Andy McGeady: When an encounter becomes a collision
Physically taking it to over-zealous fans is a risky business for professional athletes
Toulouse’s Irish player Trevor Brennan punches an Ulster fan ahead of a Heineken Cup match in 2007 Photograph: Pascal Pavani/AFP/Getty Images)
“Roy, will you be the best there ever was in the game?” “That’s right.” She pulled the trigger (thrum of bull fiddle). - The Natural, Bernard Malamud, 1952
Thankfully, violent encounters between sports people and fans are relatively rare. Fan is a derivation of “fanatic”, a word that might well be a more accurate descriptor applied to those spectators who insert themselves into the storyline of a sporting event or into the lives of those with whom they have developed some sort of hateful obsession. There is a code to fandom. Watch, jeer, cheer. But don’t actually interfere with the spectacle. In the 2015 Tour de France, this code was broken.
Booing? Generally fine, unless attending an event that traditionally demands silence. Golf, tennis and snooker would certainly not approve. Frowns too in some rugby grounds if one were to boo while a place kick was being attempted. Targeting individual players on a consistent basis? Also tiresome.
But in general for a spectator viewing a team sport, it’s fair game to fill your lungs and let all the frustration out. Like booing, singing and chanting will generally be most effective as a team effort. The solo verbal sniper can go both ways: the type that offers pointed and witty barbs in a melodic voice carrying over the stands can be a joy; the cheapshot artist hurling vulgar abuse is unneeded and unwanted.
An outsider affecting the event itself disrupts those natural boundaries of sporting theatre. Jeffrey Maier was 12 in October 1996 when he held out his glove to try to catch a Derek Jeter fly ball, interfering with the efforts of the visiting Baltimore Orioles’ fielder to do the same.
Baltimore protests went unheard and Maier would become a child hero etched in Yankee playoff lore. Steve Bartman wasn’t so lucky, the Cubs fan scapegoated when he, like Maier, tried to catch a fly ball. With Cubs fielder Moises Alou visibly irate at being blocked from making the catch, Bartman was an instant pariah in his own city.
HD TV led to golf suffering in its own precise and officious way. Pádraig Harrington’s was disqualified from the 2011 Abu Dhabi championship after his ball moved almost imperceptively while he was removing his marker. Nobody could have reasonably spotted it at the time, least of all the golfer himself, but an email arrived from a viewer pointing out the indiscretion; unwanted armchair interference that led to the golfing rulebook, proven to be behind the technological times, being updated.
That’s all at the low end of the scale. Irish referee Dave McHugh had a shoulder dislocated after an on-field attack by a South African fan in 2002. Tony Cascarino’s attempts to leave the field at full time after Ireland’s 1999 playoff at Turkey’s Ataturk Stadium were assisted by local fans’ fists.
Monica Seles, stabbed in her chair in Hamburg, was fortunate that the boning knife between her shoulder blades did not do more damage. First baseman Eddie Waitkus, possible inspiration for Bernard Malamud’s Roy Hobbs in The Natural, published in 1952, was shot in the chest with a rifle by an obsessed fan in a hotel room in 1949.
Such fanatics will be caught and led away, some barred for life from a ground and others also investigated by the authorities on a criminal basis. Who knows why they do it? Their names and images associated forever with a moment of madness, or several such moments in the case of former Irish priest Neil Horan. The sports person who goes after a fan, however, plays a much riskier game. They play roulette with their profession.
Climb onto the rink
Times have changed since 1992 when Buffalo Sabres ice hockey player Rob Ray landed 15 punches on a Quebec fan who dared climb onto the rink and approach the Buffalo bench. He suffered no suspension. Twelve years later NBA forward Ron Artest would be less lucky when the Indiana Pacer leapt into the Detroit crowd to attack a fan who he thought had thrown beer at him. Artest (now known as Metta World Peace) would be suspended for 86 games.
Eric Cantona’s kung-fu lunge into the Selhurst Park stands earned him a nine month ban from the English Football Association, while Trevor Brennan’s violent manhandling of an Ulster fan while warming up for a Heineken Cup match finished the Barnhall man’s career.
Chris Froome was, it’s fair to say, not wholly beloved as the 2015 Tour de France winner. He was spat at by a fan. His Sky team-mate, Australian Richie Porte, claimed to have been punched. Worst of all, Froome said that he had been on the receiving end of a cup of urine hurled in his face.
Although questions might be asked about any cyclist who wins Le Tour in these less innocent times, as of now Froome is clean. On Sunday the Kenyan-born British cyclist sipped champagne on a rain-sodden final day with his team car running beside. With the race won, tradition demands these things. After the abuse hurled by the crowd over the previous weeks, one can probably allow him that.