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Amy Donaldson: We need to look in the mirror on fan behavior

Published: Thursday, Sept. 3 2015 7:28 a.m. MDT

Trainers assist Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel (7) during the second half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012. The Ravens defeated the Chiefs 9-6. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley) (Colin E. Braley, ASSOCIATED PRESS) Trainers assist Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel (7) during the second half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012. The Ravens defeated the Chiefs 9-6. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley) (Colin E. Braley, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The well-dressed gentlemen on my television were discussing (quite civilly) how appalling it was that Kansas City fans could cheer their own quarterback, Matt Cassel, as he lay on the field after suffering a concussion in a game against the Ravens last Sunday.

Both former NFL players, they were outraged.

They were shocked.

They were full of questions worth asking — and answering.

"What is happening in this country?" said Ron Jaworski, a former NFL quarterback who played in Philadelphia and briefly in Kansas City. "Where is our compassion for people? It's a game."

And then a little later he asked another question, that if we lovers of sport are honest with ourselves, has already been answered.

"Where is the civility?" said Jaworski. "What are the lessons we're teaching our young people?"

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this is exactly what we taught them.

Some wonder if sportsmanship is worse today or if, because of social media, it's just more visible.

I believe whole-heartedly it's worse. It's also more visible.

Sure everybody has a camera in their hand and almost instant access to publish what they witness. But they can't make a viral video of bad behavior unless it actually exists. (Incidentally, I don't believe our increased incivility is confined to arenas.)

Sitting in the stands as an unbiased observer for nearly 14 years provides a unique perspective. I see normal, loving parents turn into something ugly and embarrassing. I see people who are the first to offer help or support to strangers screaming insults at referees, other players and coaches.

I've seen smart, compassionate parents tell their children that their coaches are idiots. They don't do it directly. They simply complain about the coaches and their decisions with each other and the impressionable young athletes over hear and receive a message the adults never intended to send.

I've seen parents and coaches show disrespect for the officials, and then wonder (aloud and exasperatedly) why their children fixate on a perceived bad or missed call instead of playing forward.

Looking in the mirror when it comes to fan behavior is apparently harder than it seems.

I have the benefit of getting to know talented, young athletes when they are still basically children. They grow, develop and mature in their talents and personalities. Most of the time it's a pleasure, and I love watching how athletics makes them hard working, humble, grateful and concerned for others.

And often, I get to know their parents.

I watch them; I talk to them; I come to some understanding of them, at least as it relates to their children. And it almost never fails that when parents behave badly, eventually their children begin to mimic that regrettable attitude and behavior.

Psychologists have studied the issue and assert in most cases that example is the most powerful tool we adults have in shaping our children.

It's not a guarantee.

But when I look back at the lessons I value most, the attitudes I try to instill in my own children, I adopted those after watching the adults in my life. My father didn't tell me everyday how hard he worked. He just went to work every day, rain or shine, sick or healthy, good job or bad. Eventually I heard from his peers how brave, honest and reliable he was.

My mother never told me how much she sacrificed for her six children. I just watched as she wore the same clothes for 10 years; gave us the last bits of cash from her wallet and waited until we were all grown before heading back to school to follow her own dreams.

We can say all the right things. But our children will hear what we're really saying because of who we are.

And sadly I fear that what we've become is a society that responds to adversity, bad behavior by someone else or disappointment in the worst ways. We should have learned in kindergarten that hitting someone back is as bad a decision as hitting another person in the first place.

We've been teaching our children for decades that if you pay money to sit in the stands, then you're entitled to pretty much say or do what you want.

Social media like Facebook, twitter and message boards that allow us access to athletes — and sadly their families — have made it easier to be rude in a more personal way. What a fan might have screamed at television is now blurted out on Twitter or message boards (often anonymously, of course).

Just last May Lakers guard Steve Blake's wife received death threats ("I hope your family gets murdered.") after he missed a game winning shot. And just so you don't think this was one crazy, obsessed fan, both Blake and his wife reported having to block hundreds of people on Twitter after being subjected to profanity-laced insults.

It's not just the behavior of fans that teaches our children that being a jerk at a sporting event is forgivable. We sit, often with our children at our sides, as high school, college and professional athletes exhibit the manners of a spoiled toddler and then we try to justify it, rationalize it and even defend it.

This is how we got here. We chose, one bad decision at a time, to teach our children that booing someone is okay. So why are we surprised that fans, frustrated with Cassel's ineffective play, cheered when he was hurt and had to leave the game. The line got blurry because we let it.

We are simply reaping what we've sown.

email: adonaldson@desnews.com

Twitter: adonsports

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