Sports Law Blog
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Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Welcome Back: Mutombo, Richards, and Racist Cheering Speech
Good evening and thanks to Mike & Co. for inviting me back for another guest stint. Actually, the stint began a couple days ago, but this is the first chance I have had to post something.
There is nothing going on right this minute that is sports-related that peaks my legal interest. So let me backtrack to two pieces of old news: Michael Richards (no link or explanation necessary) and Dikembe Mutomo's heckler (earlier this year, a heckler in the crowd called Mutombo a monkey, causing Mutombo to almost go into the stands after the man and causing the NBA to ban the fan for the remainder of this season).
What do they have to do with one another? They together relate to the problem of racist taunts and chants at sporting events. In writing about fan speech, I suggested that pretty much all heckling and taunting is fair game, as long as it does not cross-over into the narrow category of "fighting words," meaning direct, targeted, close-up, face-to-face insults. For an example of racial speech, I proferred a protest during Jackie Robinson Day at Shea Stadium, in which White Supremacists chanted about "the good old days" of segregated baseball--an example of pure political speech (however offensive). For examples of heckling, I suggested that fans could call players on anything and everything, related to on-field performance, clubhouse problems, and off-field daliances.
But I did not consider the most-blatant example of racial heckling: a fan in the close rows of a small arena shouting a racist epithet at a particular player. And the Richards and Mutombo situations together suggest that as we move from racial/racist political messages into more directed racist taunts, epithets, and name-calling, the analysis gets skewed.
First, consider that most people thought it was OK for Mutombo to almost go into the stands after the heckler, something that probably would not have been tolerated if the fan had called him a non-racist name (compare the reaction to the Texas Rangers' Frank Francisco throwing a chair at hecklers in 2004). Because the insult was racial, the violent reaction was more acceptable.
Second (and this is a lesson I take from the Michael Richards debacle): Racist taunts are perceived not to target and insult only the individual at whom the insult is directed. Rather, racist insults have been "collectivized." That epithet targets and offends everyone of that racial group. And, to some extent, it offends every fair-minded member of society (regardless of race) who hears it uttered. This means that even a fan in the nosebleed seats who shouts a racist slur at a player far below (something that could not be "fighting words" towards the player under the generally understood definition) might become fighting words for anyone sitting around the fan who hears the word. That is what is potentially different about racial epithets and slurs
I plan to explore the entire scope of expression in sports in a future (hopefully book-length) project. I think the questio of racist speech, in the sense of epithets, may be its own chapter or article.