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When Does Heckling Cross the Line? How Athletes Cope with Heckling on the Field and Off

Why this matters

As long as sport has been played for fans, those fans have heckled, jeered and taunted the athletes performing for them. It may be time to re-evaluate where the line between tradition and toxicity lies, and what purpose heckling serves in the age of 24/7 news and social media.

Monthly Issue Mental Health: A New Priority in Sport

One night in 1983, Ronnie Nunn was officiating a Continental Basketball Association game in Albany, New York. Phil Jackson was coaching the hometown Albany Patroons, four years before he would reach the Chicago Bulls’ sideline as an assistant. Nunn was on his way to the National Basketball Association, too, but for a moment that night, one fan captured his attention.

The man targeted Nunn—the son of an African-American father and Italian mother— the referee looked Hispanic. He yelled one word that was a game-changer for Nunn: “Taco!”

At the next timeout, Nunn asked building security to escort the fan out of the venue.

Nunn went on to officiate more than 1,000 NBA games. He has heard his share of boos, screams, and taunts from fans who were convinced that he favored their opposing teams. Mostly, Nunn let it roll off his shoulders.

“The noise becomes just a kind of a sound. It's not spiked. It’s just a sound that goes through your ears, and you really don't hear it,” he says. “You just concentrate on your work, because your adversary is really the plays. It's not either one of the teams.”

That night in Albany is the only time in Nunn’s four-decade career officiating games all over the world when a fan crossed the line saying something to him, specifically.

That was 39 years ago. Nunn’s threshold was clear: He wouldn’t tolerate taunts explicitly aimed at race or personal identity. When it comes to heckling, wherever one’s line of tolerance is drawn, most would agree in 2022 that the fan in Albany was on the wrong side.

Today, the distinction has become more difficult to define partly because of society’s increasing focus on mental health and high-profile cases in which athletes have made it clear that certain heckling bothers them.

In April, the Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving received a $50,000 NBA fine for pointing double middle fingers at Boston Celtics fans.

"It’s the same energy they had for me, and I’m going to have the same energy for them,” Irving told reporters after his team lost Game 1 of the series en route to a sweep. “I don’t want to attack every Boston fan, but when people start yelling p****y, and b**** and f*** you and all this other stuff, there’s only so much you can take as a competitor, and we’re the ones expected to be docile and humble."

That incident was one of several targeting players that occurred about a year after fans returned to NBA arenas following the pandemic. Several fans caused ugly scenes in crowds’ first weeks back inside arenas. As then-Milwaukee Bucks guard told journalist Tyler Tynes, “We are human beings that are at our job every day,” but some fans “don’t see us as human beings. They see us as entertainers. That’s a view and perspective that has to change.”

Heckling isn’t just limited to the basketball court. In March, tennis star, Naomi Osaka, who had already spoken publicly about the mental health challenges she faced in her sport, encountered a heckler at the Indian Wells tournament and cried openly on the court.

And on the fairway in 2021, golfer Bryson DeChambeau became the regular target of “Brooksies”— fans of his rival, Brooks Koepka. During several PGA Tour events, they shouted at him from the rope line and after losing a playoff, ESPN reported, DeChambeau had a verbal confrontation with one of them that appeared like it might escalate and become physical.

Certainly, the athletes, coaches, officials, and workers who put on the grand show of sport are human– and the things fans say, yell, or post at them, can have a significant impact. If sports are indeed at a moment of cognizance on the issue, it raises a question: What is the future of heckling, an ages-old sports tradition, in a sports world that is increasingly attuned to the feelings of those involved in the games?

It’s unrealistic to expect heckling to be exiled from competitive sports. After all, it is part of the competitive atmosphere and even part of the fun, when it’s done tastefully. Most agree it should be tempered with an appreciation of the humanity of the athletes both on the field, and off.

‘You Can’t Deny That You Hear It’

How does heckling affect its targets?

It varies, and it’s impossible to know how many athletes, coaches, and officials struggle with it, for the same reason that identifying mental health struggles in the first place is difficult. Irving and DeChambeau are not the only athletes to react emotionally to fans who shower them with negativity. Who knows how many cope with it silently?

