How many fans remember when once we watched the critical moments of a game in “hushed silence”?   With victory or defeat hanging in the balance you could hear the proverbial pin drop.  Was that ever really true?  Probably not (except in popular melodrama).  Still, who doubts we have grown noisier over the years, not so much the individual heckler, but the crowds in general.  (And it’s not simply because new stadiums and arenas hold that many more of us.)  Noise has become a good part of the home field advantage today.  (To win, visiting teams recognize they must take the noisy “home crowd” out of the game.  For this nothing works better than jumping out to an early lead.)

Nowadays every player knows he must perform before fans eager to distract him and get in on the action.  Watch the quarterback retreat from the line of scrimmage frustrated because his signals are being drowned out by the screaming crowd.  (Years ago the Denver Broncos prepared for the din at the Seattle Superdome by reproducing loud crowd noises at their practice sessions.)  How many foul shooters have peered out at the basket and seen only a sea of frenzied rooters waving their arms about wildly and shouting hysterically, all in a deliberate effort to break their concentration?  What about pitchers out on the mound, behind in the count, needing desperately to get the ball over the plate?  That’s the occasion for fans to shout and scream, making complete concentration all but impossible.  It’s all part of the game, you say.  The price of admission includes the rites of derision.  Besides, there’s no way to get fans to stop.  (Just let officials try.  Our usual response is to turn up the volume.)

But, wait a minute!  Haven’t we overlooked certain contrary facts?  Don’t certain sports force fans to take vows of silence?  Consider tennis for example.  Whenever there’s the slightest disturbance in the stands what is it that we hear – “Quiet, please,” “Take your seats, please.”  What’s more we listen, submitting meekly to such requests – or else.  Play simply will stop until the players are satisfied there is perfect silence, no distractions.  Expect much the same at a golf tournament.  Talking or movement in the gallery – the players won’t tolerate it.  It’s also true of bowling, gymnastic competition, field events (e.g., pole vault, high jump) and chess, of course.  Silence prevails (although noise and cheering before and after the action has been growing louder.  Certainly you’ve noticed it between points at tennis matches.)

So how do you explain the differences between demonstrative sports and silent sports?  Why can we sometimes shout?  When must we shut up?  Crowd size?  Tradition?  More forceful officials?  Social class of spectators?  No.  Doesn’t it have more to do with whether the competition involves individuals or teams?  We respect the “rights” of individual competitors (notable exceptions being boxers and wrestlers) but feel free to ignore them and abuse that individual when he becomes a team player, a member of a group.  Want to learn a thing or two about American values?  There are some lessons out there on the playing field.

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