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Paid to be abused

By Steve Brearton

Now that summer sports are upon us, let's talk about fans. Like the football fans in Cleveland who in December 2001 threw hundreds, maybe thousands, of plastic beer bottles onto the playing field to protest an official's call.

Professional sports fans have become notorious for their sideline abuses. Forget looking to the WWF or Olympic figure skating as good places to find bad behaviour, try professional sports venues. The bottle-throwing incident in Cleveland was serious enough to make headlines throughout North America, but ugly fan behaviour plays itself out in pro sports every day and Western society has developed a blind spot for it. Swearing, fighting, even racism gets brushed off as being emotional responses to an emotional game.

Chants themselves range from the benign--like Maple Leaf fans that sing "Aarrrr-ggooos" during stretches of on-ice futility--to the truly vicious. In 1998 Arizona State basketball fans taunted visiting guard Steve Kerr by bellowing "PLO, PLO, PLO," "Go back to Beirut," and "Where's your dad?" Kerr's father was assassinated in 1984 by radicals in Beirut. Occasionally, athletes have fought back. In 1994 Miami Dolphins linebacker Bryan Cox filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the NFL after hearing one too many racist slurs coming from the stands. The lawsuit alleged that the league forced black players to work in a racially hostile environment. Cox eventually dropped the suit but his point was made--racism is live and well in pro sports.

In the UK, discriminatory chants have become so common at soccer matches that laws have been passed allowing police to charge individuals who hurl racial epithets at players. In North America, the NBA became the first pro league to address abusive fans with their "ficker rules," adopted in 1991 and named after Washington Bullets' supporter Robin Ficker, who was a notorious courtside hooligan. Perhaps the most famous fan of all time is Rollen Stewart, a religious nut known as "The Rainbow Man." Stewart appeared at over a thousand high-profile sporting events in the 1980s and 90s wearing a multi-coloured Afro wig and holding signs that read "Jesus Saves" and "John 3:16." He now preaches from a state prison after a 1993 conviction and triple life sentence for kidnapping and making terrorist bomb threats.

Attempts to discourage fanaticism have not stopped hockey's New York Ranger patrons from reveling in their status as being among the most insensitive. They have been known to pelt golf balls on to the ice. During a rivalry with the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1980s, Ranger fans would taunt Flyers' goalie Ron Hextal with "Buy a Porsche Hextal, Buy a Porsche," a reference to previous Phillie net minder, Pelle Lindbergh, who died in a car accident.

Mostly, however, the heartless souls at Madison Square Gardens scream "Potvin Sucks." That chant became so ubiquitous Rangers' management stopped playing any tune on the organ because it inevitably triggered the line. "Potvin Sucks" began circa 1979 when Islander defenceman Denis Potvin injured Ranger star Ulf Nilsson. Unbelievably, the Potvin Sucks heckle reverberates through the Gardens to this day, and even though Potvin retired in 1988.

Chants won't disappear, but some can rightly wonder whether the individuals who run professional sports are selling more than just athletic prowess.

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