Related: Transforming the Question of How an Athlete's Psychological State Influences Their Performance

When Pat Bostick played quarterback at the University of Pittsburgh in the 2000s, it was the heyday of the college sports’ message board era and the dawn of big social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. At games, most of what Bostick heard from fans was “normal stuff,” he says. Sometimes, though, online gossip about him creeped into the stadium.

During fall camp in his freshman year in 2007, Bostick left the team. Online speculation around his departure was rampant.

“I was just a normal, overwhelmed 18-year-old kid who thought I was ready, but wasn't,” he says now. “And people knew about that. I think there were a lot of rumors as to why I left, and I think people did their reading on what those rumors might have been. A lot of that was on the message boards at the time.”

After he returned, when Pittsburgh was playing Rutgers, its Big East rival, Rutgers fans seated directly behind the Pitt sideline yelled out at Bostick, still a teenager: Why’d he leave? What was this opposing QB’s deal, after all?

“You heard it,” he says. “You can't deny that you hear it. I think you try to zone it out. I had enough to worry about playing, but when you know about girlfriends and your parents and you start hearing that kind of stuff, you definitely have to think about it. But, you have to have the mental strength to be able to block [it] out.”

It is a self-perpetuating cycle, because no team is the only one with fans who take it too far and get personal. Bostick, now a radio commentator and development official at the school, notes that his alma mater’s famous basketball cheering section, famously known as the Oakland Zoo, which also has a notable presence at Pitt football games, is “notorious for doing their research about opponents. I can't help but think that [for] any normal human being, some of it would stick in your craw a little bit. And there have been moments when you're frustrated or mad and you can't help but hear it.”

‘Motivational Emphasis’ Vs. ‘Out of Control’

Bostick’s foray in the public spotlight as an incoming recruit was 16 years ago. Eric Dailey Jr., a top-50 men’s basketball recruit in the class of 2022, is going through a similar experience now. Dailey grew up in the world that was hatching when Bostick played at Pitt—the one where barriers between athletes and fans are thinner than ever, thanks to social media. Dailey, who played at the sports factory IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., has 19,000 Instagram followers who can tell him whatever they want, whenever they want.

For Dailey’s generation of elite players, knowing how to shrug off an out-of-line fan is about as fundamental as understanding how to ascend in the sport.

“I feel like we are all old enough to realize that hecklers and fans that talk about players, it’s just all part of the game,” Dailey says. “We look up to players like LeBron and see how they handle situations like that. We also learn how not to handle situations, and I feel like high school is a good starting place, ‘cause it’s only gonna get worse as you get older. Even in college, it gets bad. We learn how to deal with that, and we just go out there and prove people wrong every time.”

Not every athlete lets things go so easily, says Amber Shipherd, a sport psychologist at Texas A&M University-Kingsville and an executive board member at the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. Some are better than others at turning outside noise into motivation.

“It can have a really big impact,” Shipherd says. “It depends on the individual athletes. For some of them, it almost serves as a motivational emphasis, in that hearing someone start doubting their performance or telling them, ‘You can't do this,’ or ‘You're not going to be successful.’ For some individuals, that actually serves as motivation for, ‘OK, I'm going to prove them wrong, and I'm going to show them what I can do.’”

Related: There's No Scoreboard in the Office: Inside the Athlete's Journey, Part 1

When heckling crosses over the line into cruelty, it can also affect the person doling it out. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, studies how sports fandom affects our brains. In 2013, she argued to the New York Times that caring about a sports team was a great way to brighten a mental outlook, and she still sees it as a strong way for people to be part of something communal.

“I think that the main purpose of fandom in terms of mental health is that it gives you the sense of connection to other people and a shared sense of community,” she says. “In terms of what has been shown about the mental health effects of sports, they do relate to fandom, particularly with your hometown team or a local team. It's a source of validation of who you are and where you come from.”

But what might happen when fandom is less about liking something and more about tearing away at it, like targeting a player on an opposing team? Does that provide the same sort of emotional lift?

“There’s a certain displacement,” she says. “‘I can finally now yell at this person instead of my boss or my best friend or my partner.’ So now whatever is bothering you, whatever ax you want to grind, you can grind on this poor target of your wrath, even though it's not actually the person that would actually qualify for it, if indeed they did at all.”

