War Eagles: From fans to fanatics to terrorists

Evans-media2

On Feb. 7, college football’s National Signing Day, Auburn (Ala.) High School linebacker Rashaan Evans held a press conference to announce where he would be taking his talents to next.

To the surprise of the many in the crowd, Evans not only spurned his hometown school, Auburn University, but he also chose Auburn’s biggest rival, the University of Alabama.

A few days later, in an interview with TideSports.com, Evans revealed some the backlash he’d received from Auburn fans after his decision.

“It’s getting worse,” Evans said. “Someone actually put out an article about my family’s business telling all Auburn fans not to go there. We are going to eventually start losing money. People are telling restaurants in the town not to serve us.”

Evans added: “It’s just crazy right now. What’s getting crazy is people are going to the board at my school trying to get me in trouble. They are telling my teachers I am a bad kid and all this stuff. It’s just bad right now.”

The 6-3, 217-pound teenager said Auburn fans had also been harassing him via social media, wishing he’d blow out a knee in his first game for Alabama and “saying my family is horrible and how they didn’t raise me right.”

On a moral level, if not quite a legal one, the treatment Evans has been subject to amounts to terrorism in my opinion. The FBI defines domestic terrorism as the use of force or violence to intimidate or coerce in furtherance of political or social objectives. And the word “terrorize” is defined as creating and maintaining a state of extreme fear or distress in someone.

The Evans case rests somewhere between the two definitions.

And the Evans case is not entirely unique.

A publication I worked for a few years ago covered a story about high school basketball star Terrence Ross (currently playing for the NBA’s Toronto Raptors) and the online abuse he received from Maryland fans after de-committing from their school.

This is what big-time college sports have come to: Fans of one school – many of them grown men and women – are terrorizing kids because those kids aren’t going to play for their team. (Side note: Do you notice how you never hear stories like this about “regular” students who choose one school over another? If a high school science phenom with a 4.0 GPA chose ‘Bama over Auburn this year, we wouldn’t see any reports of them being harassed. It only happens in sports.) Because we’re dealing with strong, athletic young men, nobody wants to call it bullying, but that’s what it is – at best. At its worst, it’s terrorism.

Of course, it isn’t every Auburn fan harassing Evans and acting like they have no home training. It’s not even a majority of Auburn fans. It’s not even a significantly-sized minority of Auburn fans. But the reaction to the Evans story from the general public – those who don’t have a horse in the Auburn-Alabama race – was largely the same: Shock, sadness and ridicule for how Auburn fans can be so mean and classless.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Auburn fan base – the vast majority of them reasonable, sane, good-natured fans who wouldn’t wish ill will on a kid just because he suits up for Alabama or because he “should have” gone to Auburn – went into self-defense mode. They repeatedly pointed out that one or two or 15 misguided fanatics do not represent the entire Auburn fan base. And unfortunately, the salient points they bring up don’t ring as loudly in our 24-hour media din as the ridiculous stories of crazed fans acting like bullies.

Their public plea: Do not let the terrorist acts of a few extremists who identify as part of our community define our whole community and what we stand for.

Sound familiar?

Muslims all over the world know what it feels like to be negatively stereotyped by the horrible and inexplicable acts of a few of their kind that do not accurately represent the community as a whole.

In societies where the majority of the public doesn’t understand Islam and has been trained to fear and be suspicious of Muslims, the court of public opinion continues to put all Muslims and the entire religion of Islam on trial any time news of terrorism by extremist Muslims or Islamist groups reach the headlines.

And it doesn’t seem to matter how many Muslims take to social media and Internet discussion forums to clear up the misconceptions of Islam, or how many Muslim leaders and scholars make it on national TV to denounce terrorism and defend the religion, or even how many Muslims simply live their everyday lives in plain sight as positive role models and the best examples of what Islam has to offer, the negative stereotypes persist.

For people who want to believe the worst about another group of people, the worst stories are the ones that endure. If we have not already learned that from the treatment of Muslims and other minority groups throughout history, it’s on display today in the way the majority of sports fans will characterize a minority group of fans they don’t understand.

Surah 49, verse 11 of the Quran says: “O you who believe! Let not some men among you laugh at others: it may be that the (latter) are better than the (former): nor let some women laugh at others: it may be that the (latter) are better than the (former): nor defame nor be sarcastic to each other by (offensive) nicknames…”

A little later, the Quran (49:13) says: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other).”

Such are common flaws of the privileged or majority class. If you’re not an Auburn fan and don’t personally know an Auburn fan — or even if you do know one or two Auburn fans — it’s easy to combine a handful of horror stories with a majority groupthink and decide all Auburn fans either resemble (or co-sign) the few who have been terrorizing Rashaan Evans. Too often our differences become reasons to despise and be suspicious of each other.

As a Black man and a Muslim in America, trust me: I’ve seen it on multiple levels.

The way I tried to explain it to my wife one day was to look at the relationship between humans and insects. As the powerful and privileged group among the two, most humans will tell you we don’t have to understand bugs. We don’t have to consider their differences and nuances, or give Insect B the benefit of the doubt that it isn’t exactly like Insect A who just tried to bite us or invade our food supply. One bug is just like the next, and we’ll just step on ’em all when we see them. It’s up to the bugs to understand us and stay out of the way of our feet if they want to survive.

That’s how it is for racial and religious minorities around the world — just trying not to get stepped on by a majority class that, for the most part, does not make an effort to understand them.

The ironic part is that when you bring it back to sports, many of the people in these groups of unfairly stereotyped fans are also members of the privileged, majority class that unfairly stereotypes people on a daily basis in areas much more serious and life-threatening than sports.

Many of the same “good” Auburn fans who bristle at being lumped in with the “bad” Auburn fans don’t even realize that they make similar hurtful generalizations in their own lives about people who aren’t like them. And they’re no different than fans all over the sports landscape. The peaceful Raiders fan. The humble Yankees fan. The punctual Lakers fan. The passionate Atlanta fan. The Seahawks fan who was there through the thin before the thick … they all can relate.

But outside of sports — which at its best can be a tool to bring people together and provide teaching moments for everyday life — the lesson doesn’t carry over, and a small group of terrorists in a small town can cast a negative light on millions of good people.

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