THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
This past MLB season saw something happen that not many people noticed:
The World Umpire Association (WUA), which is union that represents MLB umps, rebranded as the Major League Baseball Umpires Association (MLBUA), and became the fifth of the "big five" professional team sports to have a major online presence through websites and social media.
MLB umpires join officials from the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLS as becoming more transparent to the public. Granted, the public will probably go the way of abusing this privilege (see the #RefWatchParty that occurred during the NBA Finals), but the intent to keep the conversation open and ongoing is a fantastic thing.
The union has actually been very active on Twitter (@MLBUA), showcasing good calls by umpires in an attempt to educate the general public on how they work. Possibly the best part of this work, however, is even more highlights for the UMPS CARE charity.
Officials in these major sports take unfortunate abuse from the uneducated public. Players, coaches, and the media have a tendency to speak and act in ways that do not represent the educated point of view of the official. These actions speak to a psychological issue of scapegoating, leaving the officials as the common enemy among rivals.
The officials are tired of being treated as sub-humans. These platforms will allow their voices to be heard. The public would be smart to recognize this and know they are proud to uphold the integrity of the game and do their job.
While sitting at one of my favorite pizza places having a sandwich (which is ironic in itself), I was watching a soccer game on the television that was mounted in the corner of the restaurant. My friends behind the counter were invested in this game taking place in Europe, which is no surprise since soccer (or football, as it is more popularly known throughout the rest of the world) is one of the most universal games we have.
I noticed something interesting, though. The crowd at this game was singing in unison while the match was going on...and they didn't stop. It reminded me of a college football game, where sections of underage drunk students would constantly be making obnoxious noise in their attempt to will their team to victory. Thus, it also reminded me of the traditions we hold in American football (the NFL), such as the deafening crowd noise that arises when the visiting team is on offense, in an attempt to influence the outcome of the game by not allowing the offensive players to communicate.
As a steward of the game of baseball, I always viewed this as unsportsmanlike. No matter my role with the game of baseball (be it player, coach, or fan...because umpire is slightly different in this context), my enjoyment of the game came from watching it unfold and participating in the role I had. If I was a player, I was never the cheerleading leader of my team; I focused on what my job was depending on where the ball was hit, or what I needed to do during my turn at-bat. If I was a coach or manager, I was thinking strategy and when it was time to remove my pitcher for a fresh arm. If I was a fan, I was trying to see if my thought process was aligned with the players and coaches of teams I was watching (and obviously rooting for the Yankees). I was never trying to be the loud and obnoxious fan that was attempting to influence the game.
In fairness, however, baseball in America does have one accepted custom that has found unanimously in stadiums. When the home pitcher gets two strikes on the opposing batter, usually the fans will stand and cheer to encourage the strikeout. This was started by Yankees fans during the dominance of Ron Guidry and his record number of strikeouts. And I will admit that I find myself falling in place with this custom, usually when there are two strikes and two outs in the ninth inning and we're one pitch away from winning the game.
This and the singing at a soccer match got me thinking about the different customs at sporting events throughout the world, and it led to a broad examination as to what is culturally accepted as well as a debate as to whether the cultural acceptance is actually a morally good thing.
If we stick with baseball, most of the cheering (or other fan reactions) will occur when a play is not occurring or a pitch is not being made. Fans cheer after a player gets a hit or after a pitcher records a strikeout. The cheering that occurs when a batter has two strikes on him doesn't have the exact same effect as the equivalent might in another sport because it is still up to the pitcher to execute that final pitch. Fans can cheer all the want, but if the pitcher grooves a fastball, a big league hitter will still turn on it and drive it 400 feet. Further, keep in mind that baseball is a game of failure. The best hitters in history failed seven out of every ten times at the plate. So when a batter has two strikes on him, the probability of him failing is already incredibly high; the cheering of the crowd "against" him really doesn't push the needle one way or the other.
Ironically, if we examine baseball in other cultures, we will find behavior that might seem unsportsmanlike, but is really traditional to the native land. For example, in Japan, each hitter has his own march that is played/chanted by fans during his turn at bat. This actually will include the use of trumpets and other instruments that might otherwise be seen as distracting. Yet, this is merely to encourage the home team's hitters, especially when the odds are against them (as they are against every hitter). So long as each march is played in accordance with the traditional rules of encouraging a hitter, it seems like this is also acceptable and not immoral in the grand scheme of fandom. (Latin American cultures have very similar practices, as well.)
