“Toxic Fan Culture” and British ice hockey

There are a great many fandoms in the world. Some are built around popular media franchises. Others are based around niche activities. And many are based around sports. Beyond being fandoms, though, these all share one commonality: Toxic Fans.

No fan culture is immune to this. There will always be an element of any social group, be it online or in real life, that has a toxic approach to its subject. And more often than not, it is this toxic element which finds itself being the most vocal part of the fandom. Now, many fandoms will actively attempt to remove, or isolate this toxic element, for the benefit of the majority. But what do you do when a large part of the toxicity comes from those supposedly in charge? Well, that is the problem that British ice hockey faces, in my opinion. Want me to elaborate? well, read on…

This past week has seen the supposed effects of the toxic element in action, with Paul Thompson quitting his roles at the Sheffield Steelers, after a poor start to the season. If the clubs official mouthpiece is to be believed, the reason this happened is because those nasty, cruel fans bullied poor old Thommo into submission. And this upset poor old Dave Simms. You see, Thommo is his close friend. And St David Of Sheffield couldn’t take seeing him be bullied and abused into walking away. And he said as much in his weekly column for the Sheffield Star.

Now, the irony of this situation is that the “toxic” element of the Steelers fan base that supposedly precipitated this situation has, for most of the last 20 years, been whipped up into “toxic” furies by…. Dave Simms! He has helped to create an atmosphere and attitude amongst the Steelers fan base that is best described as hostile. He has spent 20 years drilling it into the minds of the fans that being anything other than the “best” and “#1” is a failure. And he has forged an “attack first” mentality amongst the clubs social media commentators. Any criticism of the club, be it justified or not, is often met with a barrage of abuse online.

And Simms has happily used this to further his own standing within the sport. Yet this week, those self same fans he has built up into a toxic cluster of aggression and abuse seemingly turned around and bitten the hand that feeds. They are so accustomed to being “the best” that the “failure” of the last 2 seasons built a groundswell against the coach (these failures were 2 3rd place finishes, a record most clubs would be more than happy with).

(Now, let’s be clear here: I’m not saying that all Steelers fans are toxic. Far from it. As with any fan base, there are positive and negative elements. It’s just the STeelers fan base has the most obvious figurehead, and is often the most openly aggressive.)

Now, I have been on the receiving end of the toxic elements of the British ice hockey fan base myself. During the near 2 years of the Manchester Phoenix/PISB saga, I was attacked on multiple occasions, sometimes justified (I’m man enough to accept that I wasn’t always right or that I didn’t always express myself in the appropriate manner), often times not. I was called pretty much every name under the sun. I had comments made about my behaviour, my intentions, and my supposed abetting of criminal behaviour. This carried on for almost 2 years. Indeed, this has carried on to this day from some quarters.

Not 6 months ago, I was threatened by a “fan” of the Manchester Storm. He threatened to come to my place of work and physically attack me. And what did I do to deserve this? Well, I wasn’t a Storm fan and he just really disliked me. Now, I’ve written previously about my mental health struggles, and how this played into it. And I’m not the only one. Paul Wheeler, AKA fourthlinewing on THF, has written a brilliant blog about his experiences with the toxic side of British ice hockey (which is far more eloquent than my ramblings), which you can see: HERE.

But what can we do about this problem? Well, we will never get it to “go away”. There will always be that element there. But we can mitigate its influence and impact. And how do we achieve this? Firstly, I believe that there must be an effort from the top of the sport to show that it does not tolerate this kind of behaviour from its own. And yes, this means that Dave Simms needs to be bought to task. Fine him for future misdemeanours. Get the Steelers to do what many feel they should have done long ago and get rid of him. And this goes for any club officials who behave in a similar manner. The NGB and clubs should be setting a positive example to the fans, not egging them on and whipping up furies.

Secondly, we as fans need to take some control over social media. We need to call out the abusive and belligerent. We need to isolate them, and forge positive communities. and we need to remember that many of these toxic fans are nothing more than “keyboard warriors”, who would never dare speak to someone face to face in the same manner they do online. Like most bullies (which is what they are), when confronted, they are often cowards. So unfollow accounts that are abusive, or otherwise toxic. Even if they are your friends. Show them that their toxicity isn’t wanted.

And above all, try not to fall into the trap of being toxic yourself. It is all too easy to join in with a mob mentality over a perceived injustice or problem. Before you fire off a tweet, or write a forum/Facebook post, think about how you would feel it it was you who the post was aimed at. Toxic fan culture can hold this sport back. It can put potential sponsors off becoming involved. It can make players not want to be at your club. And it can even stop people going to the games. And without people at the games, there is no sport. It’s 2018. It is time to clean up the sports fandom.

Anyway, feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

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