It doesn't happen very often but when it does it's ugly.
Fans throwing debris on the field, cheering an injury, or dumping a beer on a player as he leaves the court -- it's all happened recently and it makes no sense. There is zero justification for it in the perspective of life yet it is a far-from-rare action when considering the complex web that is human behavior. We tab such actions as deplorable but the reality is that many of us aren't as immune as we would like to believe.
But are fans -- humans -- really that messed up or is the media's reaction creating a story where none exists?
The answer -- in the sports arena -- has everything to do with the setting in which people appear. A curious reaction occurs when a person is placed in a large group. The larger that group becomes the less responsibility for one's actions each individual feels. Normally I wouldn't toss my half-eaten eight-dollar hot dog onto the field, but it's not like I'm that bad -- nearly everyone else was going it.
Oh the power of social proof (judging a situation based on the actions of those around us).
Our mothers often asked us, "If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump also?". What our mom's didn't know, however, is that the answer to that question is most likely a conditional "Yes!". Yes, if they landed safely. Yes, even more so if a large number successfully made the leap without injury.
If your friends angrily threw trash and beer bottles onto a baseball field in Atlanta, would you do it too? Maybe you wouldn't but too many did. And the more people participated, the more others around made exceptions for their morals and justified their actions. The mob mentality, or herd, was moving full steam ahead.
And what if your friends, frustrated by the poor performance of your favorite team's quarterback, cheered as that player was helped off the field following a concussive blow leading to the insertion of the backup quarterback? Would you cheer? Thousands in Kansas City did, but did they mean it? And did they even know how badly Matt Cassel was hurt?
The answers are never quite as extreme as the discussion makes the actions seem. The Budweiser bottle you threw was aimed for the left-field line, fifty feet from any vulnerable player or umpire. You never hoped that Matt Cassel was that hurt, only for him to be dinged enough so he received some natural punishment for his perceived poor play. Regardless of your excuse -- it's still wrong.
It's often believed by individuals and heavily lectured by coaches that sports imitate life. Lessons on the practice field and in a game reflect the adversity you may deal with in your future life as a husband, father, or employee. Life and sport truly are analogous but the comparisons go both ways and they don't stop at the white lines -- they carry over the wall and into the stands.
Those people in the seats -- those sports fans -- are imitating life. The moral exceptions they make and the influence they succumb to as a spectator reminds us how vulnerable human beings are and how unexceptional we can be despite our prideful objections.
The problem with sports fans is that they let themselves go; that they're making mistakes in an arena that is covered by knee-jerk hyperbole. The problem with sports fans is that they're all so very human.
Sound Off: What are the worst actions by sports fans you've experienced or witnessed?
Justin Mikels is a staff writer for Operation Sports. Follow him on Twitter: @long_snapper