Last week, the staunch supporters of the Vancouver Whitecaps, essentially everyone that regularly visits a fan blog like this, had an emotional roller coaster of a week. One that challenged our values as to what is more important: the results on the pitch or the integrity of the man on the pitch. These situations reveal the perils of investing in a team as emotionally as we do as fans. When the escapism of our sports fandom comes face to face with the reality of real lives, and real flaws.
On Wednesday the team announced ‘the biggest day in the history of the organization’ with the opening of their new home, the National Soccer Development Centre, at UBC. It was a triumphant announcement as the organization completed an ambitious project to build a state of the art training facility large enough to house the first team, WFC2, and its soccer academy under one roof, on five pitches, with all the bells and whistles of a top class football club. It was an especially significant achievement as it moves moved Canadian and North American soccer forward with the type of infrastructure the sport has not, until recently, seen north of the Mexican border. It was an event that should have announced to the world that the Vancouver Whitecaps had come of age as a mature club able to advance professional soccer in this community, while developing the future of the sport in Canada, by nurturing future generations of players to the professional ranks.
So, it came as a particularly ironic, and devastating blow to fans, when the very next day it was announced that two academy players had been accused of sexual assault against a fellow teammate. Due to the players involved being minors, the details have been responsibly withheld from the public. But, the very words ‘minors’ and ‘sexual assault’, are disturbing and it’s hard not to let the imagination fill in the blanks with all sorts of unsavoury speculation.
And that is mostly what we are left with, speculation. Whether it was hazing, or bullying, or worse, the fan is left to sort their emotions around the issue. And let’s face it, when it comes to our team, our reactions can be more emotional than usual. First of all, our thoughts go to the victim of the assault, secondly we are confused and concerned over the circumstances that led to such behaviour under the auspices of our beloved organization, and thirdly, there is concern over the public vilification of the two teenage boys under investigation. Yes, many of us feel they need to be accountable for their actions, but at the same time protected against the vindictive lash of the internet until the investigation proves what exactly they have done. I mean, the public sphere can be a hard and unforgiving place, and these are minors. Minors that allegedly did something terribly wrong, but minors all the same.
Enter day three and we learn first team RB Sheanon Williams has been charged with assault and entered into the league substance rehabilitation program. Williams is an adult and fully accountable for his actions. His public profile puts him directly in the spotlight of the media, and his importance to the team challenges supporters value directly. Williams’ arrival shored up the defensive line from last season’s debacle at RB and contributed to the improved game of Kendall Waston and Tim Parker. Therefore, his absence from the team will be felt on the pitch. Yet, if you scan through the discussion forums on WCFC fan sites it is clear much of the fan base is willing to part ways with him if the allegations are found true. I don’t get the impression that serious fans come by this lightly either. Something definitely happened that caused the police to get involved, but the extent of the situation has not been made public. Nor, perhaps should it. Still, the idealism of our fandom collided abruptly with the ugly side of life, and we have been left to come to terms with it.
Many of us hold our team and our players to a higher standard than just the results they achieve on the pitch. If we are to be emotionally involved with our team we want it to reflect our values. Values of just, and fair treatment, respect and competitiveness. We want to be inspired by the human story as much as the story that plays out on the turf. It isn’t entirely rational behaviour for grown adults to care so much about whether a group of young men can kick a ball in a net with sufficient grace and spirit. So, in return for our willingness to suspend our good senses, we demand the team live up to higher standards. Whether, that is returning our investment with an investment in the quality on the pitch, or by demonstrating a certain standard of integrity throughout the organization, we need to find reasons that justify our passion and commitment to the team.
Most importantly, for me anyway, we don’t want to find ourselves cheering for something unsavoury. That leads us to where we are right now. The team we hold so dear has revealed to us its flaws. The debate will continue as to whether these events reflect more on the organization or the individuals involved, but for us fans, we need to each find our way through it.