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Rueter’s Digest: The liminality of the fan experience

Photo by Sarina Lincoln.

By Sam Rueter

On Dec. 2, Los Angeles Clippers Guard Patrick Beverley was ejected in the 4th quarter of a game versus the Dallas Mavericks for throwing a crisp bounce pass at a fan’s legs during a stoppage of play. Beverley alleged that the fan made derogatory comments about his mother (“fuck your mother”), whereas the fan maintains that, though he called Beverley a dirty player and invoked his mother, he never used any profanity. 

“I can accept the ‘Fuck you, Beverley,’ the ‘Fuck you, Pat,’ but out of the lines of my mother, anybody who knows me, man, knows I’m a family-first guy, and there’s some things that are unacceptable,” said Beverley in a postgame interview with ESPN.

The NBA fined Beverley $25,000 after the game and he vowed, along with his coaches, to move on from the incident. 

Though Beverley might be ready to move on, the general sporting public should not. This latest instance of fan and player interaction may have been much tamer than in the past, but it still poses important questions about the responsibility associated with fandom, especially when said fandom is tied to the purchase of a (often very expensive) ticket.

On the surface it may seem reasonable to wholly blame the fans who feel emboldened to bully, harass and chide the professional athletes they pay to watch play, but I believe there is a certain hypocrisy in this viewpoint.   

After all, the most widely decried aspects of the fan experience such as yelling profanities, blindly hating opposing players, drinking incessantly, is the exact same behavior which is constantly valorized whenever players talk about the effects of the “12th man” or notions of “home-court advantage.”

In fact, the noise, the bubble of energy, the overall atmosphere of intensity that makes sporting events so great is often comprised of a cacophony of voices and individuals screaming and yelling things not so different than the eccentric Mavs fan sitting courtside at whom Beverley fired a bounce pass. 

I have been attending sporting events in Boston since I was a toddler and I have heard far worse from fans every single time I have stepped into a stadium or an arena. And yet, Boston sports are consistently held up as having some of the most passionate and best fans in the country. 

The issue I think then, in Beverley’s case at least, is the proximity of the fans to the players. Most of the ugliest and nastiest fan behavior occurs in the periphery of the arena, where the lack of exposure only amplifies the liminality of the space. 

These sections are usually made up of fans who take the most pride in their perceived ability to influence or alter a game. Anyone who heard what these folks are actually saying would probably be appalled, but, in their current position as just another voice screaming into a sea of noise, their actions go under-examined. 

The danger, then, if we begin to overly regulate fan behavior, is an over-sanitization of sports. I will never forget seeing my sweet, soft-spoken father telling LeBron James to “fuck off” during a Celtics playoff game last year.   

And yet what are we to do? If we kicked out every fan who used the F-word during games in all these leagues and by extension the player, we would lose a lot of money. Additionally, if we tried to codify an unwritten code of subjects off limits for fan taunting (mothers, for example), we would surely run into issues of subjectivity.

Furthermore, there are probably many fans who don’t want anything to change. With stadium prices, specifically for the really good teams, going through the roof, fans feel entitled (and they should) to a certain kind of experience at sporting events, which, whether we like it or not, has always meant unloading some profanity and telling grown men we have never met how much they suck. If players are allowed to call each other a piece of shit, why aren’t fans?

Now, this doesn’t mean that I think sporting arenas can’t have some sense of decorum. There are obvious, logical lines you cannot cross anywhere, anytime: slurs, racial epithets, threats to the safety of family members. But unless teams, players, executives and media are willing to rethink the way in which they privilege and treat fan behavior (spoiler alert: they won’t, this kind of stuff makes them ridiculous amounts of money), then it seems we are at somewhat of an impasse.

If we consistently cosign our own fans’ rowdy, rambunctious, and probably-inappropriate behavior as “helping the team win,” than we can’t get upset when a fan of another team tells us “fuck your mother.”

After all, when you live with the liminality, you have to live with the consequences.

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