In Defense of Philly Fans

Last night the Stanley Cup Finals started and though I have finally come around and started supporting my adopted hometown’s team–Go Blackhawks!–the event still brings up some painful memories. The 2010 Stanley Cup Finals pitted the Hawks against my actual hometown team, the Philadelphia Flyers, and when the Hawks hoisted the cup after 6 tough games, I was inundated by texts of the “PHILLY SUCKS!!!” variety. It was not fun. But I get it. I am the only Philly fan most of my Chicago friends know, and I constantly hear from them all about the terribleness of Philly fans.

Philly fans are notoriously “awful”–as Salon pointed out today, the New York Times has referred to Philly as “the city that booed Santa Claus” twice in the last WEEK. The Old Veterans Stadium, which for many years was home to both the Phillies and the Eagles, famously had its own courtroom to deal with bad behavior in the stands.

First, I want to clear up the Santa thing. Yes, Philly fans DID boo Santa. Technically. But here is an account of what actually happened, and more importantly why it happened, from a native Philadelphian for NBC Sports:

Going into the game, the Eagles were something like 2-10, and played so poorly the two wins seemed like miracles. The weather was awful–cold rain and wet, heavy snow. Fans showed up to protest the team with signs about firing the head coach, getting rid of the owner, everything. The original jolly St Nick hadn’t made it to Franklin Field due to the inclement weather, and so the Eagles found some kid off the street to fill in. He looked terrible, ramshackle. For the fans in the stands, blue collar, lower middle class people who were paying money to see one of the NFL’s worst teams, seeing that Santa was a slap in the face. They had no way of knowing that this Santa was not the intended Santa. From the stands, it looked like these incompetent owners were rubbing the fans noses in it. If they wanted to watch football, they were stuck with the Eagles, and lousy fans get a lousy team, and on Christmas, they get a lousy Santa. That’s what it felt like. Like a “f—you”, from the team to the fans. And so they booed, they threw snowballs.

It may be difficult to fully understand this if you’ve grown up in, say, Chicago, a city that has won a championship in every major sport in my lifetime, many of those teams creating for-real dynasties that lasted years. Chicago kids grew up believing that Michael Jordan would come through in the clutch. Philly fans have no such relationship with their sporting teams. We know that no matter how things look in the moment, our stars and teams will always find a way to disappoint us. From Allen Iverson to Jim Thome to Donovan McNabb, our stars will always fall short of our expectations. There is a very real sense that we care more than they do. It is because of this, because we care SO MUCH, that we often get misinterpreted as bad fans.

When sportswriter Ashley Fox left the Philadelphia Inquirer for ESPN, she defended the Philadelphia she had come to understand:

For the most part, the Philly fan is a true representation of this city: blue-collar, hardworking, unforgiving of underperforming teams and players, intolerant of an impostor, respectful of effort, knowledgeable of history, and, most of all, hungry for a winner.

When you boo your team, it is because you sense a player or the team is not living up to expectations. You expect a player to play up to his capability, whatever that capability is. You want athletes to do what you would do: dive on the floor for a loose ball, take a hit for an extra yard, slam an opponent into the boards to get the puck, slide headfirst into a catcher to score a run.

When the great ones come back in another team’s uniform, you greet them with the respect or vitriol they deserve. You gave Donovan McNabb a standing ovation for his 11 years of service, then booed his first completion to a Redskins receiver. You hissed at Owens for selfishly trying to firebomb the Eagles the year after the Super Bowl. Your applause earlier this season so touched a nervous Jayson Werth that he tipped his cap twice before his first plate appearance as a Washington National at Citizens Bank Park. And you overwhelmed Brian Dawkins, the Denver Bronco, to the point where Dawkins could hardly speak.

So many athletes who have actually played here, who have given their talents and time and best efforts, describe Philadelphia as the best sports town in the country. Many athletes from other teams describe the electric atmospheres, the consistent sellout crowds, the engagement of fans, as unique, special, something to look forward to being a part of a few times a year.

If expecting a lot from the athletes who are paid incredibly well to represent your city is a crime, then send all the Philly fans to the Veterans Stadium courtroom. Maybe this, too, is a uniquely Philly thing–on the East Coast, Philly oftens ends up drowned out by New York/DC/Boston noise and constantly has to fight to get its due respect or even attention.

I appreciate that every fan will believe their city has the best fans–as you should! What good is fandom that does not inspire blind passion? But please don’t tell me Philly fans are awful and for goodness’ sake DON’T call us “the people who booed Santa Claus.” We know it happened. It was 40 years ago. And we had our reasons.

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