Monday, October 23, 2006

On Booing

[I've edited this post a good amount to draw clearer distinctions between the issue of whether booing is "valid" or "defensible" and the issue of whether it is "right" or "useful"]

The Georgia Blogs are a flutter with discussions on what appears to be the only thing memorable about Saturday's lackluster win over Mississippi State. [Side note, I don't have time to do the research, but I read at The Index (to the right) that a team that's turned the ball over 5 times in a game had lost something like 50-60 straight games... and the Dawgs didn't. I'm not sure what that means, but I guess it's something...]

I'm writing about the way that after his third dropped pass of the day (and that doesn't include his fumble), some fans booed Mohammed Massaquoi, and then cheered after the coaching staff substituted for him. It was loud enough to hear both the boos and the cheers over the radio, and the announcing crew commented upon it.

Personally, I'm not sure what I think about the booing in this specific instance. But I also find it interesting the way some writers and dudes around the office are approaching the issue of booing college athletes. So indulge me in an in-depth study.

Booing is a traditional method of voicing displeasure, but it's also one where there are almost always lines of distinction drawn.

1. Few people argue that booing, under any circumstances, is never valid. I think many people consider booing to be less than classy, and I know at times I've considered it to be simply lame. Nonetheless, it is hard to find a man or woman who would say that a fan should never boo.

2. The Professional/Amateur distinction. Some people consider booing to be indefensible when the players are college athletes, but don't have a problem when the player is a professional. The idea is that a pro gets a paycheck and should be expected to perform by paying customers. There is a service being rendered to fans, and when the service is performed inadequately the fans want to voice their displeasure. In college, the athletes aren't paid (and personally I find this fact wrong), though they do receive free tuition, room and board, some of which is funded through the various foundations supported by the fans who attend the games. In a way, the fans attending a college football game fund the compensation for the players (however inadequate the compensation is). In my opinion, this pro/amateur line of distinction alone is insufficient.

2 (a) It's possible that this pro/amateur distinction is merely a simplification or retitling - the real reason is that college athletes aren't as old or experienced as professionals, and therefore they should be cut some slack. I think this argument is much more salient, but it also raises the question of where the line is drawn - can 5th year seniors be booed, or what about professional rookies? Further, the age/experience issue is more appropriately addressed when discussing whether booing is the right thing to do. The younger or more inexperienced a player is, the more clear it is that booing is the wrong thing to do, regardless of whether it is valid or substantiated.

3. One of the reasons why a simple "pro/amateur" distinction rarely works is that most people have no problem booing the opposing team. If the problem is that "they're kids" or "they're not getting paid", why is it not a big deal that fans boo the opposing team every time they come out onto the field? The other team is made up of kids/amateurs. But they're just not our kids or amateurs. So the simple distinction isn't enough, and mere reliance on that argument probably shouldn't work. If the uniforms provide a reason to boo amateurs, the argument that college athletes should never be booed doesn't work, err... uniformly.

4. Situations where booing might be acceptable.

If booing college athletes is acceptable (leaving aside the question of whether it is the right thing to do or a useful thing) in some circumstances (such as opposing players), are there circumstances when booing one's own team's players would be valid? If so, where are the lines that shouldn't be crossed?

I'd argue that there are some situations where it would be defensible to boo one's own player.

a) The Cheap Shot. When an opposing player takes a cheap shot, a boo should be expected. But what about when your player takes a cheap shot? If I'm a Tennessee Titans fan, and I see Albert Haynesworth stomp on the face of an opposing player, and the replay shows that it was unprovoked violence, I would have no problem booing him. And if a college player did the same thing, I would feel the same way. I wouldn't have a problem booing a player seen to spit in another's face. Consider: would it be valid for Miami fans in the Orange Bowl to boo their own team during the brawl against Florida International? I think it wouldn't just be valid, it's appropriate, it might be inappropriate not to.

b) Taunting or Hot Dogging. This would be a rare situation, and one I don't know if I've ever seen it happen. I've seen fans boo a player for another team that has danced, taunted or done something else to draw attention to himself after a play. Fans, often older fans especially, frequently rant about how taunting, hot dogging, or whatever other attention-seeking actions have brought some disgrace to the game. You hear plenty of people not liking it when even your own team's players do these sort of things. The problem is that typically such actions are taking place after a good play, and it's not like fans are going to interrupt cheering for the play in order to boo the dance afterward. But could there be a situation where a player gets booed by his own fans for celebrating or taunting? I think there are a lot of fans who could rationalize booing a player as a result of this. The question is... say a player gets flagged for unsportsmanlike behavior as a result of taunting or celebration, and the flag causes something detrimental to the team. Could fans then boo the player? I think this is a close call, and I'd argue that it is probably a defensible boo. On the other hand, perhaps fans should expect the coaches to handle taunting or hot dogging and do not need to resort to booing to prevent such behavior in the future. That gets into the question of usefulness.

