ESPN’s Mike Greenberg on how fan behavior is getting worse and what can be done to improve it
People who lean toward cynicism tend to feel one of two ways about sportscasters. They either think that commentators are jaded members of the sports industrial complex who view games as a business, or that they are just regular fans who do nothing but watch sports all day and still aren’t half as knowledgeable as a coworker from accounts receivable. While distrust of the sports media may not rival that of the news media, you don’t have to work too hard to find examples that prove both sentiments. That’s a big part of what makes Mike Greenberg so refreshing.
Those who listen to or watch ESPN’s morning drive show “Mike & Mike” will readily acknowledge that Greenie is one of the sharpest and smartest pundits in sports. In a genre that is increasingly dominated by he-who-yells-loudest-wins personalities, Greenberg manages to be a voice of reason. Sports fans listen to him, not because of his volume, but because he actually has something to say. He doesn’t just pick a side of a debate and argue it with reckless abandon. Instead, he is able to see both sides of an issue and deliver thoughtful insights and rational discourse. Even if you don’t agree with what he’s saying, he still earns your respect.
Greenberg isn’t just a wonk, though. You can tell he still genuinely loves and cares about sports. He’s seen it all (before ESPN, Greenberg was a reporter in Chicago covering Michael Jordan’s heyday) and still retains an undiminished enthusiasm for the games he talks about on the air. As “Mike & Mike” listeners know, Greenberg is a rabid fan of the New York Jets—growing up, he attended games back when the team played in Shea Stadium (R.I.P.)—and his fandom has not ebbed even as the team’s fortunes have.
However, Greenberg has noticed another trend among sports fans that gives him pause. Basically, it involves fans losing their damn minds and using the cloak of anonymity to act, as Greenberg says, “subhuman”—either while attending games in person or reacting to them away from the arena. The latest ugly example came when NCAA referee Joe Higgins received death threats from University of Kentucky fans after officiating the Wildcats’ Elite Eight loss to North Carolina. Seeing instances like this inspired Greenberg to partner with Dove Men+Care on the brand’s “Real Strength Manifesto” campaign. The 100-word manifesto, which is cosigned by NCAA greats like Jim Calhoun, Paul Pierce, and Alonzo Mourning, celebrates what’s great about being fan, while discouraging behavior that can ruin the experience. We spoke with Greenberg to discuss the current state of sports fandom, the cause of the ugliness, and what can be done to prevent it in the future.
Can you identify the moment when you first became a sports fan?
Yes, I think I can. I certainly can identify the collective experience. I was raised in a family of crazy sports fans. My mother grew up walking distance from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. My father was as passionate a sports fan as you've ever met in your life. The topic of conversation around dinner tables was always sports. It was the only consideration that we all bonded over. As I've said many times, the best memories of my childhood are of going to games with my parents. I sincerely hope someday my kids say the same thing.
What I have noticed with great dismay is the behavior at times of fans is at minimum disruptive, and in worst-case scenarios, absolutely destroying the experience. I know a lot of parents that don’t want to take their kids to games. And I know a lot of kids that don't want to go. That’s bordering on tragic. It is a delightful, communal experience and a rite of passage that I would hate to see any kids deprived of. We go to these games and we root for our teams and when they win, we're happy, and when they lose we're unhappy. That's fine. The best example of that is I went to see my Northwestern basketball team play in the NCAA tournament in Salt Lake City a few weeks ago. I went to the Thursday game and we won and it was euphoric. Then I went to the Saturday game and we lost and, of course, I was incredibly disappointed. But when we were walking out, I was with a bunch of Gonzaga fans and we were all high-fiving. It was a great game, and I was wishing them well. That's the way it should be.
What sport inspires the most passion from fans?
Football for sure. That is both in a positive and a negative way. All of the great things about being a sports fan are on display at every football game you ever attend. And all of the worst things about being a sports fan are very much equally on display.
Have you experienced any negative incidents attending games with your own kids?
I took my son to his first NFL game, a Jet game, when he was 5. He's now 14. The Jets were playing the Bengals, and there were a bunch of guys in Bengals jerseys in front of us. I was chatting with them. It was fine. Then the Bengals start winning, winning, and I start realizing that people around me are throwing stuff at them. They were young guys in their 20s, and they were getting aggravated. It was getting serious. I could tell my son was aware of it. I don't think he could really identify what was going on, but he could tell that it wasn't great. It was interfering with his ability to enjoy the game. After a while, I was afraid that if I said, ‘Do you want to get out of here?’ he would've said, ‘Yes.’ That's horrible. I have no recollection of that when I was a kid. I grew up with Shea Stadium and we went to every Jet home game. I certainly remember people being loud, but I never felt the least bit uncomfortable. I never felt the least bit unsafe.
What was your reaction when you heard about the referee in the North Carolina–Kentucky Elite Eight game receiving death threats afterward?
Shouldn't some things just go without saying? People are saying, “Does John Calipari have an obligation to tell fans to stop doing this?’ Do you really need to be told not to send death threats to a human being? Do you really need to be told not to log onto a person's Facebook business page and post phony reports about the way he does his other job because you're upset with the way he officiated a basketball game? It's not even human behavior. Somehow we have allowed our fandom to take us away from the very basic principles of living in a society.
Can you envision any solutions to this problem?
I don't think it's actually that complicated. I think people should just look at this manifesto and do what it says. Just behave like a fan instead of behaving like a jerk. Choose sportsmanship over sides. Believe fouls between players should not cause fights between fans. These are not complicated thoughts. They are just simple common sense that would apply without saying in practically any other social circumstance. At the end of the day, your team losing should not mean that the entirety of your sports-going experience was terrible. Obviously you want your team to win and are disappointed when they lose. But you're still going there on your leisure time to enjoy the experience, and you still can regardless of the outcome of the game.
Sports culture used to rely heavily on hero worship. Do you think that is still the case or have we become more interested in seeing the mighty fall?
I think the biggest issue, candidly, is envy. With the explosion in popularity and economic success that sports have seen, the players have gotten further away from the fans. My father's generation of sports fans might see a ballplayer in the same bar that you were in after the game at night. He might buy you a drink and you might buy him a drink. Guys used to have other jobs in the off-season. Now these guys are major celebrities and they're wealthy beyond people's wildest imaginations. That has created a lot of envy. We look at people and say, ‘He's just playing a game, why should all of these wonderful spoils be his?’ Which doesn't really make any sense if you think about it. That (envy) has driven a lot of the negativity more than anything else.
Are there positive acts of sports fandom that give you hope?
Let's point to every single game you ever go to: A player goes down and gets injured. The training staff comes out and attends to him and he gets up and walks off the field and what does everyone do? Everyone applauds the fact that he’s ok. We support you regardless, because you're a human being. Fans of both sides do that. Why do we lose that the rest of the time? I have nothing against the passion that comes with normal sports fandom. If you're going to boo the opposition, go ahead and do it. If you're going to boo a referee who makes a bad call, go ahead and do it. But there's a line that shouldn't have to be pointed out, and should just be obvious, that should not be crossed in these things.
Is it hard to be a member of the media and still be a fan?
It's not hard at all. It's certainly not an original thought, but sports is the only reality television that is real. That's why sports have become more popular than ever. People want to see real human beings striving for some goal, and they don't want it to be scripted. My passion for watching the very best in the world compete has not only not waned, but in an increasingly complicated society, it has grown. It is wonderful to root for your team with every ounce of energy that you have. It is wonderful to feel exhilaration when they win, and it is wonderful in its own way to feel devastation when they lose because there aren't any real consequences for you.