Titans tight end Delanie Walker received death threats after saying fans upset about protests during national anthem don’t have to come to games.
Jason Wolf/ USA Today Network – Tennessee

The world is an angry place. The playground of sports is now part of the bonfire, no longer immune, no longer a safe haven.

The president is picking a fight with the NFL. The FBI used wiretaps to expose college basketball. And on Sunday afternoon, nervous billionaires will be scanning the stands of their football stadiums, wondering if paying customers actually make good on their threats of boycott.

It takes a lot to scare NFL owners. But the league is becoming as divided as our country, caught between the patriotism they packaged and sold and the athletes/golden goose they must protect.

On the surface, this might seem like the story of the American flag, its omnipotent power, and what happens when one group tries to possess it or squeeze it too hard. But this is also part of a larger narrative, proving again that sports fans have been changing for years, for better and worse.

Today’s audience wants a spectacle more than they want to be spectators. That explains why Mayweather-McGregor was a smash hit while the real fight of the century (Golovkin-Canelo) was a footnote. It explains why LaVar Ball is still more celebrity than scorned. It explains why my teenage daughter walks around wearing Kurt Cobain clout goggles.

Here we are now. Entertain us.

Sports fans are no longer here to help. They are here for their own benefit. NFL players have been commodified by fantasy football leagues, which has changed the mindset considerably. The fantasy is seductive, where average fans become “owners” and the players now work for them. The humanity of cheering for a person or a team has been reduced to sheer number, and it’s helped trigger a huge societal shift.


Players lock arms, fans chant “USA!, USA!” during the national anthem at the NFL’s Bears-Packers game. (Sept. 28)

According to a brand new poll, 55 percent of Americans now approve of legalized gambling. Less than 25 years ago, 56 percent opposed.

Sports fans no longer need stadiums for a communal experience, a trend that is worrying owners in all professional sports. NFL games are becoming increasingly dangerous for those in attendance. Baseball fans will soon have to deal with expanded netting to shield them from foul balls. And NBA fans are afraid to buy tickets lest a star player decides to take the night off.

Meanwhile, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver says future broadcasts could become more like Twitch, a platform for streaming video games.

He envisions a cluttered screen where a flow of data and constant chatter are packaged around the actual event. While an older generation recoils, Millennials salivate at the coming horizon of multitasking in sports. And if all these conversations can be had online, who needs to attend a game in person?

Over the years, the NFL has seemed impermeable, right down to the shield that serves as the league’s official logo. It has employed felons and those prone to domestic violence. It has spawned a concussion epidemic, where fears of brain damage endanger the future of the sport on a grass-roots level. Reports that Aaron Hernandez had advanced CTE at age 27 is horrifying in scope.

But the core audience never stopped cheering. The spectacle of the NFL – where game days happen once a week, treating fans to tailgate parties and enabling all of their favorite vices – seemed to assure robust attendance for eternity.

Until now. The ongoing flap over player protests and displays of unity have done what all those other issues could not, enraging some fans to the point of absurdity and beyond.

A Pennsylvania fire chief was fired after directing a racial slur at Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. Another Steelers fan painted a swastika on his team flag. A Titans player received death threats, and so did a singer who took knee after performing the national anthem. And in Baltimore, 35,000 people have signed a petition to remove a statue of Ravens great Ray Lewis, who went down on both knees last weekend.

The vitriol is shocking. It’s tearing at the fabric of sports, where fandom is supposed to galvanize, unite and heal communities. It also proves that no matter how much sports fans have changed in this country, people still want the same thing from their favorite teams:

A break. An escape. A respite from the noise. A chance to check out of reality and get lost in the drama of athletic competition. Sadly, Week 4 in the NFL poses a different question, the kind once deemed unthinkable:

Will fans really tune out America’s favorite sport just to get away from the real world?

Related: NFL moms beg President Trump to ‘stop divisive’ talk in open letter

More: As NFL kneels, Chandler senior sits during Pledge of Allegiance

More: Fulton Homes commercial hits back at NFL players protesting during national anthem


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Reach Bickley at [email protected] or 602-444-8253. Follow him on Listen to “Bickley and Marotta” weekdays from 12-2 p.m. on 98.7 Arizona’s Sports Station.