A Knicks fan spit on Trae Young. A 76ers fan dumped popcorn on Russell Westbrook while he limped off the court with an injury. A Celtics fan threw a bottle at Kyrie Irving. Sadly, the talk of sports right now is not about how great it is to have fans back, but how scary it is.
What’s happening? I’d argue there are two primary reasons for the increasing focus on bad fan behavior, one specific to this unique moment in time, and one which reflects the unbalanced way the world of sports has long viewed the fan-player dynamic.
The first reason is the most obvious one: Everyone’s a little dialed up coming out of the pandemic. It turns out that when people are locked in their homes for a year, while society turns entirely upside down and inside out, they’re probably going to do some out-of-character things while they readjust to the world outside again.
Sometimes somebody drinks a little too much and gets into a fight in the stands:
Sometimes somebody decides to run naked onto the field and hide in a tube that was, uh, not made for hiding:
As everyone emerges from isolation, we are likely to discover all sorts of ways that we are not exactly acting with the decorum and restraint we might have prided ourselves on before the pandemic. (I’m consistently surprised by how loud I’m talking to people post-pandemic, like I’m trying to be heard at a party even though it’s just me and one other person in the room.) In this way, sporting events are testing grounds for what it’s like to return to public gatherings. It shouldn’t be surprising that some people are acting out and erratically, having been unleashed from social isolation inside a massive stadium surrounded by tens of thousands of people. And it’s a novel sight.
Sports stadiums have become a showcase for this behavior because sports stadiums are where people are gathering first. If we were opening up concert venues before sports stadiums, I have zero doubt we’d be inundated with all sorts of videos of jackasses doing crazy shit during shows. (And I have zero doubt, as venues open this summer and fall, that we will soon be inundated with those very videos.) It’s a good, even healthy thing that sports arenas and stadiums are opening up to fans right now; I’ve taken my full vaccination out for a spin at several games myself (including those two miserable Knicks losses in Atlanta over the weekend), and I found them rapturous, spams of collective joy, giddy paeans to the eternal virtue of finding instant commiseration and community with strangers. It certainly shouldn’t be a shock to discover that, after the last year, when you get 15,000 people in a room together and ply them with alcohol, a few of them are going to turn out to be assholes.
Larry Olmstead, author of the smart new book Fans: How Watching Sports Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Understanding, told me, “When I was talking to one of the many sports psychologists I interviewed for the book, I asked him about fans who take things too far. He told me that even if it’s just one percent and you have 50,000 people, that’s 500 potential disruptors in the stadium. One-tenth of one percent, that’s still 50 people, and you need just one to throw popcorn at a player to make the headlines. No one writes about the 49,999 fans who didn’t throw popcorn.”
It seems possible to me that the pandemic might be pushing that number closer to one percent than the one-tenth of one percent, but the point is taken: The idea that stadiums are just packed to the gills with lunatics who can’t wait to throw things at athletes is not supported by the evidence. But if you are looking for a reason why there might be an increase in bad fan behavior, people not remembering, or feeling just unsettled enough to ignore, the basic rules of how to function in a room with other people sure seems like a plausible one. It’s not everyone. But all it takes is one.
And, of course, one person throwing a bottle at a player is too many.
The second reason fans’ bad behavior has suddenly come into sharp focus is because some of it has targeted athletes, and athletes have demanded — and now have more power to demand — that they be treated like the human beings they are, and with more respect.
Fans have long acted like sporting events are their personal playgrounds, and why wouldn’t they? The world of sports has long told them they are right. The history of sports is the history of fans doing whatever they hell they want. It wasn’t until the 1990s that fans didn’t regularly run onto the field when their team won an important game. Chris Chambliss’s homer to send the 1976 Yankees to the World Series, trying to round the bases as fans mobbed him on the field, is unfathomable today. Court storming, the act of college students sprinting onto the court to celebrate victories, has become so common that Barstool Sports made a web series in March 2020 about “storm chasers” — two dopes in rain slickers trying to find “courts to storm.”
Perhaps the most notorious NBA moment of the last 20 years was the Malice at the Palace in 2004, which featured a massive brawl in the stands involving the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons. That brawl ended up with nine players suspended, including a ban for the rest of the season for Ron Artest, who went into the crowd to fight a fan who had thrown a plastic cup at him, and a 25-game suspension for Jermaine O’Neal, who had a folding chair thrown at his head. The incident was framed at the time, and for years afterward, as Players Out of Control, and as then-NBA commissioner David Stern being unable to police the behavior of his players. When several ESPN commentators said on television that perhaps the fans bore some responsibility for what happened, then-ESPN vice president Mark Shapiro chided them, saying, “I wish the studio hadn’t laid the blame solely on the backs of the fans Friday night,” and forced host John Saunders to apologize for the comments on air. If fans think they can do whatever they want at games, it’s not hard to see how they came to that conclusion.
When you consider the racial dynamics — all the NBA events over the last week have involved white fans targeting Black athletes, and the racial subtext of the Malice at the Palace was widely ignored at the time but is now the obvious takeaway from the incident — it is no wonder that athletes are raising their voices about fan abuse. The difference is that, this time, people are listening. Players have more power, and with that power comes the ability to have their voices heard, at last. Players have been complaining about how they’re treated by fans for years. Teams, fans, and the media only recently started foregrounding those complaints, rather than relegating them to “Hey, that’s the job, deal with it.”
What’s the solution here? Up-close access to the players and the field of play is critical to the structure of any team owners’ business plan: The nearer to LeBron James you get, the more you pay for the privilege. The NBA is not going to build a moat around the court, but there may be new consequences for fan behavior. You could eventually see something like what European soccer leagues have done with fan bases who have attacked opposing players with racial slurs — reduced capacities or banishments of all fans altogether. A decade ago in Turkey, a team banned all men aged 12 and over from the stadium entirely, which is definitely not the worst idea I’ve ever heard. I am certain you will see some movement and action toward such measures in the U.S. in the coming years. Players demand to not be treated the way they have been for decades, and now, the culture of sports has shifted in their direction: They can impose pressure on teams about this, and they surely will.
The problem is not that there are just a few bad apples, even if there are a few more of them right now than I bet there will be in a couple of years, once we’ve remembered how to be together in public places again. And there will always be dumb, drunk fans fighting and running naked into metal tubes. This is not a new problem at all. It’s just that now the players are demanding a solution. And I bet they get one. It is long overdue.