Playing hated rivals can bring out the worst in fans

Emotions high in Bulls-Heat, Hawks-Wings series, but some lose touch with reality

Chicago Tribune sports editor Mike Kellams talks Blackhawks and Bulls playoffs with Tribune beat reporters and columnists.

Hate to admit it, but Wednesday threatens to set this year's record for rancor in Chicago sports.

Bulls and Blackhawks fans plan to load up on the loathing. All mean streets lead to 1901 W. Madison. In a rare overlap of postseason schedules, for about four hours of visceral vitriol, thousands of Chicagoans either at the United Center or in bars and living rooms across the city will appeal to an ire power.

The Hawks open the second round of the NHL playoffs at home against their dreaded longtime Original Six rival Red Wings. Their co-tenants, the Bulls, return to Miami for Game 5 to see if they can extend a series against the insufferable defending NBA champions and avoid being flipped off by Heat fans. All that's missing is Bears-Packers.

Keep it classy, Chicago. The only thing higher than the stakes will be the emotions — not all of them positive. How long before somebody in your group swears at LeBron James after referees swallow the whistle again? Will the "Detroit sucks!" chant at the UC start before or after Jim Cornelison's national anthem?

"The hatred is there between us and the Red Wings,'' Hawks center Dave Bolland acknowledged Tuesday, sounding like Bulls players about the Heat at the beginning of their series.

Is the venom bound to be directed at Chicago's hated opponents in the heat of the moment cathartic for a city's fan base or just mean-spirited in this social-media age of anything goes?

"There's a fine line,'' said Greg Dale, Duke University's director of sport psychology and ethics. "For some people it is definitely mean-spirited. We pay good money to attend a sporting event and believe that gives us the license to be disrespectful and say or do whatever we want. That line is being pushed further and further.''

Dale was at a Duke-North Carolina basketball game with his two young children recently when that idea hit home. The Cameron Indoor Stadium cheering section began chanting, "Go to hell, Carolina. Go to hell.'' Just like everyone else, Dale's 8-year-old son chanted along.

Afterward, his son asked a question.

"He wondered, 'Do we really want those guys to go to hell?' '' Dale said. "It was a great opportunity to talk about sportsmanship. We're really losing sight about what sportsmanship is about, from a fan perspective as well as athletes.''

When fans like Filomena Tobias — who gave Bulls center Joakim Noah the middle finger during Game 2 — get so blinded with rage, Northwestern University psychology professor Andrew Ortony thinks they succumb to what he called emotional contagion. The same phenomenon occurred when Bulls fans chanted, "Nazr! Nazr!'' in Game 3 to support Nazr Mohammed being ejected for pushing James.

Maybe it starts with a simple boo. Emboldened, more join the chorus. It can escalate into name-calling, and next thing you know, an otherwise rational person loses control.

"What sports does for fans is it takes them out of reality,'' said Ortony, who studies fan behavior. "Imagine you're at the game screaming like crazy for the Bulls. And you got a text message saying a family member had just been killed in a car accident. Suddenly, the massive importance of this game would completely disappear.

"There's some sort of emotional space that gets filled to the maximum by whatever's going on, but there's more potential for real-world events than for this fantasy world of watching your team play.''

The reality: Twitter and Facebook contribute to an impulsive culture that has eroded the filter between emotion and expression. Even more than professional sports rivalries, which Northwestern communications professor Irving J. Rein believes have become diluted by free agency, social media contaminates the thoughts of the most unruly of fans. Animosity for a team isn't just expressed, it's encouraged. How many Bulls fans tweeted recently, "You can't spell Heat without H-A-T-E''? Or worse.

"Rivalries have changed because of money, and they don't have the historical base,'' said Rein, author of "The Elusive Fan.'' "Yet people still want the escape, the need for identifying an enemy and making it a richer experience for the person. Engagement is the big term now, and there's nothing better than engaging people on Twitter over a rivalry.''

Or, in the case of Jay Zawaski, urging people online to disengage. Zawaski, an executive producer at WSCR-AM and a ChicagoNow blogger, re-posted a December 2011 plea for fellow Hawks fans to stop the "Detroit sucks!" chant.

"When I see a team's fans attack another team negatively, I think it's done through jealousy or inferiority, something a lesser team would do,'' Zawaski said. "I used to be right with them, but that was years ago when I had no pride in being a Hawks fan. Now it's petty and unnecessary.''

You can hate to say it, but he's right.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

CHICAGO

More