c) Poor Effort. For whatever reasons, booing seems more prevalent or memorable in baseball. Perhaps it's the way that the pace of the game and how there's not too many moving pieces that allows fans to follow the action more and engage in a sort of conversation with the players. But in any event, you see booing of poor effort pretty often in baseball. A hitter fails to leg out a booted ball and gets thrown out. An outfielder lobs the ball in and allows a baserunner to advance. In football, this is a little harder to spot, but it happens possibly more often. Wide receivers stop running routes. A tailback (like, say, Patrick Pass) runs out of bounds a full 6 yards shorter than he could've in order to avoid getting hit. Defensive Backs stopping their pursuit when a player gets behind them. Linemen give up trying to block once their guy gets behind them. These aren't mental mistakes. These aren't physical inadequacies. These are purely situations where the player could have made a better effort, but, for whatever reason, didn't. Is it reasonably defensible to boo a player for this? In the professional ranks, there's no question about it - booing is not only acceptable, but players should probably expect it. In college athletics, should effort from the players be expected just as much? Should receiving a salary have anything to do with putting forth effort? Should a poor effort be called to question? I'd argue possibly. Again, this could be another situation where booing won't serve much of a purpose - ideally the coaching staff will do what they need to to prevent this in the future. So whether it's the right thing or a particularly useful thing to do might be questionable, but I think booing a player for not making an effort is probably somewhat valid.

d) Mental and Physical Errors. This is the class of on-field actions that probably shouldn't be grounds for booing college athletes. Physical inadequacies should probably be never booed. I can't think of a single situation when there can be any grounds for doing this (and perhaps dropped passes fits in this category). As for mental errors, that's a slightly closer call, I think. I can understand the grounds for booing or a mental error under two circumstances. First, when the mental mistake is COLOSSAL and directly and completely alters the position of the game. I can understand a Georgia Tech fan booing Reggie Ball for not knowing the down and distance and throwing away a chance at winning the game. That's a mental mistake so looming that it changed the game. Now, the risk you take in booing a player is that for a mental mistake, sometimes the position coach or the head coach is equally at fault (more on that in a second). The second situation is when a player makes the same mental mistake again and again and the repeated indiscretions cost the team. I've seen or heard a few people this week say how Massaquoi shouldn't have been booed, but Daniel Inman should've because of his repeated false starts (and oddly, that argument sometimes follows the "you should never, ever, ever boo college athletes" line of debate). I think in the case of multiple mental mistakes, they really have to be egregious, and repeated to come close to making booing a valid reaction. Again, the question of whether booing a mental mistake is the right thing to do or whether it would be particularly useful is an entirely different question - and under the mental mistake situation, it's probably clearer that booing is less "right" than, say, in a cheap shot situation.

So I think there are situations where booing college athletes might be defensible - taunting, cheap shots, poor effort, and extremely egregious mental errors. Now, that does not address the other issue - whether it's useful. I have no idea whether boos motivate players. I doubt it has much effect on the player addressed, exept maybe to weaken confidence (the reverse of what is hoped for). It does, however, have an effect upon the appearance of the fans. Booing appears unclassy - and the arguments that booing affects perception of a program (for recruiting, press coverage, even self-esteem) I believe are salient.

But there's one other issue regarding booing that I think should be raised, and one I think has a direct impact on the discussion about Massaquoi.

What if the booing isn't directed at the player? Can fans of a college football team boo the coaching staff? They're highly paid professionals. The fans' ticket purchases fund the coaching staff's salaries. Shouldn't the staff be held accountable? And why can't fans voice their displeasure at the coaching staff in the stadium? I see no problem with fans voicing their displeasure at mental mistakes or strategic errors by the coaching staff. The problem is... how can fans voice displeasure if booing the players isn't "right"? If a coaching staff calls a particular passing play that has been intercepted 3 times prior a 4th time, and it gets picked off again (which is exactly what happened in the 2000 UGA-USC game), I think fans should be able to boo the playcall - but how can they do that when by all appearances, it just looks like fans are booing the QB who threw the picks. Where is the line between a valid booing of the coaching staff, and an invalid booing of the players?

And with Massaquoi (and Quincy Carter in the past), I think there's a grey area at play here. Massaquoi was not having a good game. He had fumbled and had two previous drops. It is a valid criticism to ask why the coaching staff continued to have him in the game, let alone with plays called where the ball would be thrown his way. Is booing the coaching staff for the personnel they've directed on the field and the playcalling valid? Was the bronx cheer when Massaquoi was pulled out of the game directed at the WR coach as much or more than Massaquoi himself? I think that might be the case. So where is the line?

I think I need to be a little clearer here too. I think there's a distinction between whether booing is valid, and whether booing is right (or advantageous). I take the position that booing can be valid at certain times. As to whether it's useful or proper, I don't know, but I may lean towards it never being particularly so.