THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
Last month, we discussed the poor behavior by players and coaches while noting the psychological aspects of the conflict. Now, in an act of therapy, let's look at the conflict that arises in the mind of the dissenting fan.
Allow me to break whatever the blog equivalent is of the fourth wall is (which barely even applies because I am transitioning from a discussion that does not involve myself to one that tells a personal narrative) as I tell a story about my experience.
One of the more difficult conflicts I experienced this past summer dealt with my personal connection to the New York Yankees as they rose to prominence with unsportsmanlike conduct being used as a bonding catalyst. Whether it was Aaron Boone's "Savages In The Box" tirade or Brett Gardner's violent attack on the dugout with his bat, the team and the fans rallied around these drive success in the old "us against the world" last stand that tends to be high-risk-high-reward.
Before September even arrived, I found myself heartbroken that my Yankees would act in such a way. I felt like the Yankees didn't care about me, a diehard fan, because this new methodology created a stronger bond among the players and the larger fan base. However, I had the ability to take a brief step back and examine the oddity of why I would feel such grief over this.
This grief seemed unfounded. Nobody died. Nobody broke up with me. However, a personal relationship significantly changed, and that's where I discovered the heart of the problem.
As fans, we form a bond with our teams and our athletes to the point where we project ourselves onto them. We identify with them. We consider ourselves part of the team. We even put ourselves in the shoes of our favorite athletes much like how we put ourselves in the shoes of our favorite superheroes. It's the adult equivalent to when we would pretend to be our favorite athlete in the backyard and play through scenarios of hitting the walk-off home run in Game 7 of the World Series.
So when the Yankees began to act this way, I was heartbroken because I saw myself as part of the team that was doing this. I felt like I was being personally attacked and offended by the people I loved (where I felt I belonged). In the fantasy world of my mind, I saw myself as yet another person in that clubhouse who put on the pinstripes each day. And now I felt like the ostracized member of the team that refused to bond, making me the outcast in the clubhouse, probably soon to be cut, traded, or just let go.
As an aside, keep in mind that the primitive mindset of the athletic culture maintains this type of idiotic bonding as a staple, even when the rest of the culture is adapting to the pampering of spoiled athletes and a more modern approach that differs from how things were in the past 50-plus years. Frankly, none of these methods, whether primitive or modern, are 100% right and have significant flaws that were never reconciled. So if a player didn't go along with whatever was happening in the clubhouse, that player was (and still can be) demoralized and outcast like a high school clique.
Regardless, what we can control is how we, the individual fans, can handle this feeling of dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, it requires us to grow up a little, which is difficult. But with a short term pain comes a long term gain.
The objective is to disassociate ourselves with our favorite teams. In turn, this may allow us to disassociate with those who do not share our opinion, much like how players and coaches have to disassociate with a call that goes against them from an umpire (as discussed last month). We can still be a fan of the team and enjoy watching or following the team, but we can do it in a way that says we are more than just a fan.
There is actually an element of empowering to this. When we identify with a team to the point of being so invested that this disappointment can occur, we limit ourselves into realizing our full potential. Each of us, as individuals, are more than just a part of a fan base. We are beautiful beings with value that goes beyond fandom and identification. This is the same psychological limiting that occurs when we identify with an organization such as a fraternity/sorority to the point of a volunteer affiliation with no tangible benefit other than just "being a part of something."
You have the ability to see yourself as more than just a blind fan. You have the ability to proclaim that you are a dissenting fan who roots for a team without endorsing a behavior. It's quite similar to the method that should be used more in politics, where you can have the opinions that align with a particular ideology without necessarily endorsing a candidate, legislation, or decisions. You don't have to be grouped into the whole.
You are beautiful.
During the course of the 2019 MLB regular season, there was an increase in poor behavior that required policing, thus drawing the ire of the public and the media. But the ire was not drawn because of the behavior, but rather the psychological projection onto those visibly doing the policing.
The most obvious example is the New York Yankees, whose culture of class that was so prominent in the days of Jeter and Rivera cannot be matched by Judge and Gregorius. The "leaders" on the team, notably manager Aaron Boone and elder statesmen CC Sabathia and Brett Gardner, have led the team into being examples for kids that promote behavior that continues to divide our society and grow hatred rather than understanding. The umpires, who are the on-field police (as opposed to the league office, which is practically invisible), become the target of hatred spewed from the uneducated and primitively toxic men playing the game, and yet the umpires are gagged by the league to refrain from responding to such personal attacks.