If that displacement prevents someone from addressing something more important in their life, it’s no good. But when it isn’t abusive, that kind of hollering can be cathartic. Sporting events, like some concerts, are often a great place where people can let loose in a way they couldn’t or wouldn’t in other public settings. Yelling at the top of your lungs—even to tell a hockey player on another team that he sucks—can be a healthy release that really doesn’t hurt anyone.

An Extra Medium, a Similar Message

Some of the dynamics around sports heckling are new, such as the increased sensitivity to mental health issues and the growing influence of social media.

Bostick, who has stayed close to the sport he used to play, thinks it’s even harder to sort out the boundaries now than before, given the eternal access fans have to players.

“The line is more blurry, because I think social media has changed everything,” he says. “And I think in today's culture, the number of clicks and likes and retweets you get can equate to your self worth and the kids are raised that way, right? If I tweet something and it gets a bunch of likes and tweets, it must mean I'm popular and people like me.

“In the same breath, you can leave the stadium and that game won't be over for two days on social media.”

Dailey, who plays in this era, says the line is still clear, and comes down to behavior that is personal or belligerent.

“When things get too personal, that’s when something should be handled,” Dailey says. “We’ve seen situations where fans are throwing stuff at players, and I just think that’s unacceptable from a fan’s perspective. As a player, you don’t want that to happen. I feel like that’s the line right there, when things get too out of control. And most people know when things are getting out of control.”

And that, like so much else about heckling, is not new.

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If you are looking for fans who brewed up artisanal taunts designed more to get a laugh than a cry, they have been around forever. Take the midcentury cricket heckler in Australia who sat in the grass overlooking the Sydney Cricket Ground and fired missives at batters such as, “I wish you were a statue and I were a pigeon.” Now, you can just pull up a YouTube video of a guy standing along the ropes at a golf tournament in Phoenix and good-naturedly complimenting players on their clothes.

It is similarly old-school for fans to dog players over their performance, their effort, or both. On the first day of July 1942, Ted Williams and the Boston Red Sox hosted the Washington Senators for a doubleheader at Fenway Park. A fan in the left field grandstand was annoyed that Williams ran after a ball with less-than-full enthusiasm and yelled out to the future Hall of Famer, “Don’t you ever try to get off a dime?” Fans booed Williams when, according to the Associated Press the next day, he looked disinterested and “took two half-hearted swings” before flying out.

The New York Mets fans who got into a booing war with their own players in 2021 were merely walking in the footsteps of those who once razzed Teddy Baseball for not trying hard enough at baseball. Anything fans can say now, they probably said then.

To be sure, heckling became a more serious issue long before the 2020s Generations of non-White athletes could attest that fan abuse isn’t novel.

If there is a through line for fans across time, it’s that people use sports to find a refuge. Usually, fandom is positive in nature. But sometimes, it’s negative, even to the point of being harmful. The most flagrant violations aside, nobody ever wrote a guidebook to classify exactly when a fan crosses the line and makes someone else’s experience worse.

Without a governor, perhaps the best safety device for a heckler is a friend who can keep the chatter in line.

“People are good at compartmentalizing things and also certainly discounting their own bad behavior,” Whitbourne says. “The more you can do that, the more you can get away with that and not feel like you were a jerk. But sometimes, in many of these situations, it's almost like the bystander effect and it just takes one quick readjustment for everything to look different and be recast and then say, ‘All right, that was bad. And I'm not doing this again.’ Somebody looks at you and says, ‘Hey, man.’ And then your moral compass returns.”

Please see our list of Mental Health Resources if you are seeking information or assistance regarding mental health.

Monthly Issue

Mental Health: A New Priority in Sport

Athletes continue to tell us they are not OK with their actions and words. In response, the sports industry has acknowledged it can and should be doing more to support the people who are its lifeblood, from athletes to coaches and beyond.

Sport is both reckoning with its roots, uncovering how history and habit created circumstances that don’t suit everyone who competes, as well as navigating new territory during a time of unprecedented strain on our mental well-being. By making mental health a priority, sport has an opportunity to confer a host of benefits supporting mental wellness and to be more safe, inclusive, and inspiring.