Commercial Appeal, The (Memphis, TN) – Aug 23, 1998 – Patrick McManamon Scripps Howard News Service – Otto Graham has seen many sports fans come and go.

Graham was a Hall of Fame quarterback for the Cleveland Browns in the 1940s and ’50s and coach of the Washington Redskins in the ’60s. He’s retired and now is a fan like the rest of us.

“I wouldn’t give you 2 cents for the average fan today,” said Graham, 81. “They’re fair-weather fans.”

His complaint: Fans want instant gratification and will turn on teams and players if the slightest thing goes wrong.

His thoughts echo a common sentiment: Fans who complain about sports and athletes need to look in the mirror.

“We as fans have to take responsibility for the kind of sports monster we’ve created,” said Joel Fish, a sports psychologist and director of the Center for Sports Psychology in Philadelphia. “The good and the bad. It’s easy for us to point our finger at athletes and say, `How dare they not be the role models we want them to be?’

“But we have to take responsibility and understand we’ve created a situation where we put athletes on pedestals and they can get that amount of money. We’ll fill up a stadium for every game, but how many of us show up at the school board meeting?”

The word “fan” first appeared in 1682, and is short for “fanatic,” a person whose behavior is “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion,” according to Webster’s.

Nowadays, the fan must balance his devotion to the sport or athlete with the fact that sports has more and more become big business, a difficult proposition. That in turn leads to confusion and mixed feelings, psychologists said.

Confusion is caused by many factors, the most important the immediacy of sports and athletes in a society of instant news and information. That immediacy helps fans identify more closely with their team.

“But when an athlete disappoints us, it’s more of a personal blow,” said Fish, the sports psychologist at St. Joseph’s University.

Put fans in a group and the dynamics change more.

“There are a lot of people in the group and group behavior tends to be less responsible,” said Dr. John Murray, an expert in sports psychology from North Palm Beach, Fla., who works with tennis players.

So fans complain they want owners to make a commitment to win, then get mad when owners pay large salaries. Or when they’re not large enough.

When the Philadelphia Flyers signed free agent goalie John Vanbiesbrouck instead of Curtis Joseph or Mike Richter, newspapers in Philadelphia questioned whether the Flyers took the cheap way out. Talk show callers blasted the Flyers, and Vanbiesbrouck had to say he wasn’t an old, used suit. The contract’s value: $12 million.

Fish, who has worked with pro athletes for 10 years, has seen the pressure on athletes intensify with the rising salaries. One first-round draft pick in the NBA told Fish that if 10,000 people were cheering for him and one was booing, he heard the one booing.

“He ended up getting cut,” Fish said.

Fish understands, though, that fans have a right to express anger at bad behavior.

But athletes become angry when the criticism becomes personal. Or when it is based solely on salary.

“If somebody goes 0-for-4 we feel angry that they’re making all this money, when a lot of times it’s just the normal ebb and flow of statistics,” Fish said.

“The tail’s been wagging the dog and we, the vast majority of people, have to grab control of sports in a positive way again.”
Edition: Final
Section: Sports
Page: D8