The spring of my junior year in high school, my baseball teammates and I were hard at work, looking to defend our conference and section championship from the previous six years, under the pressure of knowing this team was maybe better than all of the previous ones.
We were stacked, to be honest. From sophomores to seniors, we had 11 future scholarship players and a coaching staff of more than 50 combined years in Major League Baseball. It wouldn't be a cakewalk, other teams had similar levels of talent, but we were ranked No. 2 in the state for a reason.
Needless to say, with that much talent, making the team was exceedingly difficult. Our coach had a rule, he wasn't going to keep a senior to play Junior Varsity. He would need to be at least a role player on the varsity team, otherwise he cut him loose. A very difficult rule, one he always said he struggled with, but an understandable rule, too.
Understandable to reasonably-minded people. To the parent of one of the kids who would fall victim to it, not so understandable.
A day after cuts, our coach called us all into the gym. He was a talker (and a phenomenal teacher), so sitting us down to listen wasn't rare.
The look on his face was different this time. He looked tired. Overwhelmed, even.
He called us together to let us know he wasn't sure if he was going to continue coaching.
A parent of one of the players he cut, a senior, threatened to put a hit out for him.
His son was (rightfully) cut from the varsity baseball team, so his dad was going to have the head coach killed. The kid wasn't good enough to play varsity. I would venture to say 95 percent of the people who were on or followed the team would agree with the coach's decision. But it was worth threatening someone' life over, apparently.
And that didn't happen recently. The level of lunacy is considerably higher today, considering the access parents or fans have to players and coaches via social media. It's scary. It's dangerous.
Post-Gazette writer Ron Cook (fairness in savagery, I've ripped him in this space a few times) wrote a phenomenal piece Sunday on this topic, and considering the recent conversation we've had on BTSC regarding the treatment of Steelers quarterbacks all the way back to Terry Bradshaw, this topic seems especially relevant.
In that discussion, the topic of former Steelers QB Tommy Maddox's shockingly poor game against Jacksonville in 2005 was brought up. Maddox had his worst game as a pro, without question, throwing three interceptions and fumbling once - the fumble came in overtime and wasn't caused by a hit. He dropped the ball, and managed to kick it in the other direction, as if to say "hey Jacksonville, I'll save you a few yards, just pick it up and score."
The recovered the fumble but failed to score. The Steelers got the ball back, and Maddox threw a pick-six that ended the game.
I remember watching that at a bar, and was obviously upset over it. After the interception, one particularly wasted "fan" extended both middle fingers, got about two inches from one of the TVs and screamed a streak of profanities I couldn't duplicate with my best efforts (and I'm pretty creative).
I immediately went from extreme anger at the situation to embarrassment. This guy was a complete jackass. Tommy Gun played a horrible game. No one can disagree with that statement, least of all, Maddox, the guy who saved the Steelers' season in 2002, got hurt and replaced in 2004, and right after that interception, made himself a dog to Steeler Nation for the rest of his life.
Morons taunted his kids at school. Jackholes threw trash on his lawn (although there are differing reports on whether that actually happened. The fact everyone believes it, though, proves the point).
Are we above anything? While I'm also not a fan of the people who look down upon passionate sports fans (and cannot judge those who had a few too many and yelled at a TV during a game...or challenged Jameel McClain to a fight after he hit Heath Miller...ahem), but you just don't see rage to that level often. It made the stories about Maddox's yard and kids believable.
Many in the media beg you on a daily basis to not feel sorry for professional athletes for any reason. Hundreds of web sites have sprung up with the operating model of doing nothing else than make stupid jokes about something they did, or said, whether recently, or in the past.
Twitter comes alive with hate as soon as the Miami Heat go down a certain number of points at a certain time in the game. I'm not a Heat fan, and I'm not above enjoying watching them lose, but it's a perfect example of how our sporting society now is far more about enjoying a team or a player lose than it is celebrating another team winning.
How often do you hear "I don't care who wins, I just want LeBron to lose"? We didn't root for anyone in the AFC Conference Championship, we cracked dumb jokes about how we're hoping for a tie.
We can't allow others to enjoy success and we revel in their misfortunes. I'm not advocating the support of any team outside of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the fact there are far more people who follow the NFL because they hate a team instead of following it because they love a team is pathetic.
There's a saying applicable in every sport; My favorite teams are 'Team A' and whomever is playing 'Team A's arch rival.' Fair enough, I suppose. I'm not above rooting against the Ravens. I know I was cheering hard for Jacksonville, Seattle and San Diego, three Ravens games I happened to watch last season. But my day wasn't complete because of their loss. In fact, I wrote many times in comments and columns the Ravens loss to San Diego means absolutely nothing if Pittsburgh couldn't beat San Francisco on Monday Night.
You all know what happened.
It's as if we don't even watch the game for the sake of watching the game, it's more like a feud against any and all who don't raise the same flag we do. We're more about the symbolism of hate of others than it is appreciation and love for our own.
In researching this, I found a story about the gate sign at Denver International Airport displaying a taunting message to Steelers fans boarding the flight back to Pittsburgh after the playoff loss.
This was on a Ravens web site.
Google "I Hate Steelers Fans," over 11 million pages are returned. There are 15 million returns for "I Love The Steelers," and both sides have their own Facebook pages.
(incidentally, there are 4 million returns for "I Don't Care At All About The Cleveland Browns.")
We're apparently smug, cocky, arrogant, the destroyer of cities, the plague of the population, the embodiment of Satan's quest to rule the earth and generally uneducated.
We're all of these things by rooting for a football team. Obviously, with sports fandom comes a level of aggressive drama and fleeting boosts of self-worth, but cripes, this is just stupid.
It's this same feeling of superiority that leads to the empowerment of some not getting their way to escalate into threats of violence. As Cook points out:
Last month, Los Angeles Lakers guard Steve Blake missed a wide-open 3-point shot at the end of a 77-75 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 2 of their NBA playoff series. Blake took a beating on social media. So, regrettably, did his wife, Kristen. "I hope your family gets murdered," a tweeter wrote to her.
That's nice. Dude misses a shot, someone hopes dude's family is killed. Not him, mind you, the guy who missed the shot, but his family, people who have nothing to do with it.
Maybe this is a selfish stance, but we lost in the section championship that season, and many could blame the fact we had no idea if our coach was coming back (he formally quit after our last game) and the whole situation hung over our heads all year.
But we didn't blame the kid. It wasn't his fault his dad took something that ultimately meant very little and made it literally life and death. Maybe we were even afraid ourselves. Who knows if he was seriously going to have our coach killed. Maybe it would have happened during a game. It doesn't take much to break concentration, and while I couldn't say it was something we constantly thought about, it was always there.
Before we go completely overboard and smite our enemies via social media, read this excellent story by one of the best NFL writers in the business, Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union Tribune. It highlights Chargers CB Quentin Jammer's battle with depression last season and how it greatly affected his game.
It puts things into perspective, to me, at least.