Stupidly, I forgot to wear my "Milt Stegall" Blue Bombers jersey to the Banjo Bowl. But The Woman I Love certainly didn't forget to wear her Roughriders uniform and helmet. She was born in Regina and although she has lived all of her adult life in Flin Flon and Winnipeg, she remains a staunch Rider fan.
So, there we were, on a warm sunny Sunday afternoon, walking happily toward the Canad Inns Stadium, when a passing motorist lowered his car window to snarl an expletive at TWIL. It must have been a difficult afternoon for this guy because there seemed to be dozens, no, hundreds, of Rider fans swarming toward the stadium, on foot and by pickup truck, wearing their traditional, and often hilarious, green outfits, with a preponderance of watermelon-headed, banjo-picking hayseeds.
Not to be outdone in their own stadium by these aliens, vast numbers of Blue Bombers stalwarts were in similarly bizarre costumes. There was a lot of jostling and jawing between the Blues and the Greens, but, truth to tell, spirits were high and for the most part everyone seemed to be having a good time. Then, when the Bombers roared to a satisfying win, the hometown fans enhanced the taste of victory by joshing the visiting Riders fans. It was all good fun.
Well, not quite "all," because for me there was a bitter taste left by the unsportsmanlike conduct of the Winnipeg fans. When Saskatchewan had the ball on offence, the Winnipeg fans, encouraged by some of the players, set up such a wall of noise that the players couldn't hear the quarterback's signals. That's cheating, isn't it?
"Wait, wait," I can hear you protesting, "Didn't the Riders fans do exactly the same thing to the Bombers one week earlier?" They did; indeed, the volume of fan noise in Regina is so overwhelming that visiting teams are at risk of sustaining damage to their eardrums.
Interestingly, in Saskatchewan, this practice carries the imprimatur of the provincial government. Bill Hutchinson, the Minister of Tourism, Culture, Parks and Sport, boasts publicly that "Rider fans, through their cheering, have helped sack quarterbacks, stop the running game and throw opposition receivers off their routes." He goes on to proclaim that "the Riders and their fans are part of what makes Saskatchewan such a great province."
May I respectfully suggest to the minister that he needs to rethink what's going on here?
Let me quickly concede that as this fine team celebrates its centenary, there is ample cause for pride in the nation's best fans. Not only are Rider games consistently sold out, but the team's merchandise sales are more than that of all the other Canadian Football League teams combined. The "Chicken Man" at Riders games claims, with only slight exaggeration, "I and everyone I know bleeds green from the heart." There's no doubt about it, being a Rider fan is more than just being a fan, "it's a way of life."
But - and it's a serious "but"- preventing your opponents from hearing their quarterback's signal-calling is taking unfair advantage. When the minister lauds Saskatchewan fans for being "the 13th man" on the field, what he is saying is: It's okay to tilt the playing field against your opponent if that will help to win. Is that the message that he or the team or the fans want to send to the world? Does "Rider Pride" include victories that are won unfairly?
When football fans in other Canadian cities imitate their Saskatchewan confreres, who truly wins and who loses? I suppose you could argue that the unfairnesses cancel each other out, but don't we all lose in the process? The football we see is less good than it would be if fans cheered to inspire and encourage their team rather than to impair the ability of their opponents to communicate.
One of Canada's all-time greatest sportsmen, Ken Dryden, when talking about the thousands of games he has played in his life, from pickup hockey at a local rink to the Stanley Cup finals, suggested that the reason he wouldn't cheat is because "I want to own my victories."
My suggestion is that the pointy-headed guys who run Canadian football should think carefully about the steps they could take to look out for those who love football and want to see a team win by athletic skill rather than by the unrestrained passion of their sometimes misguided fans.
Arthur Schafer is a professor of philosophy at the University of Manitoba.