So, there's the now-infamous picture of the random Heat fan giving Joakim Noah all of the middle finger on his way off the court in the Bulls' Game 2 loss to the Heat last week. There have been subsequent investigations into who this lady is, and while her past has become the stuff of additional attention, I feel like her actions are a little more relevant to this issue than anything else—mainly because we see decisions like that play out at Kinnick just about every week, every fall.
Kinnick Stadium is one of the more hostile college football stadiums in America, though it is hardly alone in its overall vocal disdain for visiting opponents. Just about every stadium that draws as many fans (and chests up, Hawkeye fans; there aren't that many) has a similar antagonistic esprit de corps, and it's hard to imagine a great crowd without that. If you must boo the opposing team, boo lustily, and if you must cheer the home team, cheer full-throatedly. These are not Kinnick Rules, these are Everywhere Rules.
But we need to talk about that middle finger, because it did cross a line—a line no good fan should want to cross. Here's what Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about it last week, under the headline "Ban This Fan":
I imagine that had Joakin Noah gave the middle finger to Heat fans on the way out, he would have been fined. And rightly so. Perhaps I'm reacting to the angle or the still picture. But this strikes me as an actual invasion of a person's space, and an invitation for violence.
Coates is right. Noah is, on the surface, as ripe a target as you'll find for fan ridicule. He's a star player, arguably the new face of the Bulls during their late-season run, and even with foot problems he's still performing at a very high level. He's also a lightning rod for negative attention with his goofy hair and looks, his vocal nature, and his occasional flare-ups (see the unnecessary shove he gave Chris Andersen during Game 3 over the weekend). He's not a dirty player on the whole or even a particularly rough player, but he does enough to make fans who dislike the Bulls, dislike him the most.
And when that kind of player gets kicked out for technicals in a blowout, you as an opposing fan can't not notice that, right? Especially when as the situation begins to unfold right in front of you and your very expensive seats.
Here's the line that that middle finger crossed, though: Noah didn't do anything to the fans to ask for it. He cocked off to the referees (which, fine, have whatever opinion about that aspect that you want), and he got ejected for it. He had an opportunity to let the fans have it. He kept his head down and left quietly, under a hailstorm of jeers.
That's one thing.
A gesture in his face, one so profane that it would provoke a fight among perfect strangers, is not okay. Not toward someone minding his own business. And to then literally turn around and collect a high-five for that kind of behavior is... well, it's not admirable.
The guy next to her isn't much of a champ either, as you can see in his response to Taj Gibson's subsequent ejection.
Does this not strike you as particularly ugly human behavior? The gleeful, antagonistic invasion of a person's space when they're not asking for it? It conjures up a specific image to me, one with very different circumstances and (to be sure) different root causes—a lunch counter protest in Jackson, MS, as the civil rights struggle began to reach a fever pitch in 1963.
Let's leave the race aspect aside, mainly because I don't suspect the two fans in question would have reacted differently if Gibson and Noah were white—and there's an incident later in this story in which the main actors were white. And while the lunch counter scene is undeniably worse, it's only a difference of degree rather than behavior. It's not the race; it's the privilege. They're treating another human being awfully because they know they can get away with it, and they are just delighted about it (second picture).
That's ugly. It's the exact opposite of a thing to look back on and be proud of.
That's not to say we're all saints here, not at Kinnick and not even at BHGP. My first year at Iowa, Wisconsin came to town. It was Bob Sanders' first start, and Iowa was making a real game of it against this stronger, eventual 9-4 opponent. One of the key plays of the game was an acrobatic red-zone interception by All-American CB Jamar Fletcher, and the momentum of the play took him right in front of the student section, where I was in one of the first few rows. Fletcher stopped, gestured toward us, prompting a volley of profanity and wishes of ill wil. I in particular made an obscene joke about Fletcher's last name that, as a 19-year-old, I found hilarious. Right to his face.
Was that over the line? You could make that case. But the key difference is Fletcher was exultant, right at the crowd, willfully inviting their negativity. Which, he got. And then he ran back off to his sideline, having killed a rare long Iowa drive in a game that would end with the Badgers winning 13-7.
Here's another example. Remember Marshall Henderson riling up the Auburn students with that jersey popping in front of them? The Auburn kids respond with middle-finga-gunz a-blazing and, in all likelihood, the rudest things they can imagine flying out of their mouths. And they are absolutely justified for it; Henderson is bringing it on himself. That, we're not taking a single issue with (unless the Auburn fans are throwing out slurs, but we don't know that and that's a separate issue anyway).
The exultant athlete, the one who celebrates in the faces of hostile fans, brings that negative reaction on himself or herself. A fan that sits quietly in the face of that is not much of a fan, after all.
But the fan that acts as instigator, even if it's one poor sport in a sea of tens of thousands of fans, can bring horrible consequences for the reputation of the entire fan base—and that fan can also encourage worse behavior from others with one single act.
The most famous example is the "Malice at the Palace" from back in 2004. Here's video if you want to watch again.
0:15 - Ben Wallace reacts in an inadvisable way to a foul that was hard, but not that hard. Probably some frustration from a big home loss to a rival, but anyway. A two-handed shove from that guy is enough to send Artest or any other mortal reeling, and a minor brouhaha ensues.
0:25 - Artest decides he wants no part of a fracas in the closing seconds of a nice win like this and reclines on the scorers' table. Sort of a troll move, but one that's at least much more passive than the shoving and jawing that's going on around him. It's more mature than most of the people involved, anyway.
