Water bottles and popcorn are bad. Words are too.
I don’t hate Chase Utley. Twenty-five-year-old me would hate 30-year-old me for admitting it, but it’s true. I don’t hate Chase Utley. I don’t think I ever really did.
There was a time where I thought I hated Chase Utley. In Game 2 of the 2015 NLDS he slid into Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada and broke Tejada’s leg. Utley was actually called safe and it led to a Dodgers rally that led to a Dodgers win. I was so mad that I slammed my table at the bar I was at and spilled my buddy’s beer (all over myself, deservedly). I would go on to chant and jeer some not-so-nice things about Utley at future Mets games — I was among the 42,000-plus at Citi Field for Game 3 of that series, raining boos on Utley as the camera lingered on him justalittlebitlonger than typical during player introductions. I hated Chase Utley. But I didn’t really hate Chase Utley.
What I really hated was the event, not the individual. I hated the occurrence of a person wearing Not My Favorite Team’s Colors sliding into and injuring a person wearing My Favorite Team’s Colors. But I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that I hated Chase Utley. He was a dirty player who did not respect the game and did not respect his opponent. He had wronged me because he wronged the team I rooted for, and I hated him for it.
It makes me miserable to think about the amount of hate I reserved in my head and heart for a complete stranger who, while injuring a player on a questionably “dirty” play, was by all accounts a good person and teammate and had never done anything to me—an anonymous Mets fan—in any way. The slide was unfortunate and like I said, I did hate that it happened. But Utley said he felt bad about injuring Tejada and that he was only trying to break up a double play. Years later he said he tried to broker an apology through David Wright, but Wright said things were just too tender with Tejada and he couldn’t start a dialogue. Utley also said this:
“I remember coming off the field one time and there was a boy, he was 10 years old, maybe,” Utley recalled. “As I’m walking to the dugout, he looks me right in the eyes and he goes, ‘I hope you blanking die.’ And I looked right at his dad. I’m like I can’t believe this. He’s 10 years old, he said this. Maybe his dad is going to say it. And his dad repeated the same thing as he’s going at me.”
I’ve come to ask myself who the real villain is here. Is it the guy who was just trying to make an acceptable baseball play and apologized for injuring an opposing player in an unfortunate incident? Or is it the 10-year-old, his father, and the throngs of Mets fans who have showered Utley with this type of vitriol for six years? As a result of working for a professional sports team for three years, and just getting older, I know it’s not Utley.
Sports is richer for having heels that can unify an opposing fanbase, particularly when the enemy themself knows when to cheekily play into their persona. But like Kevin Durant aptly said, “It’s all fun and games until ya ass banned for life.” Because the problem with sports villainy is that our Lizard Brains don’t always know when to relinquish control of our emotions back to our Left Brains. Sometimes it results in an entire city chanting “FUCK YOU!” at a player for two-straight games. Other times it results in thrown water bottles, dumped popcorn, literal expectorate, and hurled racial epithets at opposing players’ families.
And the problem now is that I don’t think we’re drawing the line in the sand in the right place. We’ve collectively agreed that throwing objects and spitting at players is off-limits. I mean, we haven’t all collectively agreed on that since it takes a unique kind of shithead to throw a water bottle at Kyrie Irving after the incidents with Russell Westbrook, Trae Young, and the families of Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks. But at least 99.9% of us know this is bad.
Far fewer of us, though, would categorize chanting “F**K YOU!” as off limits. The consensus seems to be that if the words aren’t racist, it’s above board. And then 20,000 people will feel that way at the same time. They’ll chant this in unison at a player, and while of course you shouldn’t throw a water bottle at a him, there’s nothing wrong with throwing words.
Durant also said last night that “Your mother wouldn’t be proud of you throwing water bottles at basketball players, spitting on players or tossing popcorn.” But she probably also wouldn’t be proud of you for chanting “F**K YOU” at a complete stranger. There is a direct through-line from feeling like it’s OK to yell curses at a player with impunity, to feeling like it’s OK to throw objects at them with impunity.
We know how to apprehend people who throw objects at players. The actions are plainly identifiable and punishable. But words are trickier. The only sort of policing we can do for words is on an individual level. It’s up to fans to ask themselves whether they really hate a certain player—whether they truly harbor hate in their head and their heart for this person—or if they just hate the circumstances that led them to this point.
Like KD went on to say: “Have some respect for the human beings and have some respect for yourself.” At a certain point, it begs introspection. Are they, the person who did nothing to harm you personally, the villain? Or are you, the person chanting “F**K YOU” or tweeting vitriol at a complete stranger, the bad guy in this story?
One of my favorite things about sports is that they’re an outlet to feel Sandbox Emotions, by which I mean it’s just a game. Sports invite joy, pain and everything in between, and the best part is is that it has no tangible impact on your life. Sure, the feelings are real, but their consequences aren’t. You’re not getting a promotion or losing a job. You’re not getting engaged or going through a divorce. You haven’t welcomed a baby into the world, or lost a loved one. It’s just a game.
Next time you attend one, ask yourself if you really, truly recognize that.