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Peter Schaffer
NFL Agent

Peter Schaffer

Agent and professor of sports law

Bird Ain't the Word

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Detroit's starting center Dominic Raiola's response to an agitated fan following a recent loss represents an interesting commentary on the obligations of professional athletes in this era of intense media and public scrutiny. The question is when, if ever, is it appropriate for a professional athlete to respond to heckling from an impassioned fan?

It is very easy to be a "Monday Morning Quarterback" and critique athletes for their responses while in the heat of battle. The reality is that very few people are ever placed in the precarious position of having paying fans holler and heckle them while they are at work. However, a professional and dignified response is always the best course of action. The short and simple answer is that a highly compensated and rewarded athlete should always endeavor to act as a role model, a professional and a leader in our society. With the tremendous benefits bestowed upon such athletes come obligations and responsibilities.

Gone are the old, idealistic days when hometown players were revered and honored, win or lose, by the fans of their teams. Remember when the beloved and hapless New York Mets of Casey Stengel were not ridiculed but beloved? Gone, too, are the days when the paying fans reserved ridicule of their hometown heroes for the post-game bar. It used to be that sports figures like Mickey Mantle were worshiped for their on and off the field exploits, which served to entertain nearly as much as their home runs did. Today, fans all too often exercise their right to publicly express their own disgust at poorly executed plays, unfair calls or players who have missed opportunities.

The paying and loyal fans have every right to express their dissatisfaction, especially when they also express their satisfaction when their teams succeed. While ideally this would be done in a proper and positive manner, it remains the fan's right to complain. The fans are the people who at the end of the day pay the salaries for the players, and thus profit for the teams.

A professional athlete, on the other hand, has higher responsibilities that should always preclude them from responding to the negative ire of a fan's discontent. A professional athlete should never respond or be bated into a public argument or debate with a fan for any reason. They must show restraint and a calm demeanor at all times. The players and the teams, unlike the fans, have the forums and ability via press conferences, television and radio shows and interviews to come out later and discuss anything that is on their minds and respond to praise and criticism. At the right time, in the right tone and well past the heat of the moment, they can say how disappointed they may be in their fan's lack of support; but they must and should express these feelings professionally.

The athlete is a role model to all fans, not just heckling ones, and must act accordingly. Acting in a manner that mirror's an out of control fan's rage, no matter how frustrated or disappointed that player may be himself, is never acceptable. This only serves to hurt the credibility of the player, their team and the game itself.

And remember, standing in that stadium, the roar you hear is most likely a cheer... not a jeer.

By Peter Schaffer  |  December 10, 2008; 8:20 AM ET  | Category:  Detriot Lions , Fans Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Peter:

As always, well written. Your premise about pro athletes being privileged role models who are held to a higher standard is spot on. Raiola’s actions were inexcusable and reprehensible, but at the same time they’re understandable. I don’t think fans (or readers of your column) fully appreciate what it takes to compete at this level. To pour everything into your craft and yet be mercilessly ridiculed in a public forum would challenge anyone, including working people sitting in the stands…it’s human nature. It still doesn’t excuse Dominic for what he did.

An interesting angle to your topic would be that everyone, fans included, should be held to a standard of human decency. While fans may purchase a right for freedom of expression, they should not cross the line. And somebody definitely crossed the line to provoke Raiola’s reaction. Too many people hide behind their “right” or “freedom of expression” where the barometer for all should really be act as though you are being judged at all times…because you are. In fact the NFL is trying to crack down on unruly fan behavior through stadium and game day best practices. So even Joe Fan should be a role model too! A simple yet powerful concept called respect for one another.

Posted by: Jim | December 11, 2008 12:57 PM

Whether the players like it or not they are role models and the heroes of young boys. unfortunately sports today is such a big business that owners, players and the press no longer seem to have the same common goals and cultural values that not only have made our country so great but also have enabled sports to grow beyond what was ever imagined years ago. In kinder more gentle times all the interested parties honored restraint on their on selfish freedoms and personal self interests, feeling a responsibility to a higher moral and ethical level. There were exceptions of course, but for the most part when there were interlocking loyalties between owners , players and the press, players used their short sports careers as merely a means to later careers in the community where they played, being very careful to create the sort of image that would endear them to insure their future. I don't have the answer to the "slippery slope" we are now on as a society, but sooner or later, if there is not some sort of turn around, I believe professional sports as we know it, as a reflection of the times, will be experiencing its own demise

Posted by: Lynn | December 11, 2008 7:29 PM

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