The media perpetuates this due to their platform, mixed with their lack of research done on the subject of officiating. Not since the great Vin Scully has a broadcaster actually given the officials their due respect and silently demanded that those who listen to his voice do the same. And outside of our friends at Close Call Sports, rarely (if ever) has a journalist with prominence stepped up to the plate with the defense of the integrity of the officials.
What those who bash the umpires fail to realize is that the psychology of their words and actions speak volumes about their egos, characters, and personalities.
As Gil Imber from Close Call Sports has said in an eloquently written article (and quoted on his various audio/video posts), criticism of sports officials in a position of authority, especially in such settings with vehemence, is actually a projection of the dissatisfaction with oneself onto an innocent victim. To say, "I'm dissatisfied with this umpire," is really translated to mean, "I'm dissatisfied with myself."
Let's make a quick clarification, though. The above translation does not mean, "I disagree with this umpire." We are allowed to share a different opinion, especially if the call was incorrect. A pitch that is two tenths of an inch off the outside corner of the plate is, by rule, not a strike, regardless if it's "too close to take." But respectful disagreement can be communicated without the behavior of a petulant child.
Back to the psychological projection, though: we must also remember that the denial we may have in accepting this fact is par for the course. People are afraid to lower their defenses and be vulnerable, especially when it comes to the almost certain inner examination of one's shortcomings. If we can avoid feeling something bad, why would we put ourselves in a position to feel less than desirable emotions?
The first step to closing this division is empathy. Somebody has to extend the olive branch, and perhaps that someone is you. Can you feel empathy for the players who feel wronged, even if you don't agree with their reaction? Can you feel empathy for the umpires who are not out to be unfair towards a certain player or team? Can you feel empathy for the media members who are lost when it comes to discussing the topic?
The second step is to begin to stop identifying with your point of view or opinion on the subject. To identify with it means to be unable to separate who you are from that particular thought. When dissent occurs and it differs from our opinion, we take that other opinion personally and believe that others are out to attack us. This is what happens all too quickly on the field: players and coaches immediately believe that umpires are attacking them with their judgments and interpretations, as opposed to simply doing their job. When a player stops thinking that he has been "wronged" or personally offended by what he perceives to be a bad call, that player will stop projecting such dissatisfaction with oneself onto the entity he thinks slighted him.
The third step? Love. Sportsmanship. Practice what you preach.
Let me preface this entire post by saying this is all me. I don't intend to offend anyone with this post, but I know how sensitive some of these topics can be. As such, I would ask that anyone who has a problem with these thoughts solely look to me, not this organization.
Also, let me state that I am merely suggesting similarities with these arguments in order to make a point. I don't want to suggest that the current battles negate any previous battles, nor do I want to diminish the gravitas of our history and the pain felt by so many to this day. These discussions are meant to spark conversation, never to be divisive.
While surveying the landscape of the ridiculous hatred of MLB umpire Angel Hernandez, I noticed a trend that I probably should have noticed much earlier. Fans of opposing teams shared a bond in a mutual hatred of Hernandez. In essence, two fan bases that would normally rip each other to shreds have found a common ground of people to hate rather than each other: umpires.
It's not quite "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Maybe it's closer to the two major political parties finding common ground in agreeing on patriotism. Perhaps the better image is of two rival fans arguing with each other at the bar while watching their teams square off against one another, only to find the one place they can agree is on their hatred of the umpires calling the game.
The idea of finding common ground (or at least reducing tension) between rivals is, in theory, positive. But the method used of finding a new entity to hate together becomes faulty when said entity is innocent. It would be one thing if political parties came together to hate terrorists, which has occurred in history. Terrorists, by definition, are not people that are normally positive. (Even if they are claiming the title of "freedom fighter," the nature of the entire scenario is a bit more conflicted based on the violence.)
Officials, on the other hand, are not the same negative entity. However, based on the nature of how fan bases can agree upon such hatred, we reach the unfortunate and incorrect conclusion that officials should be the target of such disdain. This faulty logic is the type of material that leads us, as a group of people (or even a society) down the wrong path in judging a group of people improperly.
As a result, we can simplify this equation. People hate officials simply because they are officials. It is compounded by inaccurate interpretations of data rather than fully understanding rules and mechanics. Thus, it has nothing to do with actual performance nor the content of the character of each person. The official is hated because he/she wears the stripes/uniform.
