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TOM KEANE

Billboard treads the uneasy line between fan, fanatic

ATOP A yellow brick building on Boylston Street, within spitballing distance of Fenway Park, a billboard from auto dealer Herb Chambers proclaims, “We give everyone great service. Unless you’re a Yankees fan.”

Ha, ha, ha. Welcome to Boston, New Yorkers.

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Bostonians have a reputation for being uncouth, obnoxious, and unsportsmanlike, among the worst fans in the nation. We’re “insufferable,” says GQ. “Massholes,” they call us, and we protest that it’s undeserved. We’re not all like that, we say; it’s really only a handful of out-of-control folks who need to get a life — oh, and the billboards.

The billboards have provoked much negative reaction on social media, and recently a piece in The Chicago Tribune by Jeffrey Seglin, a Boston-based follower of the Yankees who observes that his dentist, despite knowing his baseball loyalties, still gives him excellent care. The advertisements are clever, no question, part of a promotional campaign featuring stark white backgrounds and messages that — coming from a car dealer, especially — seem refreshingly out of the ordinary. “We’ll gladly lose a sale to win a customer,” says one. The Yankees ad is out of character from the rest. Instead of being mildly self-deprecating, it insults. A different version of the billboard runs in print media, including the Globe, and in smaller typeface goes on to say, “Just kidding.” Whew. That’s a relief. Still readers of the billboards who don’t see the print version (including the throngs of Yankees’ fans now descending on Boston for this week’s series) would seem justified in being taken aback.

But, of course, “it’s a joke,” the company’s advertising manager tells me. Like most humor, though, there is an element of truth — indeed, a substantial element. The ad both acknowledges that and also makes things worse.

There are thin lines that separate cheerleading from fanaticism, friendly rivalries from unrestrained enmity. It’s one thing to take pride in the teams from your city or school. It’s another altogether to demean and attack those from elsewhere, to somehow regard people as lesser beings merely because they cheer for someone else. This is tribalism, group identity carried to a fault. It should have no place in spectator sports, but in fact is far too common.

At its extreme is a notorious Egyptian soccer match in 2012 featuring a fan riot that left 73 killed and over 1,000 injured. Americans don’t rack up such numbers, but there are plenty of incidents, many of them deadly. Last September a Los Angeles Dodgers supporter was fatally stabbed during a fight with fans of the San Francisco Giants. A few months earlier a Yankees partisan was assaulted at Camden Yards, landing in the hospital with a skull fracture. In 2010, Yankees and Red Sox backers got into it at a Connecticut restaurant, leaving the Sox fan with multiple stab wounds. And then there is the stuff that those who attend games (including me) have witnessed with far too much frequency — the “Yankees suck” chants, cursing, heckling, and harassing of rival teams’ supporters, and brawls that have to be broken up by security.

Given this history, given some of the viciousness that has erupted, just how much of a joke really are Chambers’s billboards? One read on the ads is that they’re subtly self-mocking. Some, I suspect, see them as braggadocio, crowing about just how over-the-top we can be. Others may think they give imprimatur to behave badly. At a minimum, Yankees fans have a right to feel a bit worried. And Red Sox fans, me included, should regard those billboards as exposing an ugly side of ourselves that is a joke that should never be.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.
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