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Nice guys don't riot: The struggle of the 'good' Canadian sports fan

Colin Horgan
Photograph: Frank Gunn/AP

The morning after the Raptors won the NBA championship, bringing home Toronto’s first major league title – ones in soccer, rugby and CFL attracted less of a splash – to the city since the Blue Jays managed back-to-back World Series wins in the early 90s, countless videos of the street celebrations flooded social media. Mostly, the clips were uploaded with a sense of awe: at the huge number of people in the streets; at how the city’s ambient nighttime sound was replaced wholesale by a symphony of car horns and gleeful shouting; at the force with which a man can impale his own crotch on a street sign; at the sheer giddiness of it all.

Saturday’s print edition of the Toronto Star patted everyone on the back: “Toronto, you did good,” it proclaimed . “Police were ready as tens of thousands poured into the streets,” the paper noted, “but aside from a few isolated incidents, peace prevailed.” The grammatical error was likely intentional, playing off Toronto’s long-held moniker, originally given to it by its zealous Victorian-era mayor, William Howland , who used it as an aspirational descriptor for a city emptied of vice, freed from high taxes, and filled with moral rectitude: Toronto the Good.

The particulars of Howland’s civic political platform aside, its central characterization has endured. Generally speaking, the stereotype of Toronto, and certainly Canada, internationally is that if it is not the good place, then it is at least a pretty good one. Decades of work have gone into reinforcing that idea of Good-ness. Successive Canadian governments have promoted multilateral agreements and the nation’s cultural mosaic. Millions of Canadian tourists have plastered Canadian flags on their backpacks so we are not mistaken for (not Good) Americans. The message is clear: we are the world’s nice people!

Related: 'This means everything to the city': Toronto parties as Raptors clinch NBA title

Except, sports aren’t always that nice. What then?

After some Raptors fans cheered when Kevin Durant blew out his achilles in Game 5, the entire fanbase had to endure the international backlash. To make amends, one fan, Hamzah Moin, started a GoFundMe that eventually raised $30,000 toward Durant’s charity foundation. “We’re sorry that some fans of Raptor Nation … displayed an ugly side of fandom when they cheered on the injury of Kevin Durant,” Moin wrote on the page, before widening his scope to appeal to the character of a different nation. “This isn’t cool. This isn’t right. This isn’t what I expect from fellow Canadians.”

Still, it wasn’t the first time Moin’s fellow Canadians – or Torontonians – had behaved appallingly when the sport’s world’s attention was focused here. During the Blue Jays’ playoff run in 2016, a man threw a nearly-full can of beer toward Orioles outfielder Hyun-soo Kim, nearly hitting him. During the same series, Kim was also subject to something else hurled in his direction from the Toronto stands: racial epithets .

But it’s not just Toronto. The world witnessed some decidedly un-Canadian behavior after the Vancouver Canucks lost Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup final to the Boston Bruins . Vancouver fans staged the kind of destructive riot not seen since Montreal Canadiens fans torched cars following that team’s first-round Game 7 win three years earlier over the, uh, Boston Bruins. In fact, hockey riots occur regularly in Canada – others include: Montreal, 1986; Montreal (again), 1993; Vancouver, 1994; Edmonton, 2006; and Montreal (again!), 2010.

Other times, when Canadian sports fans aren’t behaving badly, they’re busy reprimanding others with a good old-fashioned Canadian finger-wagging. After the US ran up a 13-0 victory against lowly Thailand at the Women’s World Cup, celebrating each goal as if it were an extra-time tie-breaker, former Canadian team member and current TV analyst, Kaylyn Kyle, expressed her disappointment. “As a Canadian we would never ever think of doing that,” she said, referring to the goal celebrations. “For me, it’s disrespectful, it’s disgraceful.” (Kyle says she received death threats after the comments went viral.)

A certain amount of sports fandom is about belonging. Maybe even most of it: we root for the home team to feel more at home. And belonging, whether as part of a fanbase or a nation, is to some extent performative. To distinguish ourselves from outsiders, we adopt a role. We wear the right shirt, sing the right songs, and cheer the right people acting the right way. And, of course, we say the right things. During the Raptors’ playoff run, Jimmy Kimmel sent a camera crew into the streets of Toronto to demand that Torontonians talk some smack about the Golden State Warriors. The results were, well, very Canadian . The people Kimmel’s team found demurred from any direct attacks or made half-hearted attempts at rudeness. A couple even chose to praise the Warriors’ talents.

Objectively speaking, Kimmel’s montage was a bizarre set of clips. Assuming some space for careful editing to reinforce a stereotype, the fact remains they found more than a handful of people who refused to say something mean. It’s safe to assume that Kimmel’s crew might have found an equal number who were ashamed that fans cheered Durant’s injury, and more still who were disgusted by the US soccer celebrations. Maybe there really is just something in the water here. Or maybe it’s less complicated. The weird thing about stereotypes is that, much like sports fandom, the performance often becomes self-targeted. Who are Canadians really trying to convince of our inherent goodness other than ourselves?

And what of Toronto’s former mayor, William Howland? After taking office in 1886, he was soon hounded by allegations of financial corruption as he struggled to implement policies such as liquor controls. As people around the world have gazed upon Canadian sports fans recently, they have seen evidence to support their idea of what Canadians are, as well as some things that contest it. But mostly what they’ve seen is the eternal struggle of the Canadian – one that dates back nearly to the birth of the nation: that of how difficult it is to be Good.