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Opinion: Inoculations Against Toxicity

Our support must drown out our frustration on game days.

keep calm and stop booing

Trying to light a log that's lain in the damp
as long as this house has stood:
even with dry sticks I can't get started
even with thorns.
I twist last year into a knot of old headlines
—this rose won't bloom.

Adrienne Rich, "The Phenomenology of Anger"

All these things entered you
As if they were both the door and what came through it.

Seamus Heaney, "Markings"

When the equalizer went in, I stood up and stared, my mouth open, shocked (it felt) at the sheer audacity of it. It was as though I had staked everything on blind trust, and that trust had been betrayed. I pounded my hat against the empty seat in front of me (its occupant had left early, damned optimist). I walked to the aisle, intending to leave before the whistle to make a "point," paused, walked back (my mouth was still open), and sat down just in time for the whistle to blow. And I sat. And finally I booed.

I’ve been able to forget about my strange dance of disappointment. But a day and change later, I’m still embarrassed at booing. One of my most closely held beliefs regarding any sport is that you don’t boo your own team: you boo the ref, basically no matter what the circumstance, and you boo the other team for whatever reprehensible trash they get up to (hitting the ball with their feet, hitting it with their heads, etc.). But only the worst variety of miscreant boos their own. And now I find myself among those ranks.

There’s nothing wrong with being upset and showing it. The passion of the thing is why we sign up in the first place. But eventually, you sort of have to ask where the limits are, and from there you have to ask:

At what point do we risk becoming toxic?

Admittedly, it’s a touchy subject for me, because I’m part of two fanbases who are pretty routinely criticized, NYCFC and Arsenal. There are more similarities: both teams regularly underperform, considering the talent on the pitch, and both have pretty dubious records at home. (NYCFC has more plausible excuses for both shortcomings.) Defiantly of the "Wenger In" persuasion, I spent the end of the EPL season dismayed by the protests of the manager even though I think change should and will happen in the next few years. And although Wenger was apparently trying to commit suicide-by-media when he suggested that the fans were creating a "sceptical" atmosphere at home—saying he "couldn’t understand why, at the moment when you need everyone behind the team, in such an important moment, we had to hit that storm"—I found myself taking his side. The reason is that I think there’s an important insight in his comments about the circularity of booing.

The problem, in short, is that giving crap to your own team creates the conditions in which they’re more likely to fail, meaning you to give them the same crap all over again. It’s the same logic as in the Heaney quote, which I’ve taken badly out of context from a poem called "Markings" (which, by the way, begins with a passage about pickup soccer). "All these things entered you / As if they were both the door and what came through it" seems to me to represent this circularity perfectly, something that creates the conditions for its own existence, forging an opening ("the door) in which it can then appear("c[o]me through it"). The main question regarding the topic at hand is whether vocal displays of displeasure actually do make a difference in the performances on the pitch.

Let me be perfectly clear: I’m not blaming the fans for the team’s frustrating inability to see out a game, nor the calamity of the Red Bull Wedding, which can only be explained by cosmic rays or Mix selling his soul to Satan to score against Germany that one time. But if it’s a matter of having the proverbial "twelfth player" at home or not, or even just making it slightly easier for the actual players to forget about everything else and focus on the game, anything that might help is worth considering. Even if it makes no difference whatsoever, there's the experience of being a supporter to be considered, which in toxic conditions becomes tantamount to showing up for a collective rage-seizure.

I don’t actually know if anyone else was booing at the end of the Orlando game or not, being in a kind of a fugue state at the time, so I might have been the lone sad sack embarrassing everyone else. But I’m (obviously) also kind of thinking of the Lampard thing. I’m annoyed with him, though mainly with the front office and CFG, for the way every aspect of his tenure at NYCFC has been handled. I’m also far from sure that booing him makes any sense, which is why I haven’t done so and won’t. No matter how many overtures he and Vieira make to the team’s professionalism and ability to shut all that out, who actually believes that there aren’t a few moments after coming on to boos—maybe important moments, where focus would make a difference—that he has to waste trying not to think about it?

Maybe Lampard has the experience to roll with it, but it’s clearly on the minds of some of the other players. Jack Harrison recently tweeted defending Lampard and asking why people are booing, which I admire as much as I think tweeting about it is a terrible idea. (He appears to also be reading the replies, God help him.) But if he was moved to make a response, we can at least be sure it’s probably still on his mind. If that’s something he thinks about years down the line when, say, a team in the Championship offers to bring him back to England, will booing Lampard have been worth it? What about when he comes on Thursday against Real Salt Lake? And when people yell stuff at Saunders because they want Vieira to give Johansen a run: even if Saunders can’t hear it, is it worth the risk that he will?

If there’s an argument here, it’s to keep looking forward when it comes to expressing ourselves from the stands. The home form is like Adrienne Rich’s "log that’s lain in the damp / as long as this house has stood" in her aptly named "Phenomenology of Anger": it's been ever-present, and trying to light it by "twist[ing] last year into a knot of old headlines" is useless. It makes it more likely that we’ll repeat last year instead of building on it, or at the very least that this year will feel more like the last one.

Hudson River Blue has been on the forefront of trying to figure out what the hell was actually going on with Ball Park Frank, rightly blaming him for what is ultimately his responsibility. I think we should all be critical of him and everyone else in the front office or at CFG who mishandled things so badly. This article is more about considering what we express in the stadium as a function of getting what we want—both in terms of the results and the experience of supporting.

At the Emirates during the protests and at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, there was some toxic fandom—but there was ultimately more of the antidote. Chants of "One Arsène Wenger" drowned out anything the "Wenger Out" contingent could muster. Likewise, when Lampard came on, there was a palpable effort by the majority to drown out the boos with cheers. I, for one, take that as a marching order. Let’s make the support louder than the frustration.