“Shut the fuck up.”
Julius Randle’s message to the Knicks crowd last night got straight to the point. After shooting the fans a thumbs down as they cheered the Knicks’ comeback against the Celtics — probably a toned-down, TV-friendly version of the gesture he really wanted to give — he didn’t hesitate to make his meaning explicitly known. Randle added 22 points and eight rebounds to close the Knicks’ 25-point deficit against Boston and win the game, 108-105.
Randle’s play with the Knicks has been the subject of some criticism this season, particularly in light of how well he performed last season, during which he was named a reserve for the NBA All-Star Game and won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award.
With the spotlight still on but the heaps of praise taken off, Randle was not happy with the fans’ booing their home team as the half closed out with the Knicks down 63-47.
So bear with me as we get a little philosophical about sports and athletes for a moment.
Do the fans owe Randle and the Knicks a certain modicum of respect no matter the outcome of the game or the level of play? In other words, was Randle in the right when he told the fans to “shut the fuck up” after they expressed their unhappiness with the Knicks’ performance?
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Sports are an incredibly unique product in so many ways, but the distinction I want to look at today has been a subject of discourse on Twitter — I’ve seen it expressed different ways at different times, but all essentially boiling down to this:
Essentially, if we’re looking at a sports team that we support as a product through purchasing tickets and merchandise and investing our time and energy, why are the consumers of such a product expected to stick around with a smile on their faces through shit results?
Of course, it’s not boiled down to that so simplistically, for one, an enormous part of the popularity of sports is that it’s not just a product. The teams we love are part of our identities, and the “rain or shine” aspect is a huge part of what fans see as culturally acceptable. “Bandwagon fans” are shit on regularly for the crime of investing their time, interest, and money in a product that they know is going to succeed, but we all know that’s not it. It’s that we don’t see them as having real loyalty, of crawling through the mud with your team on a down streak until they finally see the light of day on the other side. It’s easy to be a bandwagon fan, so does that mean that consumers of the sports product should expect their investment to be met with days, weeks, or years of difficulty and frustration?
The thing is, there’s no real ROI in the product of sports, aside from bragging rights and that on-top-of-the-world feeling you get when your team wins. Which is why that comparison from Twitter doesn’t necessarily work. At a restaurant, at the very least, you’re presumably consuming a bodily necessity in food and drink. In return for money, you’re getting fed, which we need to do to stay alive. Does it have to be food from that specific restaurant? No, but in sports, we’re consuming a wholly unnecessary product. It’s fully a choice — not only the decision to support your team, but to become invested in sports at all.
Look, I get it. I’m a Cubs fan. I attended nearly every Notre Dame game of the Charlie Weis era. It’s not fun to see your team lose, and you do sort of expect something better. And it’s totally normal to have a disappointed or angry or frustrated human reaction to your team failing to be better. But I’m not sure that taking that anger and frustration out on the athletes — the real-life human beings in front of you — is necessarily the way to go.
A similar situation went down this summer when Mets players Javier Baez and Francisco Lindor gave the crowd a thumbs down after scoring. In a press conference following the incident, Baez said, “We’re not machines. We’re going to struggle seven times out of 10. It just feels bad when…I strike out and get booed.”
And yes, I know that they make millions upon millions and we don’t feel bad for them for getting booed and all that. I think the fans have a right to express their emotions surrounding a sport, which is, in many ways, an extremely emotional product that we consume. At the very least, what we receive from our consumption of sports is a wide variety of emotions that rely heavily on how your favorite team performs on a given day. There’s also that sense of the “we” in sports fandom — you identify strongly with your team and that identity is visible and vulnerable to those around you. If your team performs poorly, your friends and acquaintances and coworkers are going to turn to you to poke fun or talk shit or ask the tough questions. By investing in one fandom or another, you become an extension of that team or program to the people who you interact with in your daily life.
However, the athletes are only one part of a much larger production system that surrounds sports, and while we can take to Twitter to express our anger with coaches, GMs, presidents, owners, and the like, the only people we’re really granted personal access to are the athletes. The booing is, presumably, directed toward all levels of an organization for failing to meet expectations, but the people physically using their bodies and doing their best to work toward success are the ones who have the misfortune of hearing it. I mean, for God’s sake, I was at a college football game this fall where the home crowd booed their own starting quarterback for coming back in to replace the backup. Is the jeering directed toward the coaching decision in that case? Probably, but some 23-year-old playing for no money who will probably never see the NFL instead hears tens of thousands of people booing him off his own field.
There’s no real conclusion on this, but it’s an interesting thing to think about. To answer my earlier questions, I think that Knicks fans have a right to express their frustrations, and while it’s not classy to boo your own team, it’s also their prerogative as invested fans. They could exist without the team, but the team couldn’t exist without them, so they do have a certain level of power there. But Randle was also well within his rights to come back at them. I mean, come on, he’s a person, not some indestructible god. He’s a dude getting booed by the people who — within the culture of American sports, at least, whether you agree with the expectation or not — are expected to support him and his team.
In my opinion, the fans owe him respect as a human being, but don’t necessarily owe anything to the organization they support. On the other hand, the organization doesn’t owe the fans success, as the fans are at complete liberty as to whom they support, but they do owe the fans an effort, at least. I’m not sure how the restaurant metaphor works in there as it’s hard to compare anything to the consumption of such a unique aspect of our culture. Either way, the Knicks won the game.