My wife is a pretty animated person. She is generally more excited on an average day than many people are on their birthdays. But when entering an arena filled with thousands of crazed fans to watch a college wrestling match, she goes from enthusiasm to belligerence in seconds. It seems evident that she's not alone in that experience. In less than a week we will encounter over 111 million people devoting their physical, emotional and mental energy to watching Super Bowl XLVII. Collectively, the spectacle of fans will approach the spectacle of the game itself.
Generally speaking, sports fans feed on the competition unfolding in front of them and adopt behaviors and language that exaggerate what we perceive as the athlete's "on-field" experience. The result is fan cultures that are confrontational, rambunctious and fiercely united. In many instances, and as much as we often enjoy the antics, sports fans are notorious for behaving like mobs. Academics call this phenomenon "deindividuation," asserting that when people are part of a group, they experience a loss of self-awareness. Groups can produce a sense of emotional excitement, which can incite behaviors that a person would not typically engage in when alone. Large groups are particularly susceptible to behaving badly, because of the anonymity that accompanies a sense that no one can be individually blamed.
Recently, we have seen several examples in Europe of this "groupthink" fan culture gone awry in soccer. The most shocking of them is probably the instance in which A.C. Milan midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, who is half-German and half-Ghanaian and holds a Ghanaian passport, was bombarded by racist taunts from Italian fans and proceeded to walk off the field in protest. His teammates and the opposing team then followed him, ending the game altogether. Here we see a perfect example (and a teachable moment) of how groupthink mentality among fans can be horrifying, and what athletes can do about. We have also seen the groupthink mentality in American football, but at the high school level and with a homophobic sentiment. This fall ESPN aired a game between Spanish Fort High School and its archrival Daphne High School. Cameras captured students displaying a sign that read, "Purple? Man, that's GAY." The sign was a reference to Daphne High School colors, one of which is purple.
It's alarmingly easy to imagine similar scenarios at a professional sports game, particularly if an openly gay player were on the field. Currently, no such athlete exists in any big-four sport (NFL, MLB, NBA or NHL). But as the LGBT and ally community plans ahead for when he does, we can take comfort in recent progress.
With this year's Super Bowl featuring two teams with vocal allies for the LGBT community in the Ravens' linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo and the 49ers' head coach Jim Harbaugh, I know the fans at the upcoming game have great examples on the field. Just last week we saw Ayanbadejo say that he's on a mission to make sports accessible for LGBT athletes. Fans take cues from professional athletes. Fans watch their favorite teams and aspire toward what they see on the field. When an athlete or a coach speaks out about what sportsmanship means to him or her and how fans should act as members of an athletic community, people listen, and behaviors change.
With that being said, how do we continue to implement proactive measures to ensure that a homophobic outburst among fans won't occur, and that athletes, teams, leagues and arenas are doing everything they can to engender a fan culture that supports the LGBT community?
In addition to having professional players align with LGBT allyship organizations, like Athlete Ally and the other members of the LGBT Sports Coalition, leagues, teams and franchises must purposefully incorporate LGBT allyship into their fan experiences and identities. Ally nights in stadiums and arenas across the country, where LGBT allyship is the central theme, are on the rise. Athlete Ally has helped implement campus-wide ally nights and even ally weeks at colleges and universities. You Can Play has motivated pride nights for college hockey teams. Several Major League Baseball teams, including the Atlanta Braves, the Washington Nationals, the San Diego Padres, the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies (to name a few), have independently hosted these kinds of events to celebrate and welcome gay fans and their families. Just as importantly, we need statements from league commissioners on how they would support an openly gay, lesbian or bisexual player, whether in the locker room, in the stadium or in the way endorsement deals are made. The Last Closet is a nonprofit organization with this goal in mind.
It is fundamental and natural for professional athletes, leagues and franchises to set examples for fans and provide expectations for their behaviors. It's an obvious next step and one that seems invited and even demanded more and more by professional players. With that being said, I'm thrilled to see this year's Super Bowl feature teams leading the way for athlete allyship, and I'm hopeful that their fans may one day be as passionate about LGBT inclusion as they are about the game.