Fans behaving badly

Fans feel comfortable shouting just about anything they want at athletes such as Carmelo Anthony. Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

One of the most prominent jerseys in Seattle is No. 12, which represents the Seahawks' 12th man, which means a huge number of Seahawks fans walk around town and attend games wearing their own jerseys and not those of a player.

It's an interesting sociological and psychological phenomenon. On the surface, it seems to be a healthier alternative, free of the idolatry and personal belittlement that comes with putting a stranger's name and number on your back. By representing yourself, you're an independent contractor, a person with a stated allegiance but without an outward sign of subjugation.

The No. 12 jersey is also an implicit suggestion that you, as a fan wearing a fan's jersey, are not simply a bystander but a participant with a job to do. They raise the No. 12 flag; the game starts; and you get to work making as much noise as possible. You can, in some small way, affect the outcome. This is a slice of psychological and marketing genius.

There's a progressive feel to it, too, sort of next-level fandom, and, although the behavior inside the stadium might not be any better than anywhere else -- I haven't attended a game there -- the thinking behind it seems like a step forward.

And if there's one thing we need in the area of fan behavior, it's progress.

It's not popular to talk about incivility. We've entered a post-civility era, where everyone understands that nobody really means anything they write online or scream from the stands. It's all in good fun or it's ironic or you just can't take a joke, right?

Guys get drunk and say stupid things, but the stadium or the ballpark has become some sort of protected zone, where every day is Halloween and everybody gets back to their normal lives on Monday morning, hoping to have a good story to tell.

Nobody means anything because to actually mean it -- to own the vitriol that is directed at players or officials -- would require taking responsibility for those words, and that's ridiculous because that guy makes $10 million a year and needs to sack up. Isn't that the distilled version of much of the current discourse in sports?

It struck again, in a decidedly minor key, Wednesday night in Madison Square Garden. Anyone who cares about sports knew within hours that a 76ers fan who attended the Knicks' loss that night claimed Carmelo Anthony had sworn at him.

Whether true or not, the fan took to Twitter to brag about it and glorify himself. He claims to have said something derogatory about Anthony's defense -- his version is, of course, G-rated -- and his version of Anthony's response was rated R. Job well done, right? He got under Anthony's skin and made him respond. The fan -- again, assuming it's true -- essentially shouted "Look at me!" and Anthony did. How great is that?

Here's where we are: A fan can say what he wants, within some broad band of reason, and, if an athlete gets bothered enough to respond in kind, well, you know how it works -- that athlete can go and do the anatomically impossible.

A lot of rational people, especially those with kids, wouldn't dream of buying tickets to an NFL game because the scene has too often become a bottom-feeding parade of drunkenness, debauchery and vulgarity. Baseball games are generally more sedate but are not immune to senseless stupidity. To prove that point, Giants third-base coach Tim Flannery and his band, the Lunatic Fringe, are embarking on their third offseason of benefit concerts for Giants fan Bryan Stow, who was brutally attacked and left with permanent brain damage outside Dodger Stadium on Opening Day 2011. His crime: wearing the wrong jersey.

How did we get here? Is it the money players make? Is that what gives people license to act in a subhuman nature? Does an athlete's pay stub come with a chart telling him how much abuse he is expected to take relative to the numbers on the check?

Is it the cost of the ticket? Does it confer a level of freedom that wouldn't be allowed in a less-confined public venue? In other words, if someone pays a significant amount of money to watch a game being played by exorbitantly wealthy athletes, can he say whatever he wants without fear of reprisal from the target of his idiocy?

Is it a byproduct of talk radio, where callers are often rewarded for taking their unresolved issues out for a public walk? Is it the ownership fans have come to feel in fantasy-league culture?

The most common pop-culture depiction comes from the Beats headphone commercials, where Colin Kaepernick or Kevin Garnett deals with physical and verbal abuse from fans as he makes his way to the stadium or arena. The scenes are over-the-top ridiculous, but they work as fun-house mirror looks at a real problem. They also underscore -- through a product, but still -- how remarkably well athletes tune out. There's no doubt that Anthony has heard far worse than that comment about his defense (again, if true) on Wednesday night and every night. When you sit close to the field or court and hear the stuff that goes on, you realize it takes a willful defiance to keep from responding.

Unfortunately, that defiance and self-control come from years of practice.