Last month’s March Madness caused a lot of interesting discussions about every sports fan’s respective bracket and brought focus to a lot of promising college athletes that may soon be gracing the courts in the NBA. Fans of college teams show a lot of passion, whether it's because they’re cheering on their current school or alumni mater, or because they just love the young, explosive talent. These are all positive things for the sports world and a lot of fun for everyone involved.
However, it also brought attention to more unsavory facets of fan behaviour. Fan behaviour is a tricky thing. Getting involved in the game is a big part of why it’s fun to watch, whether you’re at the live event or watching it on a television screen. Sports fans like to scream and yell, whether in excitement or outrage, and it would be utterly ridiculous to expect spectators to sit silently as if they were watching ballet. No one wants a dead arena with disinterested spectators and players. Fan participation is an integral element of games– fans paint their faces, cloak themselves in their team colors and band together for a team chant. The interaction and the atmosphere is a huge part of the experience. It is something that, if removed, would be utterly missed.
But when does it go too far? It’s something that has been discussed a fair bit without any conclusive results, because the line is fairly blurry and unclear. There are a lot of examples of how easily it can go too far in the blink of an eye, but at the same time it’s difficult to curtail negative fan behaviour without entirely eliminating all the positive aspects of it.
A few of the most highly covered examples of fan misbehaviour from March Madness, to narrow the scope of this question a little bit.
During a game against Texas Tech, the highly praised Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart overheard a comment made by a court side Texas Tech fan (later identified as Texas Tech superfan Jeff Orr). Unfortunately, the player in question expressed his frustration with his fists and took a swing at the man (not very smart). Yes, he was given a three game suspension in response to his actions. The university likewise took some culpability and made sure, after the incident, to include ‘courtside seating guidelines’ pamphlets on every seat. But it's not an incident that can just be glossed over as a one time thing.
So what did Orr say? Orr has expressly denied that he made a racial slur, which some media sources were claiming was the reason Smart was provoked, and stated he simply called Smart a “piece of crap.” While it’s difficult to get a good sound bite of a random fan from a noisy game, some videos of the occurrence seem to corroborate the latter. Orr has apologized for his conduct; Smart was likewise punished. It’s a tricky thing, though, because it wasn’t an incident that caused a huge scandal – yes, Smart’s reaction was a bit excessive, but there have been fans doing the same thing that Orr did in many games without the same effects.
As is evident, it’s a difficult balance. Is the line a personal one? Smart took offense to Orr attacking him on a personal, individual level. While some are skeptical that Smart would have reacted in such an explosive way to Orr’s claimed statement, let’s just assume it’s fact that he called Smart a “piece of crap.” Would the reaction be permissible if he insulted solely Smart’s game? That seems more accepted from fans, and even an encouraged element of trash-talking. Would it be different if Orr claimed that Smart was playing like crap? Not only has every fan yelled something along those lines, most coaches have likewise berated players for not performing well. Is that the line? It’s okay to insult someone’s playing, as long as you do not attack them on a personal level?
Another incident that garnered attention occurred in a game between Utah Valley and New Mexico State. The court storm, something permissible and even valued in college basketball, quickly transformed into something more dangerous during a game. Storming the court, in theory, is fairly harmless – it allows fans to get out some of that passion and excitement. It’s fun to watch and it’s fun to be a part of. There’s a reason why nearly every sports movie ends with fans swarming onto the field or court. It’s a cool experience to get swept up into that energy, both as a fan and as a player.
But things took an ugly turn in the game between Utah Valley and New Mexico State, to the extent where commentators could only mutter their shock and disgust at what was occurring. It started with a fairly ugly move on New Mexico State’s part, to be fair. KC Ross-Miller whipped a ball at Utah Valley’s Holton Hunsaker as the buzzer went, hitting Hunsaker in the leg. This is by no means a fair or mature move. However, again, it’s something that players, when they’re upset at an outcome or a call by the referee, have done time and time again. Maybe they haven’t always expressed their frustration physically, because they’re generally savvy enough to be aware that doing so will likely stick them with some kind of suspension or at least penalty. They do exchange verbal insults, however, fairly regularly.
The players in the Utah Valley- New Mexico State game reacted very quickly, something that was to be anticipated – they were defending one of their own against a pretty uncalled for move. The fans, however, decided to jump to Hunsaker’s defenses as well, and that’s where things got ugly. They stormed the court and hell broke loose. Within seconds, fans created a degenerate school yard brawl, seemingly indiscriminately taking swings at anything within arm’s reach while peacekeepers tried to break up the chaos.
This is another unstable situation. Yes, the fans definitely went too far in their dangerous brawling. However, it’s difficult to speculate on other options for how the situation might have unfolded. Ross-Miller’s behaviour would not have been passively accepted by Utah Valley fans at any rate. So would the situation have been dissolved if fans merely verbally yelled out their disagreement and disgust at Ross-Miller’s behaviour? Or would that just have dissolved into a Marcus Smart-Jeff Orr situation where the verbal very quickly turned physical? Would it have merely moved the physical brawling between fans from the court to court side?
Incidentally, North Carolina fans also stormed the court in a controversial way after a victory over Duke. These incidents renewed a lot of discussions about whether storming the court should be permitted or not, with a variety of opinions falling fairly equally on both sides. Some feel it’s an integral part of the game and should be a right for fans, while others feel it turns dangerous too quickly too easily and should simply be banned.
It’s a larger issue, though, and it can’t be examined on an situation by situation level, or even an incident by incident level (such as court storming).
Rules can be instated, and they can be enforced both by authorities and by fellow spectators at the games. These types of measures are always possible. But it’s a very, very difficult balance.
How do you establish these kinds of rules? What is and is not okay to say? What is and is not okay to criticize? It’s easy to say ‘just don’t attack anyone, players or other fans, on a personal level,’ but for some die-hard fans, even a vicious critique of their beloved team might end up in fisticuffs.
Avoiding violence and preventing dangerous situations from erupting is always important – no one wants the kind of riots that some fans start (interestingly, sometimes after winning and sometimes after losing, suggesting it’s not always rage that provokes them but sometimes just being swept into the excitement). That same kind of excitement, however, is an integral part of the game experience. Professional and organized sports would not be the same if fans were expected to sit meekly in their seats and silently observe what's happening on the court, field, ice, etc. The players feed off the energy of their team-mates, they feed off the energy of their fans, fans feed off one another’s energy. It’s not easy to set up restrictions within that kind of dynamic without losing an important part of what makes sports special.