1:03 - Artest is still lying on the table, and an assistant coach who has moved between him and the fight gives him a pat of encouragement. It's subtle but you can see it. The shoving match, which was already rather extreme by NBA standards of the time, is beginning to subside as the adults take over.
1:22 - The fight has already wound down to the point where ESPN can start showing replays of the foul in question. Wallace is still hot for whatever reason, and the announcers are wondering if Stephen Jackson should go as well (yes), but the physicalities are just about through.
1:52 - Artest has now spent 90 seconds passively waiting out the melee on the table, at which point some dim bulb in the stands hits him in the upper body or face with a cup of beer.
1:53 - All living hell breaks loose.
Artest gets up from the table, provoked in probably the worst way in his professional career, and he's looking for revenge for that beer shot. And while 1) he shouldn't EVER be going into the stands and 2) he picks the wrong fan to attack on top of it, you see who the real instigator was: the beer-chucking fan.
Think of it this way. I live in the same city as future No. 1 NBA draft pick Jabari Parker. If one day, I as a private citizen roll up on Parker, flash double-birds in his face, ridicule his commitment to Duke and then try to throw a full beer straight at his face, you know what he's entirely allowed to do? Beat the living dogshit out of me.
At any rate, more beer starts flying at the players as the brawl spills into the seats, and once the players are led off the court, jerseys ripped and tempers turned up to a million, how are they greeted at the gates? With showers of beer and cups and the occasional bottle. At that point nobody involved has the moral high ground; it's a disgraceful moment for everyone and probably the worst moment in NBA history since Kermit Washington broke Rudy Tomjanovich's face with one punch.
And it started because one idiot fan threw his beer at Artest.
"Oh, but that's pro basketball, and that's Detroit. What does that have to do with Iowa?" Fair question. Turns out Iowa football's history on this front is not pristine either.
In 1952, Iowa was getting mauled at home by a middling Illinois squad; after three quarters, Iowa was down 33-0, and the Hawkeyes would never get close. The fans were surly at some questionable calls, and Forest Evashevski had spent basically the entire second half on the field berating the officials. Three players (two of them Illini) were tossed at halftime due to fighting. But to Iowa's credit, the team fought back late and was trying to make a game of it late when a particularly questionable offensive pass interference penalty crushed an Iowa drive and left the game effectively out of reach at 33-13.
The fans were throwing apple cores at the officials, which we do not recommend, funny as it may be. Evashevski was livid. And as the crowd became even more agitated, one fan ran onto the field and confronted Illinois player John Ryan (nicknamed "Rocky," which is not a good sign if you're looking for someone to fight), and grabbed Ryan's shoulder pad as he tried to leave the field.
Ryan took one swing and broke the Iowa fan's jaw.
Iowa and Illinois were not scheduled to play for the next two seasons, and both athletic directors agreed to keep letting the rivalry "cool off" after that; it got to the point that the two teams spent 15 years before they'd meet on the field again.
It probably doesn't need to be said, but that's an extremely bad look for Iowa fans, and it's at least refreshing that it's been 60 years since all that nonsense.
Just because you spend a ton of money on seats that are nearer to a field of play than most other seats does not give you the right to treat the athletes you see like pieces of garbage.
Otherwise, is that what it is? Is that what you're spending that extra money on? Are you purchasing away your allegiances to humanity? I ask that question sincerely. When you say "I bought these seats, I can do what I want," what is it you're really saying about the relationship between money and grace, and which trumps the other?
There will always be anecdotes we'll hear about singular Iowa fans misbehaving at games, and most if not all of those stories will be true—or at least as rooted in fact as a story can be when it's passed from person to person. Though we as fans can (and should!) aspire to eliminate that stuff, we should also not let the perfect be the enemy of the good here.
Be a fan. Be passionate. Live with every touchdown, die with every punt. Otherwise, you might as well bring a book to the game. But if a player's not bringing it on himself or herself, for the love of god, don't start the fight. Respect their sportsmanship with some of your own. And don't let a fellow fan's ugly behavior to indulge in that ugliness yourself.
Finally, let's talk solutions. Let's fix problems instead of merely pointing them out and clucking. If you're wondering what the fan in the initial example should have done instead of giving Noah the massive middle finger on his way out, funny thing. Noah himself demonstrated the correct response (if inadvertently so) the very next game.
A series of on-court miscommunications for the Heat during Game 3 led to forward Chris Bosh having an animated discussion with guard Mario Chalmers. Noah was nearby, and couldn't ignore the scene. And here's what ensued:
That is brilliant. And it's exactly what the Miami fans should have done instead. Oh, Noah's walking by, head down after getting ejected from one of the most frustrating games of his life? Give that man a hearty round of applause. After all, what's more sportsmanlike than applauding your opponent? It's troll-tastic, to be sure, but it's not nasty, it's not ugly, it's not in opposing fans' faces, and it's not the sort of thing that would get you justifiably punched on the street. And at the end of the day, that's where opposing fandom's sweet spot is.
Above all else, think twice about tolerating the worst things you see at Kinnick come game day. We don't need everyone hugging or even saying nice things about the opposing teams; as said earlier, be a passionate Iowa fan if you're going to be an Iowa fan at all. Do not let that passion lead you into ugly behavior, and do not provide the tacit approval for that ugly behavior in the unlikely event that someone near you tries to instigate something bad.
We've seen what happens when fans go bad. It demeans sports as we know it. Be a good peer. Encourage the good with all the enthusiasm in your heart. Be as loud as you can be and let the other team know that Kinnick and Carver are where winning records go to die. But be a human being about it, otherwise... what's the point?