Spectator: The Demise of Sportsmanship in Competitive Games

I recently attended a University of Michigan soccer game and a hockey game. While I have seen many hockey games at Yost, this was the first soccer game that I have attended at the University. Perhaps unmindful of the hockey team’s student section, I was shocked by the blatant disrespect of the soccer team’s student section towards the opposing team. Before attending the soccer game I had never really listened to the hockey team’s student section chants before, usually being too concerned with the game. However, whether it is because I am much less interested in soccer than hockey or the fact that soccer is a much quieter game, I couldn’t help but notice the student section leaders taunt the opposing team’s players. However, more distracting was the student section’s willingness to follow in their suit.

University of Michigan soccer playing Loyola in 2013

The chants at the soccer game started off with the predictable booing and questioning of the other teams skills but soon became a flood a personal attacks on the players. The student section poked fun at their masculinity, claiming that they “played like girls” and “looked like women” because of their long hair. Being a female, it was extremely hurtful that being called the same sex as me was used as an insult. Many of the women in the stands were noticeably distraught by the name-calling but the overpowering alliance of the male spectators encouraged the male student leaders to continue.

Soon the student leaders progressed from calling out player’s looks to commenting on their personal lives, specifically by mentioning their girlfriends. One of the student leaders even took it upon him-self to find opposing players on Facebook in order to become more familiar with their personal lives. The comments surrounding the player’s girlfriends predominantly focused on their sexuality, even calling one of the girls a “slut”.

This comment however, served as the turning point in the student’s section’s participation as both female and male spectators were upset. The student leaders had gone too far and their competitiveness had gotten the best of them. Consumed by their duty as leaders to intimidate the opposing team, the student leaders had forgotten proper sportsmanship etiquette.

Eric Dunning discusses the growing competitiveness of sports in The Dynamics of Modern Sport: Notes on Achievement-Striving and the Social Significance of Sport. Dunning suggests that the competitiveness of sports has been fed by the gratitude of fans. Student leaders are selected to unite their team’s fans to cheer on and support their university’s players. The student’s section’s attempted to intimidate the opposing players in order to raise the confidence of their players.

While university level soccer is amateur, the games are no less competitive than that of professionals. The players represent their universities and play for the honor and recognition that their schools will receive upon winning their games. Dunning mentions the importance of a games “tone”, as increased seriousness among players can increase hostility. According to Dunning, spectators are more likely to act out in ways that they see as helping their teams, when in reality the players have become consumed in the competitiveness of the sport. The student section saw their mocking of the opposing players as a way if contributing to their team’s success

In this scenario, the soccer game was moving slow and the score was tied 0-0. The players were about to finish their first half of the game with zero points on their home turf and the student leaders were becoming increasingly aggressive. As the soccer game became more serious and the outcome of losing became more possible, the student leaders became more defensive. Instead of cheering on their own team’s players they turned to tearing down the confidence of the opposing players. While the student leader’s failed attempt at intimidating the opposing team was distasteful, they stand as an excellent example of how the competitiveness of sports can affect individuals.

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6 comments

  1. lbongi · December 5, 2014

    Your points here are more than fair, and I agree that the chants the student section was initiating were wrong, however I’m not in full agreement about the reasoning. I find it hard to believe the leaders chose those chants out of competitiveness. I would guess that it is more about attention. By making a fool of themselves, they steal the show. Now, instead of the game being the most important thing going on, they are. It’s almost as if by you pointing them out, they win. I know it sounds crazy, but it could very well be true. All in all I am just not sure that the students are what Dunning would consider competitive. They really don’t have any significant outcome on the game (as much as they would like to believe they do). It comes down to true competitiveness to determine who the real winners and losers are — not something like tasteless chants.

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  2. epdale10 · December 5, 2014

    Before I start, I would just like to note that I don’t condone anything the students said during the game. Now I don’t know if you played sports in high school, but games such as football and soccer, games which are physically exhausting, become more like a battle than a game. That being said, much of the challenge that athletes face during these battles is mental, and when exhaustion kicks in, your mental state can become fragile. What the crowd, or the student section in this case, is there for is to give their team the mental edge, while making it harder for the other team. The student section could have gone about working to positively reinforce their team, but instead decided taking Loyola’s was more important. In this way, they feel like they can help their team. Unfortunately, Loyola was attacked by some horrible things, but maybe that’s the cost of playing sports at a high level.

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  3. benlangt · December 6, 2014

    I find it very unfortunate that fans feel that they need to resort to offensive name-calling of opposing players. I feel if you go to a game you should just focus on the game and its content. I don’t feel that calling people names will change the outcome of the game. In regards to Dunning, I would have to disagree with his point that amateur sports are less competitive than professional sports. I understand that most fans insult opposing team as a away to get into the players’ heads, but to me its showing that your fan section has a low-level of respect. In addition, the fact that students would terrorize friends of hockey players through social media is very appalling to me.

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  4. nicolesigmon · December 6, 2014

    I understand where you’re coming from, and agree that those comments are horrible and should not have been made, but as someone who went to six men’s soccer games this past season, i find the comments you selected very cherry picked from the overall student section commenting during the games. I’m not trying to defend the comments you included in your blog post by saying they’re acceptable, because they very clearly are not. It’s never ok to call a woman a slut or impose the idea that a man having feminine qualities is a bad thing that should be insulted, but those types of comments are never the majority of what the student section yells. And like you said, when the majority of the section believes it’s gone to far, they don’t join in. The student section at soccer games is mean, that’s a fact, they heckle the other team to no end, but that’s soccer. That’s how soccer spectators are at any game, whether it be at the college level or the professional level. Soccer isn’t a “quiet game” like you said in your first paragraph, and no matter WHAT level it’s being played at, that’s always the atmosphere. Soccer fans are ruthless, they’re relentless; that’s part of the sport. That’s soccer.

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  5. azaryff · December 6, 2014

    Soccer fans, especially in Europe, can be complete hooligans. Try watching a Chelsea match away at Sunderland or Brentford and having your boys being called “rent boys”, a.k.a male prostitutes (it’s also a derogatory term for ‘homosexual’). In fact, some clubs even have a specific chant or song for calling Chelsea players “rent-boys”, and the Football Association is investigating them for homophobia. I don’t know about many other sports, but soccer fans can be racist, sexist, homophobic, narcissistic, and violent psychopaths. But to be honest, I’m surprised to read what you described because I thought this attitude only really existed among drunken hooligans (I do my best to avoid watching a match at Sunderland). I never thought UM students would engage in calling other people’s girlfriends sluts too. But hey, I’ve only been to 2 UM sports events so what do I know.

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  6. brendangaughan · December 6, 2014

    I am going to have to agree with the first person who commented and say the relationship between the hecklers and Dunning’s viewpoint doesn’t correlate as well as it you think it might. However, take that piece of criticism with a grain of salt. What I do agree with you on is the personal level in which the student-leader attacked some of the opposing players was definitely crossing a line. I am on the Men’s Lacrosse team here at Michigan and I can contest that there is heckling that takes place at our games. It might not be to the extent in which the Men’s Soccer hecklers take it to, but nevertheless, it occurs. In my opinion, I kinda like being heckled and taunted when I’m on the field because the more they yell, chant, and try to insult me, the harder I try to make a great play on the field. The hecklers give me the motivation to keep scoring a goal, making an assist, or hitting someone and motivates me to prove them wrong. To me, one of the most rewarding on-the-field achievements is making a great play and shutting up the hecklers. I do however, understand how the insults can offend many other people. I’m not defending the hecklers in any way, and if the chants are to the point where people in the stands take personal offense, then it is definitely too much.

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