Sunday, June 15, 2008

Reductio ad Hitlerum: Taking Fandom Too Far

Photo: ESPN columnist Jemele Hill (Photo from Women's E-news).

Let me start by saying that I generally admire ESPN's Jemele Hill as a writer. I usually enjoy her style and her willingness to discuss tough issues and take controversial stands (these columns on LeBron James' Vogue cover and Karl Malone's lack of support for his kids are excellent examples). It's also nice to see a prominent national columnist talking about Detroit sports teams, which certainly don't get too much attention from many of those based in Boston, L.A. or New York. She has more than just strong opinions: she has the talent to effectively and convincly communicate those opinions, and to do so in a way to keep me interested and reading even when I absolutely disagree, which is a rare gift. She also had a great take on the Stern-Donaghy scandal this week.

With all that said, she went too far this time. As Deadspin's Matt Sussman reports, her recent column initially compared cheering for the Celtics to justifying Hitler's actions or rooting for the Soviets in the Cold War.

Here's the offending quote:

"Rooting for the Celtics is like saying Hitler was a victim. It's like hoping Gorbachev would get to the blinking red button before Reagan."

Unbelievable. Look, rivalries are great and all that, but there is absolutely no way that cheering for any sports team comes close to defending Hitler (except perhaps if the team was called the Aryan Supermen, and that would even be only part of the way there). This isn't even a true reductio ad hitlerum, as she doesn't even offer any evidence comparing the two or suggesting the Celtics have Nazi connotations (questionable, as they weren't even formed until 1946). I don't think she was trying to be serious here, but if that's a joke, it's in incredibly poor taste, and if that's hyperbole, it goes well beyond the pale. Maybe she was suggesting the Larry Bird/Magic Johnson duels was equivalent to Luz Long/Jesse Owens, but that's a considerable stretch, and in any case, it doesn't have much to do with the current teams.

(By the way, if you're ever interested in finding out more about Long and Owens, there's an excellent piece written by Owens in the collection "The Hard Way: Writing By The Rebels Who Changed Sports." It turns out the two of them got along fabulously, and the political overtones (especially on the German side) were all manufactured. In fact, Owens said he wouldn't have even qualified for the finals of the long jump without a tip Long gave him. That part of the story's related in Long's Wikipedia entry.)

What's especially disturbing is that Hill is not the only one to throw out those kind of comparisons. While researching a column on racism for the Journal last year, I came across another disturbing incident from the world of soccer. In Germany before the 2006 World Cup, some supporters from Chemnitzer FC (Chemnitz, Saxony) displayed some Nazi tendencies [Der Spiegel]. They attacked Turkish-owned shops in Hamburg before an away match against FC St. Pauli, waving Nazi flags and chanting "Sieg Heil". Some of the "fans" shouted, "We’re going to build a subway from St Pauli to Auschwitz." More recently, police detained 157 people, mostly German fans, after the Germany-Poland clash at Euro 2008 on charges of chanting Nazi slogans in the city centre[Shanghai Daily].

It's not just Germans, either. There's a long history of English supporters involved in Nazi incidents as well: two painted their bodies with Nazi insignia before the 2006 World Cup game against Paraguay [BBC News], plenty of English fans went around goose-stepping and throwing Nazi salutes during the 2006 World Cup [The Guardian], and a large group of Chelsea supporters chanted "Sieg Heil" and threw Nazi salutes in Moscow before this year's Champions League final (which has to be one of the most offensive places imaginable to make Nazi references) [Times Online]. Even Prince Harry thought it was somehow acceptable to wear a Nazi uniform (swastikas and all!) to a party []!

The English and the Germans are not the only groups of fans to take things too far: consider the Polish tabloids demanding severed heads [World Cup Blog], the Polish Prime Minister saying he wanted to kill referee Howard Webb [ESPN Soccernet] or the Polish fans phoning the wrong Howard Webb with death threats [FanIQ] for just one example of another country that takes things too far. Sadly, that seems to be more the exception than the rule these days, and that leads people like Leah McLaren to worry about the rise of soccer hooliganism in Toronto [Out of Left Field], something that's highly unlikely, but perhaps a less bizzare assumption than you'd think (presuming she doesn't know much about the differences between European and North American soccer, it's not that farfetched to conclude that soccer can cause violence, given the epidemic of violent incidents and hooliganism around the world).

I can understand hating a team: that's what rivalries are all about, after all. Is it really necessary to hate on their fans, though? To this point, that's what's made North American sports less hooligan-dominated on the whole than many European or South American soccer leagues: most people here have the ability to differentiate between a team and its fans, or even the ability to insult other fans in ways that are funny and acceptable, not with violent attacks or inappropriate comments. It's a sad day for sports in this part of the world if we're going to sink to that level. I don't want to see the day where we have to put caged-off sections for visiting fans into the Auburn Hills Palace, the Staples Center or the TD BankNorth Garden.

Anyway, back to Hill. What's amazing is not only that she made that mistake, but that her editor didn't find it objectionable before posting it on the site. They quickly scrubbed it later though, and hoped no one would notice. As Sussman writes:

"Oh, don't bother Command+F looking for it in her article, the editors have, you could say, taken it out of commission like Archduke Ferdinand. Even the Google cache of Hill's article has already been Norby'd, so there's no chance of seeing where in the story it was mentioned, or what other dark moments in history are like cheering for the Celtics."

That's also unacceptable, and evokes memories of the New York Daily News's Sean Avery scrub [Sporting Madness: see Regret The Error or James Mirtle for more on that one]. It's not good journalism to just erase an error and hope that no one notices, even though the Web gives you that capability. ESPN's a reputable source for news and commentary, and to retain that reputation, they need to adhere to journalistic standards: recognize the mistake, apologize for it and take action to ensure it won't be repeated.

I'm not calling for Hill's head here: as previously mentioned, I enjoy her work and I hope she keeps writing for ESPN. I would like to see her apologize, however. Comparing cheering for a team to supporting the Nazis just isn't acceptable, and this kind of callous reference is tremendously painful for a lot of people, including Jews, Russians and those of German descent like myself. As Godwin's Law states, these kind of dumb comparisons are almost inevitable in massive Internet discussions, but I feel we have a right to expect better from a talented columnist working at a major media outlet. Hopefully Hill can learn from this mistake, apologize and move on, but sadly, my respect for her will probably still be less than it was.

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