This past week, both Northwestern and Indiana Universities warned their student sections against taunting Michigan State’s MBB team regarding the Larry Nassar scandal. Citing a desire to represent their schools in a positive manner and to respect the survivors of Nassar’s abuse, both schools left handouts on every seat in particular stadium sections threatening removal if ignored.
Responses to the handouts have been overwhelmingly positive, which should be a no-brainer as heckling a sports team about sexual assault seems like something that, even in a divided country, can be agreed is tasteless and offensive.
What is lacking consensus, though, is a general cultural standard for fan behavior at sporting events. The fact that these handouts were necessary is an indication that sports venues, for whatever reason, have become “safe spaces” for otherwise-rational people to hurl nearly any taunt, insult, or foul thought at another human being. Mix this abnormal freedom with a small venue, a family environment, and collegiate athletes, and you have a culture that needs to change for the betterment of both student-athletes and athletic departments.
While fan behavior at professional sports events is problematic as well, offensive language and inappropriate actions are even more caustic at the collegiate level. This is because of a couple unique factors. First, the victims of line-crossing insults and diatribes are much more likely to hear what is said. Shouting from the upper deck of an Eagles game at a running back is a different proposition than from the third row at an eighteen-year-old basketball player. Not only can that student-athlete potentially hear the vitriol that’s said but telling a college freshman what an awful person/player/teammate he or she is is a different matter than doing so to a thirty-year-old paid athlete. I’m not arguing that amateurs deserve more respect than professionals, but that society generally treats developing young adults differently than the rest of the adult population.
Second, not only can damage be done to the student-athletes themselves, but unhinged, abusive language takes a toll on those in the stands. As colleges try to encourage boosters and families to mobilize for school’s events, concern about one’s surroundings can deter attendance. Unfortunately, it only takes one bad experience with an unruly fan to make someone hesitant to return, hurting athletic departments.
It is confusing why individuals feel more liberated to say things at a sporting event than in other public settings, but that is a cultural feature that can be changed. Just as big hits in football are no longer replayed as highlights, fan behavior at a game is malleable. Sports venues have been experimenting with various means of sparking change, from announcements at the beginning of competition to anonymous tip lines that allow for stadium security to neutralize problems. Their overall efficacy to provoke cultural change, though, is unclear.
Spirited chants, lighthearted heckling, and general crowd noise are what creates a home-field advantage. That advantage is all the more effective in collegiate sports, where fan/player contact is more direct due to closer proximity and smaller venue size. However, that unique feature also means fans have a greater responsibility to maintain an environment of respect, something Indiana and Northwestern made sure to remind their crowds; hopefully one day they won’t have to.