
James’ inclusion into the Lakers family, however, has not been widely accepted by fans of the purple and gold. On two separate occasions, murals in the urban sprawl called Los Angeles have been vandalized—murals featuring LeBron and his welcoming into Lakershood. Obviously, it’s too soon to ask where James fits into the historic narrative of the Lakers and their all-time greats, but Lakers fans are quickly shunning their new monarch.
— ThatHollywoodGuy (@Diehardheatfan1) July 21, 2018
But are these vandals representative of Lakers fans at large, or are the individuals suspected of paint-splattering James’ likeness singled out from the friendlier group?
Further, how do we choose fans to represent our teams, and when do we draw a line when said individuals aren’t indicative of the fan base?
The Knicks selected 6-foot-9 Kentucky forward Kevin Knox with the ninth overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft in June. Knox performed quite well in his lone, freshman season in Lexington. The 19-year-old also comes with built-in athleticism borne in the young man’s genes; his father, Kevin Sr., competed collegiately at Florida State University for the Seminoles’ football program, playing catch with then-future Knicks guard Charlie Ward as a wideout for the team.
Despite Knox’s pedigree and promising talent, the teenager received a chorus of boos on his coronation evening. Captured by ESPN’s broadcast of the draft, a tween and his father stood in the center of viewers’ television sets (or phone screens, since it is 2018, and that’s how we all see stories). The child was none other than the infamous “Crying Knicks Fan”—real name Jordan—the same self-identified fan that was caught lamenting New York’s selection of future All-Star Kristaps Porzingis at the draft in 2015. Predictably, the kid was donning a Porzingis jersey while jeering the Knox selection live.
Maybe the father-and-son duo wanted the Knicks to pick Missouri prospect Michael Porter Jr., who had sustained a draft-day drop (and would continue to drop until the Denver Nuggets scored the forward with the final pick in the lottery segment of the first round). Perhaps this Porzingis fan preferred New York to pick Mikal Bridges, the sharpshooting swingman out of champion Villanova, who would find himself selected with the 10th pick. Whatever their preference, both father and son were displeased with Kevin Knox—at least initially. Humorously, ESPN’s broadcast crew acknowledged the onslaught of boos, noting that Knox’s disapproval from the apparent Knicks fan contingent could point to career success and an All-Star selection down the line for Kevin. And possibly, the child would change his tune when he would witness what Knox could do on the hardwood (like when he balled out at the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League earlier this month).
Nevertheless, the world’s observation of disgruntled draft-day Knicks fans was a folly, further amplified by the Worldwide Leader’s camera trickery. Reports of ‘Bocker fans’ disapproval of the Knox selection were greatly exaggerated; it was apparent that the re-emergence of Jordan (sans blue spectacles) soaked up the attention and dignity of those who woefully root for the team. In other words, the mascot creation of the young fan contributed to much of the hoopla and noise that Knicks fans were vehemently against the selection by general manager Scott Perry and the team.
Most of this was a grand illusion, however. The belief of many New Yorkers is that the Knox pick falls in line with Perry’s idea of going younger, more athletic, and generally taking a chance on high-ceiling individuals (like the recent signings of Mario Hezonja and Noah Vonleh). How did the puppet of Crying Knicks Fan turn into a ventriloquist for the rest of the fan base? He mimicked his three-year-old meme-exploitable reaction to KP’s selection—except this time it falsely constructed narrative that those who repped orange and blue at Barclays Center on June 21st were near white-hot rage, ready to storm the stage or gather close-proximity pitchforks.
Both the acts of LeBron vandalism and amplified inaccurate Knicks draft jeering bring into question how audiences and media choose representatives for larger, more diverse fan bases. In baseball, St. Louis Cardinals fans dub themselves the “best fans in baseball”—but we’ve seen instances of repeated name calling and the use of racial slurs addressed at their own, “beloved” Cardinals players. Last week, Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher Josh Hader entered a ball game to rapturous cheers by Brewers faithful. This came on the heels of highly publicized tweets ranging from homophobia to apparent support for the Ku Klux Klan. Do these fans speak for all who root for the Cardinals and Brewers?
Just days removed from old racially insensitive and homophobic tweets stirring up controversy, Josh Hader receives a standing ovation from the Milwaukee crowd. Meanwhile NFL is still self-combusting over preventing their athletes from protesting oppression. Such a crazy contrast. pic.twitter.com/MBi7FfqZAU
— Gundacker (@GundackerSports) July 22, 2018
In football, we see rowdy Bills fans take tailgating to new extremes in Buffalo, tackling tables and setting fires outside Ralph Wilson Stadium on fall Sundays in their drunken pre-game bliss. Do we associate every Bills fan as a sloven glutton ready to pounce on folding tables if given the opportunity?
It’s not easy to grapple with how we choose to prop up human mascots for sports teams. Sometimes they can be harmless and responsible citizens of their communities. Other times, when they’re not representing our own clubs, they capture laughs directed at the general idea of a team (racist Patriot fan? So true, it’s hilarious!). But mostly, these fans that momentarily blow up through viral videos or images are not indicative of larger fan bases, because fandoms include many different kinds of fans—people of all ages and backgrounds that call themselves fans of a team or sport for specific reasons outside lapses of judgment. The way we picture teams and players in our heads, unprompted by extraneous information, are unsurprisingly tainted by the less wholesome images (for Mets fans, maybe it’s Mr. Met turning and giving a middle finger). While it may be impossible to detach the bad parts of sports fandom from our memory banks, it’s important to take time to digest our picture and word association to sports.
“Not every Knicks fan hated the Knox pick.” “Not every Lakers fan is a mural-defaming LeBron antagonist.” The ideas of the motivations behind select fans of teams must be strained from our understanding of fandom and team identity in sports. Perhaps, then, the only way to exorcise “bad” fans is to call our flagrant behavior when it’s noticed. It’s clear that the bad traits and tendencies of folks can materialize from time to time—cursing out players, wishing harm on another team or player, are two that pop up on occasion—but those fade away. The larger, more obnoxious incidents that flair up—booing an 18-year-old, for example—are instances of fan behavior that have to be called out by other fans and policed.
Fans are not normal people. They’re extremist by the very definition of their existence. However, warping fan behavior into generalizations is dangerous, too. Instead, fans must harness their devotion and loyalty to a team for the greater good: community building and barrier-destroying unity.
And today the mural’s artist, Gustavo Zermeno, fixed it with some help from Lakers fans. Gus’ original hope with the message of the mural was that it “overpowers people’s hate for LeBron.” Today some fans helped restore the art. Gus said, “Laker fans got my back!” pic.twitter.com/pd322rB7Zl
— Ohm Youngmisuk (@NotoriousOHM) July 21, 2018