Fan interaction with the athletes has always been a component of sporting events, whether it’s been the good, the bad or the ugly, to steal the title from the famous western movie of the 1960s.
There’s been some good -- or harmless fun, such as two fans rounding the bases to pat Hank Aaron on the back when he broke the all-time home run record in 1974, to “Morganna the Kissing Bandit” rushing baseball fields in the 1980s to smooch a player before leaving the field.
Then there’s been bad, and the ugly side: Fans throwing objects onto the field and court, which occasionally has led to catastrophic events that bordered on riots, perhaps most notably when Indiana Pacers forward Ron Artest charged after fans in the stands in a game against the Detroit Pistons in 2004.
But lately, it seems misbehavior at sporting events has gotten more attention.
Just in the past month or so in the NBA, we’ve seen:
- A fan dump popcorn on Washington Wizards guard Russell Westbrook’s head.
- A fan in Boston tossing a water bottle at Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving.
- Another fan running onto the court in the middle of a Philadelphia 76ers-Wizards game.
Is this the sign of a disturbing trend? Or is it just the latest in a history of fan misbehavior with athletes?
Seth Swary, Coordinator of Sport and Performance Psychology at Oakland University, offered some insight to several key questions regarding these latest incidents.
Why do fans feel they can do anything they want at games?
Swary said fans sometimes feel they have certain privileges just because they spent money on a ticket, which, in their eyes, gives them the green light to behave any way they choose.
“A lot of fan misbehavior comes down to this sense of entitlement,” Swary said. “There’s this psychological approach to where you bought this ticket and you see these athletes as entertainment as opposed to human beings. It’s like, ‘I bought this ticket. I should be able to do what I want to and say what I want to.’”
In addition, pride for their teams and cities can also lead to fan misbehavior, Swary said.
For example, going into that playoff game between the Nets and the Celtics in Boston, Irving had said he hoped there would be no racism among fans involved with his return. (For reference, Irving played in Boston for two seasons, battled injuries and was involved in some drama -- hence his concerns. You can read more about that here if you’re curious).
Who knows -- Irving might have incited that fan who tossed the water bottle.
“People can take these decisions by players and these actions as personal,” Swary said. “It’s (almost like), ‘a perceived injustice against myself and against my team.’ Kyrie, despite it being choosing a different city for his career and trying to do what’s best for himself -- it’s this fan taking it as a personal attack against them.”
What role does social media play?
A huge role, and it has changed the game in terms of fans interacting with players on a court or field.
“We have videos of it happening, and it goes viral a lot more quickly than it was able to 10 years ago,” Swary said. “Everyone has got a cellphone. Everyone is recording. Now, the people are being caught in the act. Now, everyone knows about it and people are usually passionate about it one way or another. They are either defending it or demonizing it.”
Are athletes speaking up more than ever about the misbehavior?
Yes. Because there’s more visual evidence than ever, more debate on social media and more concern than ever over safety, so athletes are voicing their opinion and hoping it has an impact, Swary said.
“Them being able to share their side of things is really powerful for people to understand just how impactful this behavior can be,” Swary added.
What about fans returning to live sporting events since COVID-19 shutdowns? Has that heightened behavioral concerns?
Swary said it has, mainly because fans are getting adjusted to being in crowds again after months of being secluded at home.
“People are really not used to being in crowds anymore,” he said. “A lot of it comes to crowds. When there’s a big crowd, if it’s dense or it’s noisy or if they are standing up, all of these sociological factors can play (into) whether or not fans misbehave. So, maybe being at home and not being around many people to all of a sudden being around this crowd again, that can certainly play into it. Being around others who are fired up and maybe have been drinking a little bit -- that absolutely plays a role. They get lost in this setting.”
Will the increased presence of social media, athletes speaking out and greater punishments for fan behavior reduce incidents in the future?
It’s not likely. Even with a lifetime ban and felony charges -- which is what the popcorn-throwing fan and the water bottle-thrower are facing, respectively -- it’s not clear that these incidents are declining.
“This identification with teams I don’t think is going to go anywhere,” Swary said. “People love their sports. They love their team and they love their city.”