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17th October 2016

Fan behaviour in sport

The Ryder Cup and the nationwide discussion on Wayne Rooney’s place in the England XI demonstrate that the behaviour of the public, as well as that of the players, needs examining

Over the past week, someone took to Twitter to express their frustrations with the constant discussion on Wayne Rooney’s form and his place in the Manchester United and England first teams. What made this so newsworthy, however, was that the exasperated person was Coleen Rooney, Wayne’s wife.

The cause of her ire was a radio programme she was listening to while driving her six-year-old son Kai to school in which people phoned in to say that they had booed Wayne in England’s 2-0 win over Malta.

After her initial tweets, she responded angrily to someone who suggested that the Rooneys’ wealth gave people the right to judge Wayne, emphasising that her and Wayne, despite their privileged lifestyle, were still people.

While the fans who so angered Coleen were perfectly entitled to boo Wayne and talk about it publicly, this incident highlights questions about interactions between athletes and supporters in general. Is booing a player counter-productive? How does abuse affect athletes and sport? And while people should express their views on what they watch, when, if ever, do those views become abusive and excessively mocking?

Social media has, in theory, allowed sports people and fans to share a platform with one another, but it has also made it easier to abuse athletes.

Footballers like Tom Cleverley have deactivated Twitter accounts due to the amount of abuse that they have received. Cleverley further had to endure a petition to stop him going to the 2014 World Cup.

Whether he was good enough to be playing for Manchester United or England at the time or not, his performances did not warrant that indignity. The lack of access now to footballers is regularly bemoaned, but with incidents such as these is it any surprise that they are reticent to engage with fans?

It is not just online, however, where athletes are subjected to abuse, but during sporting events too. Much has been made of the behaviour of a minority of American fans at the recent Ryder Cup.

Danny Willett, a member of the European team whose brother had described American fans as “pudgy, basement-dwelling, irritants” in an online column before the tournament, expressed his annoyance at the abuse his family received, even going so far as to tweet that his brother had been correct about some of the fans.

Willett was not the only European player to voice his disapproval. Martin Kaymer told reporters, “there were names that we got called that you would never, ever put in your mouth in any media or even among your friends.” While the American team were deserving winners, the comments of the small idiotic minority must have affected the Europeans’ mindset during the week and, thus, their performances.

On a less drastic note, John Stones, while at Everton, was the subject of much debate on whether his ball-playing capabilities were appropriate for a central defender. As the team’s results and performances deteriorated, those at Goodison and in the media calling for him to play the ball out quicker only grew louder. The Everton defender may have been unnerved by those jeering and questioning him, potentially making him doubt his abilities and the manager’s tactics.

While footballers are abused, the pressure that managers are under nowadays from all sectors, the media, the fans and the clubs themselves, is seemingly ever-increasing. “I’ve had nine months and really enjoyed my time,” Paul Lambert said, upon being appointed Blackburn Rovers in November 2015, of the break he took after being sacked by Aston Villa.

Recently the former Hull City manager Steve Bruce appeared on Sky Sports looking much trimmer and healthier. Managers often say that their job is time-consuming but they love it anyway, yet after a bad run of results, there seems to be a compulsion to speculate on when they will get sacked and who will replace them. Even worse, clubs will go behind a manager’s back to secure a replacement, publicly or not, before sacking them.

Abuse and excessive mocking could have far greater consequences than affecting performance, however: it presents a side of sports like football that is not welcoming and inclusive.

It is well known that there there is not an openly gay male professional player in England. One of the reasons commonly cited is the potential negative reactions from the terraces to any footballer who publicly comes out as gay.

Similarly it is a struggle for athletes to publicly admit that they are suffering from mental health problems. They do not want to be erroneously stigmatised as weak, and mocked for it, and so they attempt to treat their illness privately, or do not seek help at all, potentially putting their lives at risk.

Expressing opinions and debating with others is a vital part of becoming more knowledgeable of any sport and its tactics, but it is important that people’s opinions do not become counter-productive or abusive to athletes, who are still human beings and deserve to be treated as such, an opinion that Coleen Rooney will surely agree with.

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