Two incidents happened in the last week involving angry fans.
The first came when the Indianapolis Colts elected to rest their core starters with roughly 20 minutes left in the game and a five-point advantage.
The second was immediately following a Los Angeles Lakers defeat when they fell flat against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Colts fans have actually drafted a lawsuit asking for their money back as the Indianapolis Colts not only lost the game, but a bid at the first 19-0 season in the process.
Lakers fans did not wait until the morning after. They rained foam fingers (from a promotional giveaway) down onto the court to express their distaste for what was perceived as a weak effort.
Lakers fans feel justified in throwing objects because of an inferior performance. Colts fans feel justified in asking for their money back when a superior product was pulled.
But what is a fan truly entitled to when they attend (or even simply watch on television)?
The most bare-bones answer would be that a fan attending a game is guaranteed the game will not be cancelled and that they are not put in harm’s way by attending the game. With this answer, all that is needed is a team on the field and a competent security detail.
It should be argued, however, that at minimum the team placed on the field that day/night puts a reasonable effort into playing, and an owner makes a reasonable attempt at trying to piece together a team capable of competing every night.
Both are reasonable assertions, and both weigh true in most leagues (I would contend that baseball owners of many teams don’t put a concerted effort into the second concept, especially with trade-deadline sell-offs). Both of these fall short of what was expected by fans in Los Angeles and Indianapolis.
So where does the line fall?
Laker fans don’t have much of a case. They are upset by the loss of course, and expressing displeasure is natural. That the team generally looks flat when it loses and seems to often lack interest doubles that.
But a championship team blowing one-eighty-second of the regular season is ultimately trivial. The team fielded its starters, who put a reasonable effort (they were flat, but no one plays to lose) and came away empty-handed.
That is not enough to justify an act somewhere between litter and vandalism (a bit sensational but not as big of a hyperbole as one might think).
The situation in Indianapolis is a bit trickier. Of course legally the fans suing for their tickets to be refunded have no grounds, and it would be a surprise if the case isn’t thrown out of court. But morally do they have some footing?
Fans, be it supporting in merchandise or ticket sales, have an interesting mandate. They are paying for an entertainment product, and thus have some right to expect proper entertainment value.
If Indianapolis were to win a Super Bowl, this would be irrelevant… mostly. The question of 19-0 still presents itself. Could the team have made history?
On his radio show, Bill Polian contended that, "If fans were told at the start of the year that the team would be 14-1 they would be ecstatic."
That is a bit disingenuous. His assertion that this is what the fans want because it gives them the best chance at success runs contrary to a Colts fanbase that compelled Polian to end his radio show early because he grew tired of irate fans calling in.
To contend that “it was a decision because the team felt it was the best chance for success” is fine. But when he attempted to speak for the fans, that was a mistake. To state that 16-0 was never important tells that internal team priorities outweigh the wants of fans. That is a mistake.
It all returns to the great lesson celebrities in all venues forget—you can think anything you want, just so long as you don’t say it.
Polian can feel that way, but especially when history is not entirely in favor of his strategy (the Colts hold a 1-4 record in the playoffs when Jim Sorgi closes the regular season), don’t speak down to ticketholders about it.
So there lies the gray area. The debate over the actual strategy is a concept for another piece. The question over how justified fans are for being quite demonstrative in their displeasure is a tougher one to answer in some ways.
Legally, Indianapolis is only obliged to ensure safety and make sure a game is actually played. Outside the bounds of legal rule, the Colts organization will have much to answer for if they are eliminated in the playoffs.
Either way, barring the Lombardi Trophy, there will be questions, but a 17-2 Colts team will have far more than an 18-1 would have.
Did the Colts do the right thing for the team? Perhaps. Did they do the right thing for their fans? Probably not.