Good sports or bad fans?
Photos by Karen Mitchell
Darren Hellwege, sports commentator
Sometimes in this job, I take the opportunity to set myself up as public enemy No.1. When I have got something I think needs to be said, knowing it won’t be popular, I weigh what’s at stake and decide how important what I’m trying to stand up for is.
Today, I don’t have to decide how important what I’m talking about is. The University of Missouri does it for me, before every athletic event. “The University of Missouri supports good sportsmanship,” we’re told. Fans are told we should “support the participants, coaches and officials in a positive manner.” Yet too often we see that if those aren’t mere words, they’re certainly not taken them as seriously as they should be.
The Antlers, in black, pride themselves on being loud and obnoxious, trying to get in the heads of the visiting players.
I’ve seen many situations around campus that lead me to wonder about the university’s commitment to good sportsmanship. Student cheer groups like VolleyZou frequently hound opposing players. Mini Mizzou, the pep band, sometimes crosses into ugly, spiteful behavior aimed at the visitors. And heaven knows this isn’t a fun or sometimes even safe campus to cross on a football Saturday while wearing colors of another team. But the greatest example of all of how little the University of Missouri really supports good sportsmanship continues to be the existence of The Antlers. (See associated story here.)
Members of the Antlers cheer group wait for the front rows of the student section to open up to them. Because they are not a university recognized group they do net get priority seats.
Since the 1970s the Antlers have been a group at MU men’s basketball games who come for one reason—to yell ugly, hateful and frequently vulgar insults at players, coaches, mascots, fans, anything they can find associated with the other team. While still low rent, the current incarnation is not as out of control as some of their predecessors. Antics range from holding up signs announcing that players have social diseases to saying unkind things about players’ mothers to making frequent phone calls to their hotel rooms late at night. But their crowning achievement: meeting Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson at the airport with the head of a dead pig on a stick. They have moved away from the sort of things that get them banned from the arena altogether, as the latter did, or put them into the crosshairs of the athletic department, but still they continue to be the sharpest example of what good sportsmanship is not.
Whether their hateful comments are aimed at a well-known star from a heated league rival, or perhaps, even more pathetic, when they are shouting abuse at a harmless scrub on a low-level non-conference team, they’re an embarrassment to the athletic department, the university and its fan base.
Members of the Antlers cheer before the start of a men's basketball game on Monday, Nov. 14, 2011, at Mizzou Arena. Each member has a nickname printed on the back of his shirt. If the name is offensive the student has to turn the shirt inside out.
I’m sure some question the need for sportsmanship at all. Some ask if sportsmanship still matters. I think that was answered during the Mizzou-Texas football game when Texas coach Mack Brown took time to jog across the field and extend his hand to a Missouri player who was about to be carted off with a season-ending injury. That moment is perhaps the most lasting image of this entire season.
Other examples of good sportsmanship have become the stuff of legend: a softball player who hits a homerun, is injured on the way to first base, and is helped around the bases by players from the opposing team. A soccer player who refuses to take advantage of an injured opponent to score a cheap goal. Sometimes it’s big names like Albert Pujols, winner of the 2008 Roberto Clemente Award for his community work, and sometimes it’s guys you’d not have heard of like Jared Ingram of St. Louis. He replaced an injured teammate on the 4×400 relay in a track competition, and when the team medaled, he let the injured teammate take to the stand and accept the medal rather than taking it himself.
Sportsmanship was a part of every practice and game when I coached youth sports for many years, yet we can also see examples of the best—and worst—of it in every major league contest.
And it should be a part of every game at Mizzou. What a pity that the same environment that fosters coaches wearing orange ribbons to honor the Oklahoma State coaches who were killed in a plane crash and players traveling to Joplin compete in a basketball game to help tornado victims put their lives together, also fosters people who say insipid, hateful, taunting yells at opposing players.
Back when the basketball teams played in the Hearnes Center, the Antlers were given prime seats in the front row, the better to have their abusive garbage heard by opponents throughout the game. Following some of their most shameful incidents they have been relegated to a position further back, behind student groups that actually exist to support the team and which, unlike the Antlers,
The ZouCrew, in yellow shirts, and the Antlers, in black shirts, form the bulk of the student section at a men's basketball game on Monday, Nov. 14, 2011, at Mizzou Arena. The ZouCrew is the official student cheer group and has priority seating in the section.
choose to affiliate with the university. The Antlers refuse to do so, because that would mean following rules, and what fun would that be?
And every few years, the whining begins: why can’t they be back in the front row where they can be even more personal and more hateful? It happened again this year, they’ve been trying to lobby Mike Alden for front row seats. One hopes that Alden, while he’s done far too little to promote the idea of sportsmanship at MU, knows what a rotten idea that would be.
I’ve heard them defended as “tradition,” but too many examples of bad things that stayed around too long because they were “tradition.” Like segregation. I’ve been told it’s part of setting a “home court advantage” or a “hostile atmosphere.” I’d like to think that the players don’t need those kind of underhanded tactics to win games. But I’m also reminded of the best example I can come up with from the world of sports to disprove that claim: if fans behaving like jerks won games, the Philadelphia Eagles would have seven or eight Lombardi trophies.
The Antlers hold themselves up as being “the most passionate fans” but I call even that into question. Great fans support their team positively; they don’t tear down the other team. No, from their refusal to join in the “Let’s Go, Tigers” chant at the start of each game to the habit of yelling what they find “amusing” insults at opposing players, the behavior is much less “let’s go, Mizzou” than it is “Everyone pay attention to me!” From just simply yelling “Scum, scum, scum!” to the sort of thing they take perverse pride in — researching the name of a player’s girlfriend, or learning of a sick parent, and attacking that — this isn’t what great fans do. It’s what self-absorbed goons do.
Whether it’s fans throwing things at opposing band members, visiting fans having obscenities screamed at them, or leading the league in “riding” officials, MU has earned a reputation of poor sportsmanship among the schools of the Big 12. It would be nice to see us start off on a better foot as we begin life in a new league. The subject’s rarely even discussed around MU athletics, so I’m raising it. Let’s get serious about sportsmanship. Encourage our fans to be loud and boisterous, but in supporting our team not in tearing down the other team.
Schools like Ohio State and West Virginia had to take the issue very seriously, forming “Sportsmanship Councils” and setting specific rules for fan behavior after their misbehavior made national news. Let’s hope it doesn’t take an embarrassment of that nature for the athletic department, from Mike Alden on down, to take notice. Things aren’t as they should be at Mizzou.
From the directive of “The University of Missouri supports good sportsmanship” at the beginning of a game, until everyone sings the final words of the alma mater: “proud art thou in classic beauty of thy noble past, with thine watchwords honor, duty, thy high fame shall last,” it shouldn’t be something to either snicker at or forget. That sportsmanship, that nobility and honor should be taken seriously at Mizzou.
And a good place to start would be by bringing down the curtain on an old tradition that’s run its course. The Antlers are like a raunchy joke we’ve all heard one too many times. Some thought it was funny at first, others just offensive, but now it’s just tiresome all the way around. Let’s hope we hear this bad old joke for the final time sometime soon.