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Fan relations job is a lot tougher now

It's difficult to determine exactly when Jeff Munneke's job got tougher. Was it when Indiana Pacers guard Ron Artest turned a fan into a punching bag?

Or was it when the NBA started dishing out $100-million salaries? Or was it when the Minnesota Timberwolves, fresh off a run to the Western Conference Finals, made blowing double-digit leads at home almost as commonplace as stale performances against inferior teams on the road?

Munneke, the Timberwolves vice president of fan relations, thinks it was a perfect storm of all of the above.

Just a season or two ago, Munneke's biggest concern was if the seat cushions at Target Center were comfortable enough. How hot dogs tasted to fans meant as much to Munneke as filling Target Center to capacity.

But now, in the wake of incidents like the melee in Detroit in November, and even here at home after Latrell Sprewell rebutted an irate fan by yelling X-rated suggestions in her direction, Munneke just hopes we all can get along.

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"We want fans to come in here and have a great experience at our games," said Munneke, a former Lake City basketball player. "We want to make sure you're coming to games with your family and enjoying it. We know it's a luxury, but at the same point, you have to control yourself."

The NBA, Major League Baseball and the NFL have a problem. Unfortunate encounters between fans and players are happening with far too great of a frequency. Last summer, in Texas, a player sitting in the bullpen hurled a folding chair into the crowd at a heckler. A few weeks ago, Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer made an obscene gesture to a fan. And we all know what happened Sunday when Randy Moss scored his second touchdown at Lambeau Field.

But in the NBA, there is no barrier between fan and player. Some fans at courtside are as close to players as they are to the people in the seats beside them. The proximity heightens the intensity of the interaction.

Yet at some point over the last few years, Joe sports fan decided enough was enough. If the players' behavior could be boorish, so could the fan's. Especially when the fan is paying always-escalating prices to attend games.

"I think society has changed. In the last 10 years here, the economics of society has changed a lot of things and we're looking all the way down to youth sports," Munneke said. "Now you have traveling leagues where you're paying 400 bucks to join and another $2,000 to play. 'It's no longer earning a spot, you're now into I'm entitled to this because of the compensation for it.'

"That trickles all the way to the pros where the reality is forgotten where there are still guys out there trying as hard as they can. The entitlement of paying those (ticket) prices creates a reality where you're hearing things from fans you haven't heard in the past. Some of the language and comments are really extreme."

It doesn't justify their behavior, but after reaching a point, NFL players like Plummer and Moss feel the need to react, just like Sprewell did as well.

"After a while, it gets a little bit old no matter how much you make," Munneke said.

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Sprewell was rightly suspended for his actions. Moss will rightly get fined for the league for what he did as well. Meanwhile, nothing happened to the anti-Sprewell fan who made an hour's worth of rude and lude comments.

"Players have to walk away no matter how bad it gets," Munneke said. "You just have to walk away and let it go."

"Minnesota nice'' is still in play, Munneke said. An unruly fan is still the exception to the rule.

"Probably what happens on a nightly basis is you have 97, 98 percent of the people that are great," Munneke said. "They have fun heckling a player but you don't cross that line."

It's a problem plaguing all sports.

What's more disturbing: Seeing Moss pretend to moon the fans, or seeing endless Packers fans wearing T-shirts that have huge block lettering full of expletives, then verbally yelling the same verbiage for three hours while their 8-year old sons sit close by?

Unfortunately, we expect childish and offensive behavior from professional athletes. Sadly, that's the reputation they built and deserve.

That doesn't mean we should expect the same from ourselves.

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Troy Young is a sports writer for the Post-Bulletin. He can be reached at tyoung@postbulletin.com

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