Last December, during a holiday (vacation?) in the Big Apple, my wife and I took in an American football match. Not just any American football match, either. The New York Giants were playing the New York Jets at the mighty MetLife Stadium they share in East Rutherford.
Because of the way the NFL is structured, they only play each other competitively once every four years. It was just by pure luck that our visit coincided with the latest match-up, so we got our tickets and went along.
To our surprise, there was no fan segregation. Go to a Glasgow football derby and you’ll be split into very distinct areas of the stadium separated by a wall of security; a sad, lamentable aspect of our footballing culture. At the MetLife, though, blue and green-shirted fans sat side by side. The way it should be.
Of course, by the sheer nature of American football, you’re there watching it for a long time. That, in turn, provides ample time for the atmosphere to turn. And turn it did…
A couple of rows behind where we were sitting in the upper echelons of the stadium, a scuffle broke out between rival fans in the fourth quarter. With the result hanging in the balance – to illustrate this point, the match was eventually settled in over-time – some fans lost a handle on their sensibilities.
Beer, hot dogs and, most significantly of all, punches were thrown. Security stepped in and swiftly marched the boozed-up halfwits towards the exits but the difference between the atmosphere at the start of the match – expectant, excited – had changed entirely by the time it was reaching its conclusion – belligerent, hostile.
The point I am making? I have seen American sports crowds at their best and at their worst. I’ve heard them in full voice and seen them act the fool. That’s why I’m not surprised by the way large sections have behaved at the Ryder Cup. I’m hugely disappointed. But not surprised.
Let’s make one thing abundantly clear before we go any further: American sports fans aren’t idiots or any of the other outrageous things they’ve been called this week. They’re loud, partisan, arrogant, extroverted, enthusiastic and often inappropriate. But they’re not idiots. That’s a wild generalisation. They just sometimes do and say idiotic things, and some of them more than others.
They can also be a bad influence on one another. If one guy yells ‘BABA-BOOEY’, another will yell ‘MASHED POTATO’. They don’t know what it means; just that it often gets a laugh – ‘birds of a feather’ and all that – and will probably get them heard on television. That’s another thing about them: they like to be seen and heard.
Still, when the action stops, they go home, to wherever that may be, to the same responsibilities and roles as the rest of us: bills, families, jobs, runny noses, annoying neighbours, goldfish that need fed. They’re ordinary Joes and Janes.
What makes them different to sports fans from this side of Atlantic? It’s not passion. Everyone can be passionate. Instead, it’s the intensity of their passion and the fanatical, almost maniacal devotion to their teams. That goes double when their country is involved.
Americans are fiercely patriotic. Ask yourself this and answer it honestly: when was the last time you heard one of them talk down their country? On top of that, the most popular sports in the US don’t exactly lend themselves to international competition. They don’t often compete as ‘the United States’ in basketball, American football, baseball, or ice-hockey, for example. Golf, though, gives them that opportunity in the Ryder, Solheim, Presidents, Walker and Curtis Cups. The pride of a country they are so immeasurably proud of is on the line every time they contest these events. No wonder their fans get up for the occasion.
“Much of the antics have been at odds with the values of the game and what golf stands for”
That’s not to excuse the behaviour we’ve seen at Hazeltine this week. Not by a long shot. I can’t and I won’t. Large parts of it has been shameful and the language used to taunt and goad the European players has too often strayed massively beyond the pale. Telling somebody to go ‘suck a d***’, for example, will never be acceptable behaviour, on a golf course or anywhere else.
Much of the antics have been at odds with what the values of the game and what golf stands for. Then again, so too is the Ryder Cup. Golf, in its traditional form, is a contest between man and course. The Ryder Cup takes the course almost entirely out of the equation. You could, in theory, play it anywhere and it wouldn’t matter. It’s European man versus American man. Frankly, I’m surprised the audiences aren’t more raucous, more often.
Still, if the powers-that-be want to clean-up spectator behaviour for future matches, then they need to involve the PGA Tour and their television partners in the discussions. People are acting out this week because they have become accustomed to seeing and hearing fellow golf fans acting out on televised, regular tour events week in, week out. So, this isn’t a new problem. It’s just an exacerbated one.
Gaining the support of the PGA Tour and TV types may, however, be easier said than done. The PGA Tour has next to no involvement in the Ryder Cup. What does it stand to gain from censoring its premium ticket purchasing spectators just to benefit a PGA of America and European Tour joint production that takes place once per year? And as for TV, bad behaviour is compelling entertainment. Compelling entertainment equals big ratings. Big ratings equals more money from advertisers. It’s sad but it’s true.
So, where do we go from here? Hard to say. Maybe we’re just going to have to accept this is the way it is now. We [Europe] wanted America to care about the Ryder Cup as much as we do. We laughed at their Task Force and we rubbed an ‘eight wins in ten matches’ record in their faces. We poked the bear. We just never expected to be rounded-on by hyenas. We’ve also got to accept that it might get worse before it gets better.
That’s the gauntlet.
That’s the challenge.
Rightly or wrongly.
Regrettably or otherwise.
What do you make of the behaviour of the crowds at this week’s Ryder Cup? Leave your thoughts in our ‘Comments’ section below.