Op-Ed: Our fandom is not an excuse

Monday, February 6, 2017 - 2:56pm

Imagine sitting in lecture. Your professor is doing his job, going through the slides as usual, when a student decides to stand up, point at the professor, and yell: “You suck, bitch! And your mother thinks you suck! And you’re an asshole, prick, bitch, whore!” Now imagine all 300 people in the lecture decide to join in, and everyone is suddenly pointing and chanting insults at the professor.

Depending on how boring your lectures are, maybe you’ve had this impulse before. But nonetheless, you don’t do it and this never happens, because the idea of randomly going up to somebody and verbally degrading him or her with personal insults and obscenities is ridiculous.

Yet, there’s one place in our society where such behavior becomes the norm. In this place, there is an unspoken consensus that our normal social conscience no longer applies. Suddenly, the otherwise unthinkable becomes routine, and the otherwise despicable becomes encouraged. This is the strange essence of the “student section” — a staple of America’s strong and obsessive college sports culture. Our sports culture at the University of Michigan is not an exception to this rule.

For two seasons, I worked with the Michigan men’s basketball team as a student manager and a walk-on practice player. For three seasons, I’ve been a Michigan football season ticket holder. I’ve been to a lot of games, and every time I walk into one, I feel a sense of awe as I am reminded of the size and power of our community. When we all sing “Hail to the Victors,” I feel pride, and when we finally get the wave started around Michigan Stadium, I feel connected. But every game, there are several times when I feel disenchanted, and I marvel at the absurdity of what’s happening around me.

Whenever the Michigan football team forces a punt, the student section performs something called the “You Suck” chant. While the band plays “Temptation,” everyone in the student section motions their arms back and forth toward the quarterback and yells, “You suck … you suck … you suck,” until the chant crescendos and concludes with an emphatic, “You suck, bitch!

Every time, I stand there in amazement and watch thousands of intelligent people simultaneously scream at the quarterback and call him a bitch on a campus that denounces sexist language. What’s more is that nobody seems to question it. When I look around the student section, I am hard-pressed to find anybody who isn’t happily reveling in the chant, following along with the rest of the pack.

Sometimes when the opposing team’s running back gets the ball, I’ll hear a student near me yell something like “Kill him!” or “F--- him up!” Again, this is seen as tolerable in the college football environment despite the fact that dozens of former players have died from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which they develop by sustaining big hits in football games. A brutal hit could actually kill them or contribute to something that eventually kills them, but it doesn’t seem to matter to that student, who, in this context, is allowed to say whatever they want.

I’ve only been to one hockey game at Yost Ice Arena, but the fan culture there seems even more extreme than it is at football games. One of the most notorious traditions at Yost is the “C-Ya Cheer.” When an opposing player enters the penalty box, the student section yells “C-Ya,” and then follows it up with a montage of vulgarity, which includes “chump,” “douchebag,” “asshole,” “cheater,” “prick,” “bitch” and “whore,” all conveniently packed into one crude chant.

Another Yost tradition occurs when the phone rings in the press box. When this happens, the crowd will chant: “Hey (insert goalie’s name), it’s your mom! She says you suck!” This chant (like all chants) seems harmless to anybody in the student section, and it probably is. But then again, maybe it isn’t. Just ask Steve Kerr, a former University of Arizona point guard, who received taunts about his father — an American professor who was assassinated by terrorists overseas. Certainly these taunts were more directly and intentionally offensive, but this is what a mob mentality in the stands can lead to.  

I’m all for harmless taunts, resonant booing and getting inside the opponent’s head. All of this adds to the dramatic and thrilling atmosphere of a college sporting event, while providing an emotional release for the fans. But there is a fine line between playful heckling and senseless verbal abuse. Making fun of a player for an air ball or a whiff is harmless taunting. Degrading an athlete on a personal level is senseless verbal abuse, and targeting someone with mindless obscenities (in a family atmosphere) is inexcusable, no matter the context.

There is no other place on a college campus where calling someone a bitch is encouraged. It is not OK anywhere else in society to yell “Kill him!” or “F--- him up!” to somebody. Why are sporting events different?

Using sports to lower our standards is lazy, and using opposing players as outlets for our pathetic fan catharsis is ugly. We can come together to support our team, but we can do so without losing a basic standard of human respect for the opponent.  

Don’t fall under the spell of a mob mentality. If you disagree with the premise of a chant, resist it, and then maybe even think of something better. I’d bet that whatever you come up with is at least a level up from “You Suck.”

Jon Rubenstein is an LSA junior.