If you've successfully completed a high school social studies course about the 20th century, you may have encountered this template before: people are being judged by the color of their skin, not the content of their character. Substitute "skin" with "uniform" and you'll have an accurate description of this situation.
The systematic hatred of officials (simply because they're officials) is a new type of racism. There, I said it.
Please note this has nothing to do with whether an official is of a particular race/gender/ethnicity/disability/religion/sexual orientation, etc. It is simply because the person puts on the uniform of an official and goes to work as an official that the hatred is directed at him/her.
Without going through the entire dissertation on the nature of the civil rights movement, I think it's a very basic, safe, and general summary to simply say that African Americans were disliked because they had a different skin color. People ignorantly perceived and inferred things that led to feeling slighted by the African American community.
Again, it's not an exact "copy and paste" job, but the same is happening with officials because there is an ignorance on the part of the fans. Rather than taking the time to understand the calls made by the officials based on rules and mechanics, fans just assume the officials are not only wrong, but the sworn enemy.
This ideology is perpetuated by the impressionable behavior of fans everywhere not understanding the consequences of their actions. That behavior breeds the ignorance. It is a vicious cycle that continues to create and grow an unnecessary hatred towards a group of people that have done nothing to deserve the hatred.
Now, perhaps you might suggest that a bad call by the official is what causes this to occur. Not only does MLB data show that their umpires are right more than 97% of the time when calling balls and strikes (which is higher than the 91% of the correct calls made by the computerized strike zone), but the laziness on the part of the fan to understand how and why a call is made is not excused when the officials are right more than 97% of the time. So, the majority of the "bad calls" are actually correct calls improperly judged by an uneducated fan.
But let's go deeper. Let's say that the bad call is actually incorrect and falls into that margin that is less than 3%. There are two psychological elements that are forgotten when fans are in the heat of association with a team. First, fans will forget that the officials are not actively trying to get the calls wrong. If that is ever not the case, then the situation is usually a case similar to a bribery or other legal issue, not the content of the character of the official in a vacuum. Second, fans will associate with their teams so deeply that they will assume that a bad call is a personal attack against each fan, rather than just an incorrectly adjudicated decision that only affects a game and not the realities of life and death.
Put simply, the hatred for officials has grown in the same ignorant manner as general racism, and it is perpetuated in a silent way where the overwhelming majority of people do not have the ability (or the knowledge) to stand up for the officials.
How do we solve this? Well, if we still have problems with racism in the 21st century, it stands to reason that the problem of racism against officials will also not be eliminated anytime soon. But we can hope to curb it in the small ways that we can.
Individually, it is incumbent upon all people to look inside their own heart and ask if their view on officials is appropriate. Further, the question must be asked if each person's behavior towards officials mirrors that view in a proper way.
But it also comes down to similar things that we must do to combat all racism. For example, we know that certain words/names are very racist in nature. The same holds true for officials. Terms such as "ump show" are actually very offensive because they contain the negative connotation that demeans officials who are trying to do the best job they can.
If we are serious about eliminating the unfair treatment of minorities, officials should be considered here as well. They are the minority compared to the participants, coaches, and fans, and they are treated the worst. It's not about being overly sensitive. It's about eliminating hate.
We recently talked about asking parents to chill out when it comes to their behavior at sporting events. Let's pull the lens back and look at it a bit more.
Ed Clendaniel penned an op-ed for the Bay Area News Group during the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year about his new goal of not yelling at officials. He cited a few specific incidents and statistics that help support his new goal, noting a call in four different sporting events over four days that went against the home team in each game.
But the best part is where he started asking the questions we at OSIP have been asking for some time: does yelling at officials actually provide you (or your team) with an advantage? And the answer is a resounding no.
An interview with Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance, sums it up nicely. The culture starts with the coaches and has to be set that way (specifically at the younger, more impressionable levels). Thompson points out a very important note: he guarantees there is going to be a bad call during the game that affects his team, but if the goal is to honor the game, then the responsibility of all participants (players, coaches, fans, etc.) is to be absolutely quiet and let the head coach handle it in a way that respects the game.
Thompson's Positive Coaching Alliance took it even further in a separate article. An interview with former minor league ballplayer Jake Wald shows Wald, after joining PCA, promoting the notion that the relationship players have with officials as absolutely critical. Respectful questions that take an interest in how officials work and show an understanding for the hard work they do is not just acceptable, but welcome!
Speaking as an official and ballplayer myself, I couldn't agree more. Talk to me. Work with me.