While we're on the subject of foreign sports, let's go back to soccer (or football) as it relates to the rest of the world. The fans at these events participate in same type of behavior: any sort of singing, chanting, or performing is not done in an attempt to influence the outcome of the game, but rather to encourage the home team. It also creates a sense of unity among fans, which is greatly valued in non-American cultures among sports fans. So the constant annoying sound of the vuvuzela that is heard at a Spanish soccer game is welcome, no matter how much it makes you want to rip your ears off.
Similarly, soccer (or football...I feel like I have to keep saying it) is such an aerobic sport that the play never stops, even when the ball goes out of bounds. Players are so focused that the sound of the crowd rarely affects them, much the same as in baseball. What's very interesting is that both of these sports have such international appeal while also having such intrinsic beauty to the way they are played that it's no wonder their popularity continues to maintain a strong presence in the international community. These two sports are so different, yet they have more in common than you might think.
Speaking of aerobic sports, let's consider basketball and hockey. One of the biggest differences between these two sports and a sport such as baseball is the use of the PA system during play. In baseball, sound effects, music, and other similar things occur when action is not happening, such as in between pitches or in between innings. In basketball and hockey, sometimes the use of the arena's organ occurs while play is live. A basketball player may inbound the ball, and the organist might play something small and simple while the ball is being brought up the court. Gil Imber, the organist for the Anaheim Ducks, might play something while the puck is being secured in the Ducks' defensive zone and about ready to be brought out to mid-ice. So long as the PA system is not specifically being used to distract the players, there's no fault in using it to create atmosphere.
Fans at these events usually don't try to influence a game with the exception of the distraction of a player during free throws in basketball. It has become commonplace for the fans sitting directly behind the basket to attempt to distract an opposing player from making the foul shots he/she gets after being fouled. This is one of customs in fandom that doesn't serve a purpose because it may actually have an effect on the game. A basketball player's ability to shoot free throws should be determined by his athletic skill level, not on the ability of fans to distract him/her. We finally have our first example of poor sportsmanship in our discussion!
Let's consider sports such as tennis or golf. These are sports where silence is required while players play. It is curious to wonder if this is due to the high level of skill required to play either sport, or if this was some sort of "gentleman's agreement" that has been passed down through the ages. Perhaps it is a combination of both, but it begs the interesting question of whether other sports might benefit from this in certain fashions.
Although we could examine plenty of sports, let's end with the re-examination of American football. Fans clearly believe their crowd noise influences the outcome of a game. Players believe it too. In fact, teams have been known to give themselves strategic advantages (both legal and illegal) regarding noise in order to gain a home-field advantage. Some teams have illegally used fake crowd noise over the PA system to make it even more difficult for the opponents to communicate. The Minnesota Vikings have made it known that their new stadium is built in such a way that the acoustics of the building take the sound and reflect it directly into the opponent's sideline, as if a wave of sound was massively dumped on them. Why is this so important?
What's really funny about this is that football is very much like basketball and hockey in that the better teams usually find ways to "muscle" their way to victory. The execution of team skill doesn't always play out the same way, as opposed to a sport like baseball. (And that's not to mention that baseball is the only sport without a clock...you can't "take a knee" in baseball to run out the clock like you can in football: you have to get all 27 outs.) Yet, even though the better teams usually win in football, teams and fans alike feel drawn to using outside factors such as crowd noise to influence the outcome of the game.
This phenomenon has one good conclusion and one bad conclusion.
The good conclusion is that these practices bring fans together and unite them with the team. The nature of fandom is to feel like you, the fan, are part of the team and share equally in every experience. The psychological idea of being associated with the winner is what sports marketing and management uses to create campaigns that increase revenue left and right. Yet, fans eat it up because it gives them a larger cause or movement that unites them. American football is almost as powerful as any religion in the nation as such, which is ironic since it's played on Sunday.
The bad conclusion (and I would argue more important) is that the desire to influence the game as such by fans and with the endorsement of the franchise shows a severe character flaw in the psyche of the team as a whole. It's as if the team is not confident enough in its ability to out-perform the opponent, so they must use any means necessary to achieve victory. Perhaps fans get a pass on this since they don't know any better; it's so easy to be drawn in by the association with your team and your fandom that considering this psychological issue is not even on the radar of most astute fans. But when players encourage fans to support them, or, more importantly, when teams (especially the front office or any of the off-field personnel) encourage this type of behavior with the acoustic design of a stadium or the graphics that get shown on video boards encouraging fans to become boisterous, it makes this writer step back and ask that age old question that has yet to be answered: "Why?"
As a post script note, I ask this follow-up question. Is this the first catalyst into the stereotype of football players being below average when it comes to intelligence? Does this feed into societal norm that only people who aren't smart can play football? The range of questions that can rise from this is infinite, and the proverbial rabbit hole is so deep that it may never end.