Opinion: Can you blame athletes for reacting to the crowd?

Imagine yourself at your current job, but rather than being able to quietly get on with your work, there are tens of thousand of people watching every move, every keystroke and every decision you make, and each and every of those people want you to fail. Sounds pretty stressful right? Now imagine a few individuals in that crowd start throwing glass bottles at you while you are trying to do your job. What would you do? Would you try and ignore those people and possible get hurt, would you stop working and calmy talk to them, or would you grab that bottle, turn around and throw it back at them as hard as you can?

This is the exact situation that French Marseille soccer player Dimitri Payet found himself in during last week's league 1 game against OGC Nice. 75 minutes into the game, Payet went to take a corner kick in front of a section of Nice supporters. While getting ready to take the kick, several bottles were thrown from the stands and the French player decided to take the last option and react. He turned around, grabbed a bottle from the ground and threw it back at the supporters, and then a second one. Several of his teammates joined in the protest with one of them kicking the ball into the crowd. This whole incident would have been crazy enough on its own, but what happened next is even more remarkable. Nice ultras (a fanatic core of supporters) broke through a metal fence and poured onto the pitch starting to attack the Marseille players. Within seconds, the whole field was in chaos. Players and supporters fighting, security staff desperately trying to break things up, and even the coaching staff of both teams getting involved. After what seemed like an eternity, both teams made it off the pitch and back to their locker rooms where it became clear that several Marseille players had suffered injuries caused by the assault. Despite all of this, the league representative unbelievably insisted that the game would be completed but the Marseille squad refused to do so. This lead to the remarkable scene of the referee blowing his whistle for the same corner kick that started the whole incident with only the Nice team on the pitch.

In the aftermath of the game, both clubs blamed each other with Nice representatives saying that Payet shouldn't have thrown the bottles and Marseille stating: "We need to set precedents for French football ... That is not acceptable for us.” Both statements hold some truths and it is likely that Nice will receive a punishment of playing games without crowds but also that the main Marseille players involved in the incident will receive game bans due to their behaviour during the game.

These kinds of incidents are luckily quite rare, but what happened last weekend is also not unique. One famous example was just recently highlighted in an excellent Netflix documentary "Untold: Malice At The Palace". The story is pretty similar, it begins with a heated (basketball) game, then a member of the audience throws something at a player, in this case a cup of beer, the player reacts, and a riot ensues. The result? The individual players involved received hefty banns. The personal effects of those banns is excellently portrayed in the documentary. However, as a mental performance trainer, those banns always make me feel uncomfortable, because they imply that it is the duty of the athlete not to react, and I don't think that is completely fair or maybe even completely unfair.

The reason behind that has to do with aggression. Most people accept that sports, especially ones that are highly interactive sports (sports where both teams share the same playing area and can physically interact with each other), require certain levels of aggression to be successful. In basketball, if you are less aggressive than your opponent, you are probably not going to get the rebound. However, this high level of aggression on these sports doesn't mean that athletes go about punching each other in the face all the time. This is because a certain level of aggression is expected and accepted when playing sports. You can behave in a way on the pitch that wouldn't be acceptable off the pitch. Therefore, physical aggression between athletes only happens when someone exceeds the level of accepted aggression, for instance a tackle that could seriously injure someone in soccer. However, the understanding of accepted aggression does not exist between an athlete and a crowd. The athlete and the crowd do not share a level of aggression that they expect and accept from each other like athletes do between themselves. More specifically, the athlete probably expects zero physical aggression from the crowd, since they cannot touch him or her. On top of that, aggression is not task specific, which means that you cannot be simultaneously aggressive towards one thing (the game) and not towards something else (the crowd). So when an athlete who is in an accepted aggressive state of mind because of the game gets provoked by the crowd, he cannot simply turn that aggression off. The combination of these two things, an athlete not expecting physical aggression from the crowd and being in an aggression state of mind can lead to the results you saw in Dimitri Payet. However, this is not a unique situation and it is normally not a problem because they don't tend to have glass bottles to throw.

In my opinion, this incident is not the fault of the athlete. I don't think we can fault them for being aggressive while playing a sport that requires them to be aggressive. The fault lies completely with the fans. They use physical aggression towards an athlete who was already in an aggressive state of mind, that was not expecting to receive physical aggression and he did not accept the aggression. This lead to him reacting in a way that is dangerous and obviously not okay but you cannot blame him for doing it. Unfortunately, this incident will probably result in a mild punishment for the fans, and a major one for the players and I am not sure if I think that is fair.

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