Days of Rage, and a fan’s license

No matter how hard your job is, imagine being the social media coordinator for FC Barcelona.

You could post a picture of Barça puppies, and the replies would be filled with stuff like, “Terrorist Valverde,” “Valverde out,” “Ruined club” and invective aimed at various players. And there is some poor person sitting at a laptop, wondering just what is wrong with people and the way they function in the universe.

Even given the anonymity of social media, some of the supporter reactions are beyond the pale and you know what? We should be better. It’s easy to forget that players are humans, too, easy to forget that though they make more in a season than most of us will make in our entire working lives, they are human. They have hopes, dreams, families, feelings. They, like us, can be bruised by a mean-spirited, hurtful comment, and we should care more. We should care, period.

Whatever you do at work, imagine screwing up. Now imagine going to social media and having your mentions filled with people raging at you, wishing death for you and your family. Imagine people sitting behind your desk, watching what you do, assessing and commenting on it in the meanest, most hate-filled ways.

Hard to imagine, right? Then think about the last time someone said something awful about you to your face, or when you heard that something awful was said about you. The thing about muscles is that the more you work them, the stronger they get, Empathy is a muscle, one that on social media is so weak as to almost be atrophied from disuse. That isn’t right.

As supporters, we love our club, support the team that is part of that club. We buy shirts, go to matches, follow social media goings on. We’re passionate and committed to the thing, the players, the people who make it go. But the danger of passion is when it morphs into license, when we let it be whipped into a froth by a big Twitter account, by the social media horde ready and willing to pile on, to find any target for our wrath. If you can’t imagine, for an instant, how it would feel if that target was you, take your empathy muscle to the gym. Now.

The way some supporters act, rooted in rage and anger, is unacceptable. Sometimes it’s even hate speech. Barça right now is waiting to resume Champions League, having come off winning with ease the most difficult group of the tournament. It is leading the Liga standings by two points. And even as you think, “Yeah, if results are enough for you … ” take a moment. Imagine how other fanbases must think Barça supporters are goofy, how our team wins and we have nothing good to say about it, about anyone except Messi. #valverdeout

Being a suppoter is being analytical, being critical, being loving and (here’s the derivation of the word) even supportive at times. What we seem to have lost is that last bit. We’re expectant, we’re angry, but we aren’t all that supportive. Exulting when things go exactly right isn’t the same as being supportive. When video was released of Jordi Alba, weeping in the dressing room at halftime of the Champions League match at Anfield, the reaction was appalling. But the challenge would have been to stop, just for an instant, and imagine something of how Alba must have felt. The pressure, the worry, the sense of impending doom. We scream about Rome as supporters, but we can’t imagine being a player. We think we can. but we can’t. We scream and bellow our indignation at the things that we feel, from shame to rage, but we have risked nothing, have essentially lost nothing.

My initial reaction at seeing the Alba video is that Valverde should have subbed him off. Immediately. My more measured reaction at seeing that Alba video was to think about my first day as a full-time reporter, writing three articles that next day, I had to write corrections from two of. That feeling of chagrin, shame, inadequacy, of wondering if you’re good enough to do a job that you’re being paid to do. It’s easy to forget that athletes are us, writ large. That they make untold millions makes us think that money insulates them from humanity, from the crap that we fling at them. That moment, laid bare, was as pure and human as we might ever see an athlete. Jordi Alba was us, any of us, and too many of us spit on him for being weak, for being like us.

Anger isn’t good. It makes us do things we almost always regret later. It’s called the “red mist” because it obscures. Red isn’t black, but it is every bit as opaque. It’s hard not to be angry, and we wouldn’t be human if we weren’t angry. But it’s worth taking a moment to consider why we’re angry. Our team lost a match. What have we lost, really? Our team isn’t playing as perfectly as we would like. Okay. The coach isn’t doing what we would like him to do. So now what? Ah. Let’s take to social media and use that anger to wear like stigmata. The biggest failure of anger is that it makes us want to cause someone else pain, to match the pain that we feel inside, because anger is pain, like a psychic wound. But instead of saying “Ouch,” it makes us lash out as we fire up that most destructive of emotions.

Grouse, critique, analyze, bellow. Do it all. Being a supporter provides license, but not the license that we think. It doesn’t provide license to be awful, to cause pain. The worst part about anger is that it’s addictive and additive. Once it starts, we need more of it, to slake the need for fuel. A bad performance becomes a portent of doom. A bad move becomes the idea that the club is, somehow, going to collapse. Anger leaves us at our worst, but emotion comes with responsibility, just as humanity does. Anger is the most and least human of emotions, but it’s also worth understanding anger vs disappointment.

Barça is going to disappoint us. Sooner rather than later. With that disappointment will come sadness. Anger is often related to disappointment. But what’s really in it for us, as supporters? What rights and obligations do we have? When people hurled monkey chants at Antonio Rudiger on the weekend, their disappointment at seeing a key player for their team sent off became anger, which led to lashing out. They, like so many of us, probably felt justified at having that rage. “It’s my right as a supporter to feel this way.”

No, it isn’t. You can be sad, angry, disappointed, chagrined. But at your core, the challenge is to never, ever forget that you’re human, watching another human struggle to excel at their job just as you do at yours. And if they fail, have emotion, but have understanding because you know what? At some point, we all suck. And ask yourself if you want someone who supports you giving you a hug, or calling you an asshole.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.