The National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) is the group that oversees high school athletics in the United States. One of its biggest issues is the shortage of officials that is plaguing the nation.
Thankfully, NFHS Executive Director Karissa Niehoff sent a blunt message back in January in an editorial titled "Dear Mom and Dad, Cool it."
The numbers are stark. According to the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO), more than 75% of all high school officials quit due to adult behavior, and 80% of new officials step away after only two years of officiating.
The NFHS has recognized that these sportsmanship issues are growing because the poor behavior is not being controlled. Verbal and physical abuse is on the rise, so the NFHS hopes to be very direct with their approach.
The question that arises, though, is one of culture. Is it simply our culture that breeds this type of behavior? And if so, why? Are people, specifically coaches and parents, so blind to the fact that losing these officials will ultimately undermine the entire operation to the point of eventually not having high school sports?
One thought offered by Niehoff deals with the administrators taking an active role in this effort. Athletic Directors may need to divorce themselves from their association with their school and fandom and look to provide a good experience for all, regardless of affiliation. That means providing extra care for officials, policing fans, and speaking out against media berating. After all, many state associations overseeing high school athletics prohibit administrators from criticizing officials; do those need penalties need to be amplified?
All in all, the story is summed up properly in this quote from Mark Uyl in the article: find "one other endeavor in American society where we accept and tolerate one adult treating another adult the way that we allow spectators and coaches to treat an official."
Let me know when you find one that doesn't require a police escort.
A recent Q&A about cycling discussed the issue of "purposefully stalling," which is a specific tactic used to force other riders to slow down and prevent them from advancing. In short, it's not illegal by the letter of the law, but it goes against every bit of common sense and the spirit of the sport. Think of it in the same boat as not "calling off the dogs" when the score of a baseball game gets out of hand.
It appeared that the best answer to the question of how to handle it is to simply look inside oneself and ask if it's something you might do. It's not really very easy to stop (no pun intended) others from doing. Perhaps it is more about hoping that karma simply catches up with those who think this behavior is acceptable to win. Sometimes, we have look deep inside ourselves and know that we play the game the right way. We have to rely on our inner peace and not our competitive juices to control us. When we do that, the truth usually shines.
Of course, if you can, sometimes the best revenge is to just keep your mouth shut and get the victory yourself...legally and with class.
There have been plenty of times while I've been umpiring a baseball game when I began to wonder if the coaches know that a human being is officiating this game.
In other words, do coaches/players/fans understand that the official is a human being with a soul, a spirit, emotions, a will, experiences, and value? Does that one coach who constantly bickers with me know that I'm not just an object? Does that coach know that, as soon as I walk off the field, I have to go home to my life and my loved ones and deal with the realities of life?
On the other side of things, when I watch a game, am I conscious of the fact that those on the field have to do the same thing?
Look at it this way: although it does not necessarily fall under the umbrella of competition, do we realize that those who are involved in the creation of a movie are also human? When we watch the movie, do we realize that actors and actresses are on the screen portraying characters, not the actual fictional (or factual) character? When I'm watching Star Wars, do I see Luke Skywalker on the screen? Or do I know that Mark Hamill is on the screen portraying Luke Skywalker? If the character does something I don't like (see Episode VIII), is it the fault of Luke Skywalker? Is it the fault of Mark Hamill? Maybe it's the fault of the director, Rian Johnson! Maybe it's the fault of the parent company, Disney! Maybe it's nobody's fault! Why am I so quick to need to place blame?
The point is that competition (or a vested interested thereof, especially when we are fans) suppresses our ability to empathize with others. If we are not careful, we see the opposing fan as an object, not as a human being. We see the official as a robot who is supposed to get every call right. We see our opponent as the enemy who must be defeated. We don't see any of these parties as people we might run into at the bar later, possibly trying to just unwind with a drink after a stressful day who may just need the company of another person to feel loved.
Competition tends to have a clearly defined distinction: my victory equals your failure. That is, if two parties are competing for the same thing, one will win and one will lose. And if multiple parties are competing for the same thing, one will win and many will lose.
In some respects, that's not always the case. Some competitions have multiple winners, or at least multiple parties who "make the cut." The best example I can think of in my other industry of music is getting a gig at a particular venue. Whether it is a club, concert hall, restaurant, or wherever, there are probably a limited number of available slots for an artist to perform, so the goal is to fill those slots with a variety of acts so as not to saturate the event. One musician is not necessarily going to play every Saturday night at the same restaurant; there is probably a rotation of musicians who come in over a set period of time. Therefore, if the competition is between getting the gig and not getting the gig in this case, you have a better chance of succeeding, and your success does not automatically equal the failure of someone else.
