Once again we have an example of how athletes and fans relate to spectator sports. As it has often been lately, this one comes from the world of soccer. David Beckham, a fine soccer player who has been called overrated for so long that he’s probably underrated, did certain things that made sense to him. He came to play for Los Angeles in MLS … got paid lots of money, got the new experience of living in America, got to introduce himself on the field of play to an entire new group of fans. He never denied that playing for England is his #1 priority. During the offseason between the 2008 and 2009 MLS seasons, Beckham was loaned to AC Milan, one of the biggest clubs in the world and a fine showcase for Beckham’s skills as he tried to continue to impress England national manager Fabio Capello (who played and coached at Milan). Beckham was scheduled to return to Los Angeles for the start of the 2009 MLS season.
During his stay in Milan, Beckham said he wanted to stay in Italy. A sale did not occur, but the loan was extended to July. This allowed Becks to finish the Italian season (they play on a different schedule than MLS), after which he would join Los Angeles in mid-July.
There is nothing odd about this from David Beckham’s perspective. He wants to play, in particular for the English national team, he wants to get paid, he wants high-level competition … and, for some reason, he also wants to play at least part of the time in America.
From the perspective of the Los Angeles fans, though, Beckham’s actions mark him as a traitorous punk. He came to LA, led the team to … well, to nothing … sold a lot of jerseys, then took off the first chance he got for Italy, from where he announced that he didn’t want to come back to the States. There is nothing odd about this from the fan’s perspective. An expensive superstar used MLS (not that they didn’t use him right back), and crapped on LA fans.
And so, of course, on his return to Los Angeles in a Galaxy uniform, he was booed by the fans of his own team. The Riot Squad, the primary group of fanatical Galaxy fans (and they’re good at what they do, as much as it pains me to say it as an Earthquakes fan who hates them), may not represent Betty Joe in the crowd who loves Becks and Posh, but they most certainly do represent fans who believe in club over pretty much everything. As they see it, Beckham’s a punk, and they let him know.
Beckham eventually went over to the section in the stands where the Riot Squad attends matches and challenged them to come on down. One of them did … the cops immediately threw him down, and he is now apparently banned for life from attending Galaxy matches. Meanwhile, David Beckham didn’t even get as much as a reprimand from the league. [see below for more]
Right or wrong, better or worse, a fan looks at an athlete and sees a jersey, not a person. They want to know that the athlete respects the jersey. And when the athlete moves on to other teams, as they almost always do, the way they speak of their previous fans says a lot about how they will be treated by those fans. David Beckham doesn’t give two shits about the Galaxy jersey, and that’s why his own fans booed him.
I’ll finish with a baseball example, since most people reading this don’t care about soccer. Brett Butler was a terrific leadoff hitter and centerfielder for the Giants for three years between 1988-90. When he left the team, he could have easily become one of those players who are still treated well when they come to San Francisco … Will Clark gets a standing ovation whenever he shows up at China Basin, for instance. Butler, though, did two things Clark did not: he signed for the Dodgers, and he said upon joining the team that it was fulfilling a lifelong dream. At that moment, Butler guaranteed that he would be booed by Giants fans for the rest of his career.
Fans and athletes have different reasons for participating in spectator sports. I don’t know why the likes of David Beckham don’t understand this.
[Addendum: the LA Riot Squad issued a statement on the events of the day. It isn't clear whether the fan was banned. The statement itself is worth reading: "We don't fault David for his desire to play for his country and for playing abroad during the off season, but we do find fault with his stated desire to play in Europe rather than the Galaxy. After going out on loan last winter to Milan, Beckham shortly made it clear that he no longer wanted to play for the Galaxy. He returned this month only because he and Milan were unwilling to meet AEG/MLS' price for a transfer, yet his public comments don't reflect this reality. Rather, he has rather unbelievably said he is 'fully committed' to the Galaxy, as if repetition can make it so. He has been unable or unwilling to show any understanding of why the fans are disappointed with his actions and choices. We chose a friendly match, one arranged as part of the payment by Beckham and Milan to extend his loan, to let him know that if he was unhappy to be here, we were unhappy too."]
[Further addendum: Beckham was fined by MLS.]