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Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Student Fans Acting Badly

Grant Wahl at decries this basketball season as the "ugliest in years" and calls on schools and conferences to take some action to get fans and fan speech under control. I have written enough about fan speech in this and other spaces that my views are pretty obvious. Jump over and read the piece to get a sense of the laundry list of incidents.

One problem is the way Wahl lumps too many dissimilar incidents together into an overall picture of bad fan behavior. Without question, threatening messages on the cell phones of players and families are out of line. So is throwing stuff at players' families--throwing stuff is not protected speech. Homophobic chants are troubling, if only for the continued (although constitutionally protected) disrespect is shows for a portion of the community. Of course, the fact that directing a homosexual epithet at an athlete is viewed by the speaker and the listener as a great insult raises some interesting sociological issues.

But I think Wahl undercuts his point by including too many examples that actually are pretty funny or clever and that certainly contain at least some level of social and political commentary. Calling attention to Maryland's low graduation rate, fans at Duke (which the mainstream media, including SI, lauds ad nauseum for their creativity) wore graduation caps and gowns and held signs reading "Fear the Classroom" and "A Mind is a Terrapin Thing to Waste." Even my wife, a Maryland fan when she pays attention, thought that was funny. Students at UNC waved "WANTED" posters with a picture of Duke's Gerald Henderson, a reference to Henderson's hard (and arguably flagrant?) foul on a UNC player last year. Fans at UAB targeted Memphis player Robert Dozier's allegedly hitting his girlfriend, with signs reading "We Beat Memphis, Not Our Girls." Some of this is offensive, sure--but offensiveness is not a ground for restricting speech.

Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo almost gets it: "I hate to say this because freedom of speech is at issue, but this isn't what freedom of speech is ­intended for." Actually, it is. But too often, we recoil when we see what freedom of speech looks (or sounds) like.


Let me make sure I understand this right:

(1) There are "fans" in Europe that when a certain well-known soccer team Ajax, unofficially nicknamed the Superjews, travels to their city have been known to chant "Hamas, Hamas, the Jews to the gas."

(2) There are fans in Philadelphia that when after the New York Post alleged that a former New York Mets catcher was gay shouted all kinds of graphic sexual insults at him.

(3) There is a football team playing in Washington, D.C. with a nickname defined as "bloody skins of Native people bought and sold by bounty and scalp hunters."

(4) There are cities in the South that in 1947 when the Brooklyn Dodgers came to town shouted the ugliest word in the English language as a epithet at the African-American Jackie Robinson.


According to's Grant Wahl, sports has reached a new low because a few Duke fans held up a sign that says "a brain is a Terrapin thing to waste."

Indeed there is certain speech at sports games that needs regulation. But in light of 1, 2, 3 and 4, Mr. Wahl's choice of example is indeed a 'Terrapin' way to make that point.

Blogger Marc Edelman -- 2/28/2008 1:13 AM  

How about when the students have an actual effect on the outcome of the game?

This past Monday, UAPB (home) was trailing Texas Southern by three points on their final possession. UAPB hit a half court 3 point shot at the buzzer to send the game into OT. Several fans rushed the court and the home team was assessed a technical foul. TS made both free throws, began overtime leading by two, and ultimately won the game by one point. Granted, anything can happen in the five minute overtime period, but those selfish students cost their team valuable points. Not to mention, had the shot dropped with a tenth of a second left on the clock, the technical would have been DURING regulation, and the made free throws by TS would have ended the game then and there.

I agree that many of Wahl's examples are fun, creative, and acceptable forms of student involvement...but there is certainly a line to be drawn when the safety of players, officials, other fans, and even the outcome of the game come into question.

The difference is clearly some sense of class and dignity in showing your support. While people may analogize sports with going to war, that does not justify the outlandish and hateful behavior of some fans.

The irony is that these fans end up hurting the team they came to support.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/28/2008 9:18 AM  

There is a photo of a female UAB fan with a shoe polish black eye wearing a shirt that says "I dated Dozier"

What I thought was interesting this year was the reaction to Rutgers students shouting "You got F---ed Up" to an injured Navy player. The outrage seemed to be much more over the fact that he played for Navy and will have an obligation to the Navy when he graduates and not at all about propriety and lack of respect for others in the stadium.

Just because manners and decency for the most part cannot be legally enforced doesn't mean they are worthless social norms that should be encouraged.

OpenID k4UB5UkbsPEGCeejnk.e0AwToBzDd3MW.QlW10eDGZnZtOY- -- 2/28/2008 12:47 PM  

Oh, person of the lengthy alpha-numeric pseudonym:

Agreed--norms of civility should and must be encouraged. But when we start talking about the need for schools to do something, we move beyond attempts to encourage. And I saw that photo from the Memphis-UAB game--I would file that as something having some socio-political content.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 2/28/2008 3:01 PM  

Maryland Terrapin fans [and fans at other schools] were known to chant "rapist" during games against Duke in which Shelden Williams was playing. There was a rumor that he had sexually assaulted a woman while he was in high school. I have no idea as to how much, if any, truth there is to that.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/28/2008 3:54 PM  

I have to give credit to the Tennessee Volunteers for their taunting of former Florida Gator basketball player Matt Walsh. While in school Walsh dated Playboy Playmate Lauren Anderson. While in Knoxville, students behind the basket held up copies of her centerfold each time he went to the free throw line.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/29/2008 8:41 AM  

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