However, it is very easy to forget this. No matter the industry, our failure can easily seep into our thoughts when we see someone else succeed, especially when it has no correlation to our situation! If I see a colleague succeeding at a gig at a restaurant where I once tried to get a gig years prior, why am I jealous? That doesn't mean that I am not a successful musician! I can have tons of other gigs that allow me to perform and compensate me, but the fact that I didn't get that one gig and someone else did still irks me. These are the situations where many of us need to take the additional time to think through these thoughts and readjust our views.
If a baseball roster has 25 guys on it, then 25 guys are going to make the cut, not just one. Sure, there may be competition to earn a specific spot, but pulling the lens back will show that the example is somewhat similar to the idea above.
The point is that competition sometimes leads us to become jealous or wish even wish failure on others when it really has to bearing to our success. Our paths sometimes lead us to something greater, and we have to be open and awake to that.
We hear it all the time, whether it is in the media, from fans, or even coaches and parents yelling it at officials: one controversial call, and that official blew the game for a team.
News flash: that's false.
It's easy to pinpoint one call in a game that is the turning point and can decide the outcome of a contest. But when we do that, we are no longer admiring the proverbial forest for the trees. We delineate an entire competition down to one moment, which makes for fantastic drama, but seldom represents reality. (In fact, maybe Hollywood could learn another lesson on how to not poison us moving forward...)
Anytime there is a close call in the later stages of a game, an official has to make a split second decision, which will usually please half of the people present and upset the other half. It's not a situation that is enviable by most, including the official. After all, it's not like the official could have avoided trouble if he or she had made the opposite call: the roles would just be reversed with the upset half now happy and the happy half now upset.
But what happens when replays show us a blown call that can't be changed? Or what happens when a coach or parent (or even player) sees it one way and the official sees it differently? The common conclusion is that the official was clearly wrong and is the sole culprit for the outcome of the contest. However, the truth is the exact opposite.
During the course of any sporting event, a multitude of action will occur that can alter the balance of power defined as who is "winning." Baseball changes with each pitch. Football changes with each play from scrimmage. Tennis changes with each serve. The list goes on. Seldom does anyone realize that every single one of these actions can affect the course of a game an equal or greater amount than the call of one official at a moment that is slightly highlighted. In short, every time a coach tells me the one call I made cost his team the game, I remind myself that the team had ample opportunities to prevent me from even having to make that call. Although I take responsibility for the call, I'm not the reason that team lost.
Further, there's an even greater notion at stake that people fail to recall in these situations: great teams overcome bad calls.
The teams that win are the ones that don't stop to argue about the bad calls. The teams that win are the ones that shrug them off and overcome them to the point where the bad call didn't matter.
When a marathon runner trips during the marathon, does he or she stop to examine the spot where he or she fell? Does the runner complain to anyone and everyone about how it is the fault of the ground for causing the runner to lose time? No! The runner gets up and hurries along to make up for the lost time!
The same goes for great teams and great athletes.
Have you ever stopped to think about whether professional athletes are actually friends?
On one hand, as we have always stated, it would behoove athletes in the same sport to recognize that they are all on the same team when it comes to being in the same union. There is no reason to fight with members of other teams within the same sport for that reason alone, let alone that it is just plain wrong. After all, they all want the same thing: a fair wage to play a game for a living.
But on the other hand, think about how players on the same team have to compete with not only the players in the other dugout or on the other sideline, but on their own team as well. If a player isn't performing well, he will usually be replaced by another player. It becomes a competition within the same team to make sure that playing time is earned so as to avoid the "business" of sports where a slumping athlete will be benched for someone who might produce.
A similar comparison might be two actors who are both auditioning for the same part. Or even just two professionals both trying to get the same job. Colleagues under the same heading (and perhaps in the same union) must now fight for work just to be on the proverbial playing field where the actual work might happen!
The common response to this is that "it's a business." The business is to produce the best possible product so that the bottom line continues to grow. Success is defined by the income brought in, not the quality of the work.
It's not something that is changed easily (or even needs to necessarily be changed). But it does deserve a second thought when it comes to trying to empathize with others. Perhaps some of the lessons learned in this conundrum can be extrapolated into our lives.
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.