Sports fandom forms bonds unique from any other relationships in life. It spans across generations and brings people together who would otherwise have little in common. Sports unify cities, states and, at times, countries in support of something bigger than any individual.
However, there is also an obvious dark side at play. Fans love their team and presumably that team’s players, but in the age of social media, it appears that love is growing more conditional. This conditionality is based on unrealistic expectations of constant perfection from ordinary humans with extraordinary abilities. No one experiences this conditional love more than NFL kickers, especially in the playoffs. This year, two of the ten postseason games were essentially decided by missed kicks, and social media users had a field day. Facebook and Twitter accounts posted extreme criticisms of the players; usually, those critiques came from the kickers’ team’s passionate fans. Even though kickers rarely cost their teams games, when they do fail, they are almost always given full responsibility. Faulting those kickers is lazy, unfair and often reveals the ugly side of sports fandom.
Just ask Blair Walsh and Stephen Gostkowski, two kickers who are both among the NFL’s best, but happened to miss extremely important kicks in their respective teams’ playoff games. Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal with just over 20 seconds left in Minnesota’s wildcard game against Seattle. The Vikings lost 10-9. Gostkowski’s miss was an extra point in the first quarter that allowed Denver to maintain its one point lead. New England subsequently had to try — but ultimately failed — to convert a two-point attempt with less than 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter of its AFC Championship game loss.
Walsh was treated far worse than Gostkowski, but both were vilified on Twitter with death threats and suicide encouragements. Obviously the fans have a right to be upset that Walsh missed a chip-shot field goal that almost certainly would have allowed Minnesota to advance in the playoffs, but fans never have a right to espouse that anger with death threats, especially in both of these scenarios.
First, Walsh was the reason the Vikings had points in the game to begin with. He converted his first three field goal attempts of the afternoon and gave Minnesota a 9-0 lead. In fact, Walsh led the entire NFL this season with 34 successful field goal attempts. The Vikings were a mediocre offensive team at best that finished 16th in the league in points per game. Walsh essentially made the difference in three games by either kicking game-winning field goals or kicking enough field goals to make up for the lack of touchdowns, elevating a team with a lackluster offense to a division title.
Again, Walsh should have made the kick — he said as much after the game — but there are so many other factors that decided that football game. For instance, Walsh did not fumble early in the fourth quarter — Adrian Peterson did. Walsh’s offense did not fail to eclipse 200 yards of total offense — Norv Turner’s did. Walsh definitely deserves to shoulder a portion of the blame, but he is far from the only one to take on that burden.
The fans that are furious at Gostkowski are even more absurd. First, Gostkowski’s miss occurred in the first quarter, meaning that New England had 45 minutes of game time to change the outcome or at least play with the knowledge of the miss. Second, like Walsh, Gostkowski was quick to accept the responsibility and piled blame upon himself. Meanwhile, on the other side of the locker room, the Patriots’ offensive line was in an avid hurry to leave the dressing area and actively tried to avoid any media questions. This is an offensive line that gave up four sacks, let Tom Brady get hit 23 times — the most of any quarterback in any game since 2006 — and only allowed Patriot running backs to gain a horrid 2.2 yards per carry. There was no reason for Gostkowski to miss that extra point, as he was perfect on those all season, but at least he took responsibility for his mistake, unlike the group of individuals that played much more of a role in New England’s loss than he did.
It is easy to blame kickers. Most of them do not look like football players and endure comparatively less pain. That does not make them any less human. People make mistakes, kickers miss kicks — it happens. Fans have a right to be angry but need to stop being short-sighted and ignorant about why their team lost. Hiding behind the screen of a computer to voice inappropriate and outrageous thoughts contradicts the spirit of fandom.
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