The Problem with Rivalries: And the One Mindset I Wish All Soccer Fans Would Adopt.

The Problem with Rivalries: And the One Mindset I Wish All Soccer Fans Would Adopt.

Okay, unpopular opinion time.  I don’t like rivalry matches; I don’t enjoy them.  I know, as a Sounders Fan, I’m supposed to be marking the calendar for all matches against Portland.  I’m supposed to hate the team, the fans, and generally everything about the city of Portland.  I’m supposed to get together with my friends and celebrate grinding the heathens to the south into dust.  But here’s the thing: I don’t look forward to these games.  I don’t like the heightened intensity or the insults or the general hostility that isn’t only present, but expected at these matches.  What seems to be regularly forgotten during these matches is the simple fact that this is a hobby for us.  This is supposed to be fun.  Rooting for sports teams is supposed to be an escape from the more complicated and contentious parts of our lives.  When we treat sports as deserving of the same passion and fervor that normally is reserved for the real injustices of the world, we ruin what makes sports great.

We’re supposed to love rivalries.  Whether you’re talking about the classic league-defining derbys like the Atlantic Cup and California Clasico or the amazingly named new ones like the Hell is Real Derby or El Trafico, rivalries are some of the most valued matchups in the league. This week is even the sponsored “Heineken Rivalry Week” featuring as many of these match-ups as they can cram into a single weekend’s schedule.  And they, of course want to pump up the fervent energy of these games.  How many times have you heard a commentator previewing a rivalry match by saying some to the effect of, “This is a real rivalry!  These teams actually hate each other.”

Rivalries come in all sorts of flavors.  There’s the ones built on shared history like the Cascadia Derby or Atlantic Cup.  There’s also the ones based on geographical proximity, like the Rocky Mountain Derby or the Texas Derby.  There’s also those curious events in the league that create their own flavor of rivalries, like when NYCFC and Orlando City played their inaugural game against each other.

The league loves these games more than any other.  The very existence of a sponsored Rivalry Week shows that.  And it’s not hard to see why.  During the long slog of a 34 game season, it’s sometimes tough to drive excitement for mid-summer games which have only limited playoff implications.  Driving fanbases to a frenzy over derby matches injects some much-needed interest and energy into a low-point in the season.  These games not only drive up viewership, but also fan engagement on websites, blogs, and social media.  A good rivalry match-up is a shortcut for injecting playoff stakes and intensity into an otherwise mundane weekend.

But there’s a problem when the league places so much focus on rivalry games. Increased attention and increased emotions lead to increased outbursts by fans and players.  The exciting atmosphere is a lot tougher to revel in when you start to see some of the very worst kinds of behavior exhibited.  These things can happen both on and off the field in ways that are egregious or subtle, but they’re all problematic.

Take, for example, the time in 2015 when NYCFC and Red Bull fans got into a brawl outside a New Jersey pub.  And keep in mind, that was NYCFC’s first year in the league.  Despite their relative recent entry into the league NYCFC fans have regularly crossed the line of acceptable behavior, like when one NYCFC fan ripped a chair out of the newly opened stadium in Orlando) - that incident also included a brawl that led to a police officer being hospitalized.

New York isn’t the only place where fans cross the line.  In one of the early match-ups between LAFC and the LA Galaxy, LAFC fans were seenattacking Galaxy fans before the game, and Galaxy fans ripped over 70 seats out of the new Banc of California Stadium.

Another story I heard (though I can’t quite remember exactly where I heard it) happened in Seattle.  Some fans were outside a bar celebrating a Sounders victory over Portland when a woman wearing a Timbers Army scarf walked by minding her own business.  Someone in the bar yelled “C***!” at the woman.  While a drunk fan shouting words might not seem to be on the same level as actual violence or vandalism, it’s important to know that slurs like that make their target feel an actual threat.  Someone subject to racist or sexist slurs knows that the person who’s willing to use those slurs in public is the fan most likely to commit physical violence. Remember how this is supposed to be fun? Fun is difficult when you fear for your safety.

There’s a lot of things that pump up the intensity of a rivalry match, from the media coverage, to the history, even to the quality of the refs of the match on the day.  But the fact is we can’t control the league, we can’t control the coverage, and we can’t control ref assignments.  The only thing we can control is our own actions as fans.  There is an insidious and wrongheaded idea some fans have that by treating other fans like trash, they’re somehow showing how passionate they are.  I don’t mean basic trash talking or chants aimed at another supporters group, but things like sexist and homophobic insults, scarf stealing, and brawling only make soccer a worse experience for everyone.  Let me be clear, verbally or physically attacking another fan or damaging another team’s facility doesn’t make you a better or more passionate fan.  It just makes you a shitty person.

If there’s one thing I wish every soccer fan could keep at the forefront of their mind, especially in the high-pressure environment of a rivalry match, it’s this:  This is supposed to be fun.  We come to the soccer game to enjoy ourselves.  If you’re poking fun at your rival team or throwing some shade at their supporters group with a clever chant, that’s fun.  But if your intention is to make someone feel bad about who they support or otherwise ruin what they enjoy, then you’ve crossed the line.  

Let me give an example outside the realm of soccer.  I have a good friend who’s a Dallas Cowboys fan.  He’s lived in the Seattle area for years, but he’s always been a Cowboys fan.  I’ve noticed over time just how much crap he has to take from Seattle people just for liking a different team. Constant accusations of being a band-wagon fan and attacks on his character are the norm.  He — somewhat justifiably — usually will respond with a scorched earth response about the Seahawks being a crap team and their fans worthless.  The tone of these interactions are well beyond friendly ribbing.  Instead I see people on both sides literally trying to make the other feel bad for their opinion on a sports team.  Even though I tend to not get involved in these interactions, just being in the vicinity makes me feel gross. Sports becomes not fun.

To be clear, people’s rooting interests are decided for purely arbitrary reasons.  While most people root for the home team for purely geographical associations, other people move a lot and don’t have a tie to one area. Others might choose a team because of a player they like to follow.  I have one friend who’s a Yankees fan because his uncle actually played for them. And trying to make someone feel bad or guilty for who they support is just plain stupid.  Nobody has changed who they root for because they were argued out of it.

Look, it should be obvious that racial slurs or violence is unacceptable behavior at a sporting event.  If you don’t think that, then I think it’s time to reassess your own values and character.  But if you start acting towards another fan in a way that’s intended to make them upset or feel bad about their rooting interests, then you’ve crossed the line as well.  This is supposed to be fun. Let’s not ruin it for each other. 

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