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Thursday, March 23, 2006

When Fans Get Too Mean

Just because you may not like the public face of your favorite sports team or think that the people who are running it aren't doing a good job doesn't mean you get to demean their kids in a public forum. But that's exactly what happened to the daughter of former Phillies' General Manager Ed Wade earlier this year when the Villanova mens' basketball team, for whom she is the manager, played at St. Joseph's. Now, the rivalry is a heated one for various reasons (among those is that historically those who were more "lace curtain" went to Villanova, on the tony Main Line, while the grittier, city kids went to the Jesuit school just inside the city line), and perhaps it shows how intense it can get. St. Joe's fans actually chanted, "Gillick's Better" during the game.

For those who lack the total frame of reference, Pat Gillick, who build the Blue Jays' teams that won the World Series in '92 and '93 (and both were outstanding teams), is now the Phillies' GM, having replaced Ed Wade, who held the title for about eight years, after last season. During Wade's tenure, the Phillies had more losing seasons than winning ones, and they did not make the playoffs once (they did come close last year, missing out by one game). Many fans did not like Wade, whose discomfort with the media didn't help his cause any. They blamed him for the relative ineptitude of the Phillies' franchise, and some were very vocal in doing so (there was a website dedicated to his firing). Wade did have some fans, among them former Phillies' great and Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt (who recently was quoted as saying he did a good job), but by and large he was the symbol for the problems that the Phillies had.

(By way of full disclosure, I did blog on this website that I thought Ed Wade should go, but not with the vitriol that many anti-Wade pieces on other sites and message boards were written. My examination of the facts told me that his long tenure, when compared to the won-loss record, dictated that a change be made. That said, I did not fault the Phillies' overall problems with Ed Wade, who became the body that was publicly flogged. I place almost all of the blame on the Phillies' ownership, which should sell the team, and its President, David Montgomery, who heads up the ownership team. Wade was their employee, and while he did not perform that well, it is the ownership that, save for Ruly Carpenter in the late 1970's and early 1980's, has served a baseball-savvy and championship-hungry fan base poorly, and, in fact, much more poorly than Ed Wade did. Dave Montgomery happens to have a more likable public persona than Ed Wade, so perhaps why he gets the pass that Ed Wade did not. Montgomery shouldn't get a pass either).

But I've digressed on what I came here to write about, which is this: leave the kids (and other family members) alone. Erin Wade is not, and has not been, a public figure. She's a student at Villanova, and she happens to be the manager of the men's hoops team. That doesn't mean that she should have to field a cheap shot about her father's competence on the job in a public forum. The St. Joe's fans should know better than that, and they should be ashamed on picking on her, especially because she can't fight back. I'm certainly no proponent of speech codes, although I am a fan of good taste, and at least when he hears chants of "laptop" (referring to a well-publicized incident that had him miss the first half of this season), UConn's Marcus Williams can silence an annoying crowd by burying shot after shot. Erin Wade, though, has no such luxury. Were she to run full tilt across the gym floor and low bridge the never-stop-flapping-its-wings St. Joe's Hawk mascot, she would be viewed as retaliating excessively, even if a certain portion of the St. Joe's fan base deserves a swift kick in the butt for spouting such nonsense.

What was chanted at that game wasn't fair and isn't right. Regardless of whether you appreciated what Ed Wade did for the Phillies, you should leave his family out of the mess and not even make personal comments about him. Otherwise, you are transgressing far more than he did. A bad trade or two is one thing, but that's part of the overall sports experience. Losing control of your point of view to drag the discussion into the dirt is far worse.

I recall about six years or so ago when Princeton played Penn at the Palestra, the Penn fans, who usually have the most clever chants in the Ivies, started on Princeton's Nate Walton by chanting "Luke is Better." Luke, of course, is former Arizona starter and current Laker Luke Walton, Nate's older brother and, by all accounts, a better basketball player. Somehow, that comment didn't irk me at all, and I was heartened by Nate Walton's reaction (he was a senior at the time). He looked up, shook his head slightly, and started to laugh a bit. I think he actually thought that what was said was funny (and far more acceptable that signs that the Penn crowd held which questioned a certain Princeton player's sexual orientation only a year earlier), and the Tigers had the last laugh by unexpectedly winning that night at Penn and then winning the Ivy title. It might have been that Luke was better, but having a Walton at Princeton was a very sweet thing for the Tigers that year. He was a unanimous first-team all-Ivy player and should have been named the conference's player of the year. No one brought Nate Walton's family into the mix, and that is where the line seems to be drawn. Of course, that's not to say that just because a kid plays makes him fair game for public derision or ridicule, and while I won't advocate a speech code, I will advocate good taste.

Remember, the college players are just kids, and people should treat them the way they'd want their kids to be treated. I, for one, will yet at referees and make an occasional comment to an opposing coach to sit down, but I will not direct any comments to college hoops players. To me, that's out of bounds. Yes, I'll applaud them, yes I'll give them a standing ovation after a good run, but if they err the worst I'll do is cringe at an ill-advised pass or a stupid foul. They're just kids, after all, and they're playing a game. The experience -- for everyone -- should be fun.

I like my teams, I think, as much as anyone else who is balanced in his or her approach.

It's just that there should be some lines out there, and as adults we should lead by example and not cross them.

College kids, when doing what they do, should think about where passionate rooting ends and meanness begins.

After all, we're only talking about kids' games here.


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