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We Are What We Repeatedly Say: Poor Spectator Behavior in Sports

by Jack Bowen


Sports fans and parents of youth sports athletes consistently confound viewers for their astonishingly poor behavior. Just the recent sports news cycle highlights some real lowlights.

The NBA Finals featured adults shoving and taunting the athletes, fighting police on the court, and throngs of people cheering frantically and applauding as Kevin Durant crumpled to the ground, writhing in pain from the tearing of his Achilles Tendon for which he’d later need surgery—literally, a man stood courtside waiving gleefully at Durant on the floor in pain. Most recently, video captured a brawl which broke out in a suburb of Colorado over the calls of an umpire—a 13-year-old—at a 7-year-old Little League Game.

This has all left people wondering how it’s come to this. Why would otherwise well-meaning adults behave so poorly? Some pundits point to the increased stakes of youth sports, while others to specialization which has become more rampant. But this isn’t a new problem. We can go back to the infamous 2011 beating at Dodger stadium of a San Francisco Giants fan by two Dodgers fans which left the man brain damaged and permanently disabled for the remainder of his life. And instances like this abound.

It turns out, along with all of the great aspects unique to sports, there is one thing sports culture has allowed—or, more strongly, encouraged—which leads to humans thinking it’s okay to treat others so poorly. Even in the most refined, educational settings, once players and coaches and referees step on the court, they have somehow separated themselves from the remainder of civil society: we can berate, taunt, jeer, humiliate, all under the banner of some relativistic, vacuous axiom, “It’s just part of the game.”

Language matters. How we speak to each other translates to how we view each other and then, quite directly, how we treat each other. Military leaders know this well: if you dehumanize the enemy it’s much easier to kill them. Many of us won’t find ourselves in such a drastic situation as war, but it’s clear language still impacts our views of others in ways we know now better than ever. We have seen this more recently in the way we have changed how we speak about once-marginalized groups, especially in the context of sports. And now, we can see it in the language used to address athletes, coaches and referees on the field.

Until very recently, it was not uncommon for athletes and even coaches and educators to employ racial, gender, and homophobic epithets in reaction to a poor play by an athlete. Things have changed for the better here. My first year coaching at my current high school 20 years ago, a very conscientious, educated Assistant Coach told a player, following a weak shot, that he shoots “like a girl.” In my subtly correcting him, he utilized a second tool from the similar holster claiming what I’d just said seemed “kind of gay.” He was raised on that particular sort of language in the sports culture and, as such, to him this language seemed okay, in the context of sports at least.

Thankfully, this language is now frowned upon throughout much of the sports culture, even doing away with the demeaning language of the disabled and other marginalized groups. Not surprisingly, all of these once-marginalized groups have seen a huge improvement in the way they are viewed and, more importantly, treated in society.

Aligned with this, we can better understand another shortcoming of the language we now use—fans, coaches, and athletes—as we step into the sporting arena. Doing so will help us to better frame and understand—and, again, move away from—some of the ludicrous behavior seen on such a consistent basis.

Looking at the language so common in the sports culture, it’s not difficult to detect an us-them mentality. From this point, the “them” becomes “other” and, as we’ve learned about the human condition, it’s easy to harm someone if you’ve diminished their personhood. In this mindset it’s much easier to taunt, humiliate, and physically harm someone if you’ve turned them into something not worthy of moral consideration.

Here are a few general areas where the sports culture has encouraged this, making it so ubiquitous it has become almost invisible to those entrenched in it:

-Mocking Referees: One needs to attend just a single game, at any level, to realize mocking referees truly is “part of the culture.” Notice, here, the use of the word “culture” and not “game.” Mocking a referee is not “part of the game” in any way—the athletes and coaches competing and the referee attempting to adjudicate what, exactly, has transpired is all part of the game. But it’s become accepted to name-call, berate, challenge, and taunt the referee, throughout the entire game, kids and adults alike. Multiple websites even expound on the best/favorite ways to insult a referee and parents and fans almost see it as their “right” to engage in such otherwise morally lacking behavior.

-Mocking Athletes: Nearly as ubiquitous as the referee-taunt is the athlete-heckle. And no athlete is exempt, even at the high school and interscholastic level. One favorite taunt is the “Air ball!” phenomenon. Entire groups of children and faculty band together to taunt the children from opposing teams when they fail, all in an attempt to humiliate the child, in hopes of their performing more poorly. Every sport has their own way of humiliating their opponents, all under the vacuous banner of it being “part of the game.” As comedian Jerry Seinfeld once observed, how odd it would be to go to an adult’s workplace and taunt them for their mistakes—and, yet, we’ve made it commonplace at the games children play.

-Language of Competitors: Coaches, and especially youth coaches, are not exempt. On the one hand, coaches can choose the language they use to teach, by either demonizing a marginalized group or, what proves to be more effective, by educating the actual athlete. But it goes beyond that. Coaches have the opportunity to frame the athletes’ conception of their competitors. Many coaches dehumanize the opponent, urging athletes to crush, destroy, and annihilate the children on the opposing team. Given the power position of a coach and the fact that the coach commands such admiration given their connection with the child’s sport of choice, these words, over time, leave a real impact.

Knowing the effects language has on human behavior, it shouldn’t be so surprising to see how the common language of sports has manifested in the behavior of fans and parents of athletes. The deeply-rooted emotional aspect of sports only exacerbates the issue, often hijacking any semblance of reason, rationality, and human decency.

The good news is, we can make a change: at the least, in youth sports and interscholastic leagues where rules can be implemented and actually mean something. In doing so, we can re-humanize athletes and referees, making competition more of what the word’s roots stem from: to strive together. The next generation of sports parents and fans striving together will take time, but given the current state of affairs, certainly seems worth it.

Jack is the author of 4 books, including his latest (co-authored), Sport, Ethics, and Leadership (July, 2017).  His other books include San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and Amazon Top-500 selection, The Dream Weaver and, If You Can Read This, featured in the New York Times, USA Today, and NPR. Jack has coached water polo at Menlo School for the past 19 years where they have won the league championships 17 times. Finally, he spoke at TEDxStanford in 2017 on the topic of awe.  Jack graduated from Stanford University with Honors in Human Biology and earned his Masters Degree in philosophy, graduating summa cum laude.

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