Thursday, Mar 23, 2023

‘Criminal in any other setting’: do fans pose a threat to NBA and MLB stars?

There have been several high-profile confrontations between fans and players in recent months. Some believe a deeper unrest is behind such incidents

As April drew to a close, Cleveland Guardians outfielders had to deal with a few unusual problems during their team’s visit to Yankee Stadium. But it wasn’t flyballs caught in the swirling winds over the Bronx, or the power of sluggers Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge that were unsettling them. Instead, they found themselves pelted with garbage by fans. Cleveland right fielder Oscar Mercado’s most significant catch of the game was intercepting a beer can that had been thrown at his head. The situation became so bad that at one point Judge and Stanton had to jog over to placate their own fans.

“Brutal,” Guardians outfielder Myles Straw said after the game. “Worst fanbase on the planet.”

Straw’s anger is understandable, but the behavior of Yankees fans (and there were more ugly scenes in New York this weekend) is far from an aberration. In the NBA, stars such as Luka Doncic, Draymond Green, Kyrie Irving, and Chris Paul have all been involved in verbal altercations with fans during this year’s playoffs. And several animal rights protestors stormed the court during multiple games as the Minnesota Timberwolves faced off against the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the postseason. In the NHL, threats made against Colorado Avalanche center Nazem Kadri this weekend were deemed severe enough for the police to investigate.

The problem is not limited to the US either. In the UK, Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp was left bloodied after a fan headbutted him during a pitch invasion at Nottingham Forest. The fan was arrested and will serve 24 weeks in jail. There have been allegations of a similar incident during Manchester City’s Premier League title celebrations on Sunday.

“If you look at the amount of security that is at a professional sports game, it is laughable relative to what the crowd could do if it decided to become unruly,” says Mark Aoyagi, a sports psychologist and professor at the University of Denver.

Of course, clashes between fans and players have always been a part of sports in the US, but they seem to have become more frequent recently. Aoyagi says the main reason they have not escalated into all-out brawls, such as the infamous Malice at the Palace in 2004, is the restraint of players.

“What players are subjected to would be criminal in any other setting,” says Aoyagi. “At a minimum, there is the [verbal] assault at any given game for any given player. Despite what would be illegal and draw a reaction in any other setting, players almost never react to this sort of assault. It is only when a fan crosses an unwritten line that players will react. This might involve including a player’s family in the verbal assault or saying words that are forbidden. Again, the point here is that these violations are over and above what is already a criminal level of assault.”

The NBA says it takes any such disruption seriously. “It is a concern anytime anyone involved in the game has a negative interaction with a fan or when our fans have a bad experience,” an NBA spokesperson told the Guardian. “We have zero tolerance for disruptive or unruly behavior in our arenas, and anytime an individual violates our NBA Fan Code of Conduct it is addressed swiftly by arena security and local law enforcement when appropriate.”

Fan disruptions could shed light on a larger issue that has impacted society since the start of the pandemic in 2020. For months, fans were shut out from attending sports events as Covid spread. Once the crowds returned, bad fan behavior became more prevalent. A fan in Boston threw a water bottle at Irving; Trae Young was spat on in New York; Russell Westbrook had popcorn thrown on him in Philadelphia. Westbrook said the incident was far from unique.

“To get food thrown on top of me, it’s just bullshit really,” he said after the game in May 2021. “Fortunately, I couldn’t get to the stands. I just don’t take that lightly. To me, it happens to me a lot of times. Obviously, I’ve learned to kind of look the other way but to a certain extent, you can’t just keep looking the other way. There has to be some penalties or something put in place where fans can’t just come to the games and do and say as they please, because they wouldn’t do that shit anywhere else – any other setting. And I’m sick and tired of it, honestly.”

Aoyagi says that an increased level of fan misconduct could be a byproduct of pandemic angst, which has been linked to unrest in other settings such as airplanes.

“There is no definitive reason why this is occurring, but prevailing thinking is that with the rules [such as mask wearing and quarantines] imposed during the pandemic resulting in people feeling less autonomy, the response for some has been to over-index on choice and autonomy when given the chance,” Aoyagi says. “The pandemic has resulted in a mental health crisis. The only real question is if it caused it or simply exacerbated what was already brewing.”

Unfortunately, it is not just players who have been targeted by fans. During an NBA playoff game between the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns on Mother’s Day, fans allegedly repeatedly touched Chris Paul’s mother and pushed his wife. The Mavericks subsequently said two “unruly fans” had been banned from their arena until the end of 2023, but the incident brought attention to the need for the families of players to have more protection.

“This type of behavior will not be tolerated and, as was the case in Dallas, will be addressed immediately by security and our law enforcement partners,” the NBA spokesperson said. “The fans involved in this incident received bans through the end of 2023, which is 19 months. We take proactive measures to protect players’ families in arenas and, while we don’t discuss the specific actions, we educate players and their family members about ways to avoid conflicts with fans, especially when they are away from their home arenas.”

Sports have always served as a way for fans to escape from the minutiae of everyday life and build a connection with a franchise, community, or city. However, professional leagues are at a critical moment where the fun and safety of sports are being tainted by disruptive fans.

“Leagues, teams, and, yes, fans all want sports to be this great escape where saying things are all in good fun and a normal part of supporting your team,” Aoyagi says. “Certainly, there is a way to support your team and attempt to distract the other team or otherwise feel that you are helping your team in a way that doesn’t involve assault.”


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